WHERE DOES THAT SORT OF MORAL IMAGINATION — AND THE COURAGE TO ACT ON IT — COME FROM? RESEARCHERS HAVE FOUND THAT PEOPLE WHO DISPLAY MORAL COURAGE OFTEN PERCEIVE THEMSELVES TO BE “STRONGLY LINKED TO OTHERS THROUGH A SHARED HUMANITY” AND FEEL A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY THAT IS NOT LIMITED TO INTIMATES. HOW THIS CONVICTION TAKES SHAPE IS LARGELY A MYSTERY: THE SCIENCE OF ALTRUISM IS STILL YOUNG. WE KNOW THAT PARENTING MATTERS, BUT IT DOESN’T EXPLAIN THE PHENOMENON: SIBLINGS FROM THE SAME FAMILY OFTEN HAVE VERY DIFFERENT LEVELS OF COMMITMENT TO MORAL VALUES.
Readers of Fixes know that our primary mission each week is to highlight strategies that work to effect social change and improve lives. In her column last week, Tina Rosenberg zeroed in on some of the strategies that successful efforts have in common. They are crucial, but there is also something fundamental that underlies all these efforts: the human ability to imagine that wrongs can be righted, and the belief that change can happen.
Looking at the experiences of those who have demonstrated moral courage can instruct us. Last week, this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi — both honored for their struggles to protect and defend the rights of children — gave their Nobel lectures in Oslo. Malala’s extraordinary youthful courage is well documented, but Satyarthi’s story is less well known. It is well worth hearing.
In his lecture, Satyarthi recounted an early moment in his moral awakening. He was a young boy just beginning his schooling when he met a young cobbler boy polishing shoes outside the school fence. He wondered why the boy wasn’t attending school. All children were supposed to attend school, he thought. He asked his teachers, but they had no answer for him. Then he asked the boy’s father, and was told that the boy had to work because it was his fate. “This made me angry,” Satyarthi said in his lecture. “It still makes me angry. I challenged it then, and I am challenging it today.”
Satyarthi had told me that same story 14 years ago, when I had the opportunity to spend time with him in India, to report on his work with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an organization he founded in 1980, which has rescued more than 80,000 children and many other family members from slavery (often in dangerous raids).
It is remarkable how a simple encounter as a 7-year-old can shape the direction of a life. At face value, Satyarthi had little in common with the boy. He had been born into a Brahmin family in a conservative state, Madhya Pradesh, where the caste system was strongly entrenched. The adults in Satyarthi’s society paid little attention at the time to laboring children. But as a child, he had fresh eyes and a need to ask questions. And that was the beginning. From that moment he began resisting the system, subverting it in the ways of a child, fighting the very social order that granted his family enviably high status.
He told me another story. In his town, Vidisha, it was “untouchable” women who swept the streets and cleaned the open toilets. Frequently, they came to Satyarthi’s street to beg for food. But they wouldn’t dare to touch the fences outside the houses. Instead, they called for alms and residents would throw coins and bread though the gates and fences in the direction of their buckets. Often the food landed in the dirt, and the women would wipe it off and keep it.
Satyarthi recalled that he would sometimes run and snatch a piece of bread from a woman’s bucket and eat it before anyone could stop him. This was a grave offense, he knew (though not because he was taking food from a beggar, but because he was eating something from an untouchable.) He didn’t know why he felt compelled to break this rule. “It was the only time my parents ever hit me,” he recalled.
Another awakening came in 1969, when Satyarthi was 15 and India was commemorating the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. Across India, streets and parks were being renamed; statues were erected; everywhere there were rallies and exhibitions. Gandhi had campaigned tirelessly against untouchability and at the rallies Satyarthi attended, he heard one politician after another passionately denouncing it. “It was a very emotional day for me,” he said. “I found what they said very beautiful.”
It gave him an idea. “I thought I would organize a feast,” he told me. “The sweeper women would be invited to cook and the big politicians would be invited to eat. I thought it would be a great symbol to break the caste hegemony. We would hold it in the newly built Gandhi Park near the new Gandhi statue.”
Friends said he was crazy. But he persuaded a few to help. He approached some sweeper women.
“What are you talking about?” they said when they heard his plan. “How can you possibly think people will come and eat?”
“I heard their speeches,” Satyarthi said.
They laughed. “You’re very naïve.”
