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August 13, 2019 Tuesday 10:15:20 AM IST

Privileged to Help Lesser Privileged


The parents of Iqbal Masih (1983-1995) were dirt poor. Once they had to borrow Rs. 600 from a moneylender who owned a carpet weaving business. As they had no means to pay back the loan, they were forced to send their four-year-old son, Iqbal, to work for the moneylender. Iqbal worked as a bonded labourer fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. To avoid running away from their work, Iqbal and other children were bound with chains to the carpet looms.

Though impoverished, Iqbal was a smart boy. When he found out bonded labour was illegal in Pakistan, he escaped from the clutches of his torturer at the age of ten. However, when he reported the abuse of his employer to police authorities, they did not help him to become free. Instead, they took him back to the moneylender who put him back to work immediately. Iqbal escaped again as nothing could stop him. With the help of Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), he became free and began to attend a BLLF School.

However, after he became free, he did not forget the other children engaged in bonded labour. He began to work earnestly for the emancipation of bonded children all over Pakistan. Soon he became known nationally and internationally. He was invited to different European countries and the United States where he spoke against the cruelties of the carpet industry owners and encouraged people to boycott carpets made in Pakistan.

Massive impact

As a result, carpet imports in western countries declined drastically. When there was a sharp decline in carpet exports, the carpet mafia turned against Iqbal and he was gunned down on April 16, 1995 at the age of 12. Though he lived only less than three years after he became free, he was able to bring freedom to more than 3000 bonded and slave children in Pakistan.

Normally the story of Iqbal should have ended there. However, surprisingly, it became the beginning of a new fascinating story. When the Toronto Star published the story of Iqbal under the headline, ‘Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered’, it stunned a young boy, Craig Kielburger, in Toronto, Canada. Immediately, this 12-year-old boy went to the school library and did research on child slavery and bonded labour. Then he talked to his classmates about what he learned and together they started the movement ‘Kids Can Free the Children’ which was later renamed ‘We Charity.’

When Craig found out there are millions of children in bonded slavery all over the world, especially in Pakistan, he raised funds with the help of his family and friends and visited Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Thailand to study about the plight of the children. Various human rights associations in these countries helped Craig to make his visit a success. When he was in Pakistan, he took particular interest in visiting the tomb of Iqbal.

Craig became an international celebrity when he returned from his visit and got plenty of media attention in Canada, United States as well as in other countries. The United States even gave him a chance to address the members of U.S. Congress in Washington, DC. The governments in some of the countries such as Canada and USA took immediate action to ban carpet imports from Pakistan.  Craig, on his part, started fund-raising with the help of his friends to help the children in bonded slavery.

Charity work

Craig is no more a kid now. However, he is still working hard for the emancipation of children in different parts of the world through ‘We Charity’ and ‘We Help’ both of which he founded with the help of his brother, Marc.  Craig is the recipient of numerous awards including Nelson Mandela Human Rights Award (2003). He was inducted into the ‘Order of Canada’ in 2007 at the age of 25, and thus he became the second youngest person to receive the much-coveted honor in Canada.

Iqbal and Craig were born and brought up in different circumstances. While Iqbal was born in the midst of poverty and suffering, Craig grew up in the lap of luxury. One was a slave while the other was a free boy. The slave Iqbal, upon becoming free, did not forget the other children who were shackled by greedy carpet industry owners. On the contrary, he risked his life to free them against all odds. 

Craig, who was a free boy, also did not turn his face away from the suffering of the bonded children when he found it out through the columns of a morning newspaper. He took radical steps to alleviate their suffering by courageously plunging into action at the young age of 12.

Others’ welfare in focus

The two boys came from entirely different cultural, social and economic backgrounds. However, both of them had their focus on the well-being and happiness of others more than their own. When Iqbal became free, he did not abandon other suffering children thinking that he was only an uneducated boy and so, he could not do anything to help them. In the same way, when Craig heard about the sad state of the children, he also did not ignore them but tried to be very imaginative and creative in helping them.

When we see injustice, violence and other evils in our society, how do we respond to them? Do we take any bold step to attenuate them or do we just say, ‘what can I do?’ If we ask such a question, it definitely means we are not planning to do anything at all. However, the fact is that there is so much we can do to make things better in our society by fighting injustice and other evils. At least we can always avoid them in our lives no matter what age group we belong to. What we really need is the willingness to correct wrongs and thus make the lives of others as well as ours happy and peaceful like both Iqbal and Craig did.

Fr. Jose Panthaplamthottiyil, CMI

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