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My greatest teacher is the simple matchstick: Kailash Satyarthi

Not many of us have seen and experienced the kind of violence, pain and suffering up close as Kailash Satyarthi has. And not many can claim to retain the kind of positivity, hope and steadfast belief in humanity that he does. In his new work, the Nobel Peace Laureate poignantly narrates 12 tales of resilience and dignity of some of the children he has rescued from slavery over the years. Gut-wrenching true stories that have only strengthened his conviction that compassion is the answer and the only answer. Excerpts from an interview

You talk passionately about ‘compassion in action’ but ‘compassion fatigue’ is a genuine roadblock…whether it is hunger, abuse or the current tragedies in Israel and Gaza. How do you deal with compassion fatigue yourself?

Allow me to clarify that the concept of ‘compassion fatigue’ is somewhat misconceived. In reality, compassion has the capacity to infuse individuals with energy, instil hope, and serve as a powerful catalyst for positive change. When you feel the pain and suffering of others, not just other human beings but also animals, as your own, and you feel a strong urge to take action to end that suffering — that is compassion.

However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that ‘empathy fatigue’ is a valid phenomenon. When you feel the suffering of others as your own, you are empathetic. But sometimes, you get frustrated, burnt out, and depressed because of the pain that fills up your heart, and the numerous problems of others that crowd your brain… you will eventually feel helpless.

Compassion is characterised by action and a driving force, whereas empathy does not inherently possess these attributes. The weight of bearing witness to the suffering of many can indeed lead to exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness.

How then do you keep your spirit up when you are constantly confronted by such darkness?

The age-old adage tells us there is always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Furthermore, my greatest teacher is the simple matchstick, which is born to ignite candles. A single candle has the power to dispel even the deepest darkness, no matter how long the darkness has endured. Moreover, when a child smiles, I see a radiant glimpse of divinity.

You speak of how you have learnt from the children you rescued just as much as they learnt from you…

It is imperative to nurture the child within ourselves. I firmly believe that when individuals remain authentic, straightforward, and uncomplicated in life, it’s because they have retained the invaluable essence of childlike wonder and simplicity. Outside my office room, there is a signboard that states “Walk through this door with your inner child.”

How does one summon up the energy, time and resources for compassion? Where is the time, many will ask…even if their spirit is willing. What would you say to them?

Every living person possesses the same amount of time for their daily activities, whether it’s breathing, eating, or any other task. Those who change the world and those who contribute to its destruction alike have 24 hours at their disposal. The key lies in defining one’s priorities.

Innately, every individual is endowed with an abundant ocean of compassion. Compassion is a biological and neurological reality. Instead of confining it to our immediate circle of family and friends, it’s high time we expand our sphere of compassion to encompass a universal sense of collective responsibility.

As we extend our care and attention to people beyond our kin, a sense of interconnectedness will flourish, bringing about emotional and social security. In my perspective, all movements and actions aimed at social transformation and the betterment of humanity are ignited by this profound sense of compassion. Compassion is not merely a spiritual teaching, value, or virtue; it is a tangible feeling, a motivating force, and a course of action undertaken to resolve the challenges posed by the planet as if they were our own.

Yours has been a decades-long fight against child labour. How would you describe its transformation over the years? How have things changed, if they have?

Over the years, my most humble role has been to shed light on the most invisible and unheard children, to make them visible and heard. When I embarked on this journey, child labour was not a prominent topic in public and political discourse, with many countries failing to recognise it as a crime. It was often viewed as an economic necessity for impoverished families.

In our determined effort to rescue Sabo, a group of my friends and I commandeered a truck, arriving at the stone quarries. There, we faced a harrowing ordeal of physical assault. It was a lawyer friend who suggested pursuing a Habeas Corpus petition as our last resort. Ultimately, our unwavering commitment led to the liberation of Sabo and 36 others who had suffered through generations of slavery. This monumental achievement marked the first instance of individual-led emancipation from the bonds of slavery. Today, our cause has driven the enactment of laws that mandate police involvement in rescue missions, a triumph achieved through the tireless efforts of our organisation.

While there have been strong lobbies advocating for the right to work for children, no country in the world can now deny the government’s role in addressing child labour and eradicating it. This issue has become an integral part of due diligence and corporate social responsibility. Laws have been enacted, with the exception of the sub-Saharan African region, resulting in a substantial reduction in child labour. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have integrated it into the development agenda alongside human rights. Furthermore, international studies and research have demonstrated that child labour perpetuates adult unemployment, intergenerational poverty, and health hazards.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when you went on your rescue missions? Were the emotional trials more difficult than the physical?

