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Of Naxal NGOs and heady power: is Satyarthi now a Modi groupie?

Abhishek Srivastava | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 9:40 IST

The comments

  • Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi recently gave an interview to RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya
  • In the interview, he criticised NGOs for turning the welfare sector into a business

The doubt

  • His comments come at a time when the Modi govt is cracking down on some NGOs
  • It justifies its actions through a similar line to what Satyarthi has taken

More in the story

  • Former colleagues describe the change in Satyarthi\'s political leanings
  • Is the Nobel laureate trying to secure his own coffers?

In 2004, one Dr Arya associated with the 'Bachpan Bachao Andolan' (BBA) called a TV journalist in Noida. He informed the journalist about an operation to free a girl child labourer from a bungalow in the Punjabi Bagh area of Delhi. Dr Arya wanted the journalist to cover the operation on camera. Those were the early days of TV news media and this was obviously an exclusive scoop for the journalist.

The TV crew responded promptly. A BBA team of, along with the police, raided the bungalow in full media glare. The girl was taken to the police station. Soon, cops and volunteers of the BBA were vying to take credit for the operation. The news camera was recording the entire episode, despite the police's objections.

Meanwhile, Dr Arya called somebody and informed that 'the job has been done'. As the police was busy in completing the paper work, a child came to serve the tea. He was no more than eight years old.

The TV reporter sensed an opportunity and started taking his sound bite. The cops took strong offence to this. Surprisingly, the people from the BBA also stood up in cops' defence.

Dr Arya was asked why he wasn't taking action to rescue this child. "What will he eat, if he doesn't work?" came the blunt reply. According to him, the same logic did not apply to the girl child who had come from Jharkhand to work as a domestic help so that she could feed her parents. The reason? The BBA had orders to help her out.

The Panchjanya interview

When the man who had given the orders received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, the civil society of the national capital responded with astonishment.

Today, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi is a global figure. But many facets of his personality remain hidden, even from those Indians who have known him for years.

Satyarthi was first nominated for the Nobel in the year 2005. He is perhaps the only person to trumpet his nomination till he finally got the award, along with Malala Yousafzai. Much garbage flowed down the Yamuna in this period.

Recently, Satyarthi gave an interview to RSS mouthpiece 'Panchjanya', whereby he supported the inclusion of the Bhagavad Gita in the school curriculum.

Speaking to RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, Satyarthi criticised NGOs for turning welfare into a business

According to him, "NGOs are influenced by Naxalism", some are involved in religious conversions, while others are "intoxicated with money and power". He went on claim that the NGO sector had converted "social change and social welfare into a business". In his view, the decay in the NGO sector started when they began receiving foreign and government funds.

One might ask why Satyarthi has made these remarks at a time when the Narendra Modi government is selectively targetting the foreign funding of some NGOs. It is also making the same excuses as mentioned by Satyarthi to justify its arbitrary actions.

The Modi govt is targetting the funding of some NGOs, making the same excuses to justify its actions

Political position

The general reaction of Satyarthi's colleagues to the 'Panchjanya' interview and Satyarthi's political positions is best summed up in this way: "I have not been in touch with him for years. I cannot say how his ideology has evolved over this period. If he isn't a Leftist, he was never a Rightist either. He has always been a Centrist democrat at best."

Going by the memory of Satyarthi's acquaintances, he was a part of Delhi's Leftist circle till his close association with Swami Agnivesh ended. He had actively participated in a front formed by Agnivesh to oppose the death sentence given to Naxalite leader Nagbhushan Patnaik. Satyarthi acted as Agnivesh's shadow in those days.

In 1990, when Nepali communists rose against the absolute monarchy, there was a campaign in Delhi to support the movement. Satyarthi was among those jailed during this agitation.

After parting ways with Agnivesh, Satyarthi formed the BBA and continued to work against bonded child labour. It is a separate story that this banner itself is under the legal scanner today. Its parent organisation, the Association for Voluntary Action (AVA), has been asked by a Delhi court to furnish documents related to the technical and legal status of the still-unregistered BBA.

Today, Satyarthi is an Arya Samaji, and claims to be a scholar of the Vedas and Upanishads. He believes in reincarnation and even tells the story of his previous life as a tehsildar in Orchha town of Madhya Pradesh.

Breaking down the comments

Does Satyarthi really have the moral locus standi to launch into such a tirade? According to the FCRA return filed by AVA for the year 2013-14, Satyarthi's organisation received nearly Rs 5 crore from donors from seven countries - India, USA, Australia, Netherlands, France, Germany, South Africa - and Taiwan. It is AVA that manages the accounts of the unregistered BBA. The purpose shown for the receipt of these funds is 'welfare of children'.

Significantly, 'Organiser', the English mouthpiece of the RSS, published a cover story on 'good NGOs' in the same week that 'Panchjanya' came up with Satyarthi's interview. The 'Organiser' story showered great praise upon Satyarthi's former colleague Shamshad Bhai, who works for the welfare of bonded child labourers in UP's Bhadohi area. Satyarthi had started his BBA campaign from the same place.

In the early days, allegations were made that Satyarthi's activism was harming the economic interests of the country. The Indian economy had just begun to open up under Narasimha Rao's government when Satyarthi separated from Agnivesh.

As Satyarthi started trotting the globe as a social activist, India faced several trade restrictions under the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariff). It was the time when Western countries were trying to limit exports from developing nations under the garb of social and environmental concerns.

In 1998, Satyarthi visited 103 countries to highlight the plight of children employed in the carpet industry of Bhadohi and Mirzapur. He called upon these nations to stop buying carpets from India. The traditional carpet industry of Bhadohi started to decline as the BBA rose to prominence. The industry, which had an annual turnover of around Rs 2000 crore, lies in shambles today.

Misplaced nationalism

Satyarthi stands alone at the peak of his success today, as most of his peers have left his side. Beteran social activist RS Chaurasia is perhaps the only exception - he still looks after Satyarthi's office. Chaurasia was the CPI's Mirzapur district secretary for a long time. He is still known as a 'comrade' at the BBA's Kalkaji office in Delhi.

Lenin Raghuvanshi, on the other hand, parted ways with Satyarthi in 1999.

"Most people who have worked with Kailash Satyarthi in the past, including those belonging to Nepalese organisations, are struggling today. What has Kailashji done for them? Has he got the Nobel Prize for nationalism?" asks Lenin.

Nobody has the answer to Lenin's question. Why did Satyarthi need to prove his nationalistic credentials by giving such an interview? Is he trying to secure his coffers at a time when the establishment is not exactly benevolent towards NGOs? What is he trying to prove by maligning the same NGO sector that has given him all the success?

Lenin offers an answer: "He probably doesn't want anybody else from India to win the Nobel Prize after him."

First published: 20 November 2015, 11:52 IST
Abhishek Srivastava @abhishekgroo

Abhishek is a Delhi based freelance journalist and poet.