Still, a few agreed to cook a meal. His friends rode their bicycles around town, dropping off invitations at 50 or 60 houses. The response was encouraging. Satyarthi recalled: “People said, ‘O.K., good idea, very progressive.’ Some asked, ‘Can we bring friends?’”
They planned for 30 guests.
“In the evening I saw these sweeper women come to cook,” Satyarthi said. “They must have washed themselves and their clothes 100 times. They looked so clean.”
And for the first time he worried: Would there be enough food?
The feast was called for 7 p.m. By 7, no one had come. Satyarthi thought: “It’s Indian time, don’t worry.” By 8, still no one had arrived. “We thought there must be some confusion about the location in Gandhi Park,” Satyarthi said.
He had invited a leader of the local Communist Party. “Surely, he would come!” he thought. “I went on my bicycle to see him, and his wife answered the door. She said, ‘Oh, my husband is in bed. He’s not feeling well.’”
He went to another house, and was told. “Oh, we’re coming.” At another house a girl told him, “My father has already left for it.”
He returned to Gandhi Park to tell his friends that people were on their way. “We waited until 9, 10, 11. We waited until our hearts were empty. No one turned up. Not even the Gandhians.”
At 11, they ate in silence. Then the friends walked their bikes home. At midnight, Satyarthi arrived at his house and was surprised to see the lights still on. The gate was open and people were sitting in the courtyard. He was shocked to see some of his relatives there.
“You fool!” they shouted when they saw him. “You fool! With your nonsense!”
“I haven’t committed any crime!” he yelled back. “It is you people here who have committed a crime by perpetuating this inhumanity.”
The argument grew heated, until threats were uttered of a “social boycott” — an age-old practice of ostracism, one of the most severe punishments in Indian society. The elders said that, to avoid the boycott, Satyarthi would have to make a pilgrimage to the holy Ganges River, shave his head, undergo a cleansing ritual, and organize a feast for 100 high caste people.
He refused. “I am not a sinner,” he said. “And you cannot outcast me. I will outcast you! I will not have any relations with any of you any longer!”
Family members, fearful of the social boycott, begged him: “Please, Kailash, please take a holy bath.”
Eventually tempers cooled and a compromise was made: Kailash promised never to enter the kitchen again, or touch the water source, or eat with the family. Afterward, he said, for years, he ate alone in his room. In time, people died and memories faded and Satyarthi was permitted to enter the kitchen, but the incident never left him.
“I learnt that if you challenge something, you should be prepared for the reaction,” he said.
Satyarthi told me this story while we were traveling by train from Delhi to Chandigarh, where his organization had recently made a daring rescue to free a group of bonded laborers, members of an indigenous tribe, the Bhil, who had spent much of their lives working in mines and quarries.
The laborers wrapped themselves in heavy shawls and peered at the crowd of journalists through tired eyes. They couldn’t read or write. Many had never been away from the quarries, and had lived under constant watch of guards, even when they went into the fields to defecate.
Many news organizations had come to report on the rescue. Satyarthi and his colleague Jai Singh, an untouchable, conducted hours of interviews alongside the laborers. Satyarthi dressed immaculately — in a crisp white punjabi, brown vest, and cream colored shawl — all hand woven in the Gandhian tradition.
He related to the press how the businessman who had enslaved the Bhil, a well-known figure in Punjab, had been protected by government friends for years. There were other laborers still in the quarries, still to be released and repatriated to their homes in the state of Gujarat.
As I listened to him speak, I was struck by his self-control. Although Satyarthi had seen among the worst of what humans are capable of, his message was characterized less by outrage than by a steady, calm forcefulness. It was as if he knew that justice must eventually be served — that was how the arc of history bent — though it would take time.
Despite the terrible suffering he had witnessed and the dangers of his work, I thought of him as a fortunate man. He had a clarity of purpose that was rare. There was a coherence and continuity that ran through his life. The 7-year-old who empathized with the cobbler boy, the child who ate bread out of the hands of sweeper women, the angry teenager who defied his elders — all continued to whisper in his ear. He never let go of their idealism.
But he was no longer naïve. He had learned from his miscalculations; never again would he throw a feast and have it go unattended. Surrounded by TV cameras, journalists and photographers, his message was clear and dramatic and canny. He had found a way to make people pay attention to the rights of the most vulnerable across India — and across the world.
“I represent here the sound of silence,” he told the Nobel Committee. “The cry of innocence. And, the face of invisibility. I have come here to share the voices and dreams of our children, our children, because they are all our children.”