As big as the danger of being beaten or even losing one’s life is, the emotional challenge is equally huge. While rescuing Nepali children from the circus, a gun was placed on my temple and a bullet was about to be fired when a policeman warned the gunman that the camera was running.

I tragically lost three of my colleagues during our missions. One was brutally beaten to death, and another was fatally shot. All of us bear the scars on our bodies as enduring reminders of those perilous endeavours. However, we recognise that freedom is not simply handed to us; it is achieved through compassion, a deep understanding of the suffering endured, and the unwavering courage to put an end to that suffering. Courage and resilience are innate qualities within all of us.

However, despite taking every possible precaution, the outcome of rescue missions remains unpredictable. My steadfast belief lies in the principles of non-violence, and I have never harboured any intent for retribution against those responsible. My rescue operations have always been driven by the sole objective of liberating children, not seeking revenge.

Rehabilitating children is the tough part, more than the rescue itself. Are there better ways to deal with rehabilitation today?

The holistic recovery of a child emancipated from slavery and child labour encompasses various dimensions, including health and education, as well as social, cultural, economic, psychological, and moral aspects. Achieving this requires infrastructure development, allocation of educational resources by the states, and sensitisation and training for all individuals involved in rehabilitation. Rehabilitation should be approached from a standpoint of rights, rather than charity. Above all, the cornerstone is providing protection and care infused with compassion.

Our organisation operates three rehabilitation centres, two for boys and one for girls. I take great pride in stating that these centres have empowered thousands of children to not only pursue careers as lawyers, teachers, and professionals but also to cultivate values of compassion and become responsible citizens of our nation. Many of these young individuals have emerged as champions and leaders in the battles against child labour, child marriage, and human trafficking.

Today, child trafficking and exploitation have grown exponentially online. Should there be new ways of tackling these evils then?

The world has never before been endowed with such advanced and cutting-edge technology. It is imperative we harness this extraordinary power to combat the menace at hand. Equally crucial is the establishment of rigorous laws and their enforcement with unwavering accountability.

Governments and law enforcement agencies are undoubtedly investing effort, but it’s essential to recognise that they alone cannot achieve the desired outcomes. Civil society must also play a pivotal role. As you delve into this book, you will encounter numerous stories of individuals who have harnessed the capabilities of online platforms as potent tools in protecting children from the horrors of human trafficking and exploitation. Instead of retreating in fear from the challenges that come our way, I firmly believe in using them as building blocks to construct a path towards a brighter future.

How do you respond to sceptics?

I believe that individuals with grand aspirations, steadfast resolve, and wholehearted dedication are not easily discouraged by sceptics or their opinions. The journey towards social transformation is not a silk route; it is a path strewn with thorns, one that those truly committed are willing to tread.

And finally, is there any one belief you would always stand by?

I would like to end with a story. A huge fire broke out in the forest. All the animals were running away, including the lion, the king of the forest. Suddenly, the lion saw a tiny bird rushing straight towards the fire. He asked the bird, “What are you doing?” To the lion’s surprise, the bird replied, “I am going to extinguish the fire.” The lion laughed and said, “How can you, with just one drop of water in your beak?” But the bird was adamant, and said, “I am doing my bit.”

We must be bold, we must be ambitious, and we must have the will to do our bit.

‘Why Didn’t You Come Sooner?’ authored by Kailash Satyarthi was published recently by Speaking Tiger Books.

A fatigue like none other

In her groundbreaking book Compassion Fatigue: How The Media Sell Disease, Famine, War And Death, veteran journalist and academic Susan Moeller presents an impassioned argument about how it has become harder and harder for us to ‘feel’ because of the “breathless tour of poverty, disease and death” we get today from the media as the world teeters from one tragedy to another. The gory images, the sensationalist language and the overtly binary coverage of complex conflicts, genocides and epidemics, have resulted in what she calls the ‘modern syndrome’ of compassion fatigue or ’empathy fatigue’ as Satyarthi puts it(see interview). Add to it the plainly disgusting WhatsApp propaganda disguised as compassion and we have a hideous brew that puts us all collectively into a stupor. A mind-numb which has rendered it normal to tailor empathy to suit one’s political beliefs and ask questions such as ‘Was that child Israeli or Palestinian’ on social media platforms before expressing vacuous regret.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:47 IST)

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