One boy's fight for freedom
Kanchan Mehta

Iqbal Masihís Story
By Andrew Crofts
Vitasta, Pages 224, Rs 245

One boy's fight for freedomThe heart rending story reflects the plight of children in entire South Asia and how insensitive and inhuman we have become as adults.... Iqbalís story is not just about Pakistan but about every country where people out of greed or ignorance show demonic tendencies, says Swami Agnivesh, the chairperson of Bonded Labour Liberation Front, in the Foreword. Spreading awareness about constitutional provisions for children in India, he calls for an end to the exploitation of children on the grounds of race, class, caste, sex and religious beliefs.

The author, Andrew Croft who is one of UKís leading ghost writers, retells the story of Iqbal Masih, the internationally renowned champion of child workers. This is the story of a bonded Pakistani child labourerís inspiring and heroic fight for freedom. The author employs the techniques and resources of fiction in the telling of his tale. In the Afterword, the writer describes the book "as the myth that is true story". The plot tracks the pre-adolescent Iqbal Masihís movement from captivity to freedom. The journey is marked by transitions such as the realisations of what slavery meant after a period of innocence, the decision to escape from it and then the process of escape.

The book is a significant testament to the class conflict between the carpet- owning manufacturers and exporters and the impoverished, exploited child workers. The text brings forth the voice of child workers and criticizes the role of the sentinels of society (the police) in a direct manner and social culture in a subtle manner as it underlines the message of the unscrupulous exploitation of children even by their parents.

At the tender age of four Iqbal, the son of a bigamous, drug addict, father and a helpless hypocritical mother, was sold into bonded servitude by his step brother to win himself a beautiful wife. The innocent Iqbal happily accepted the job of working in a carpet factory. His frail hands would get cuts and bruises managing threads. Then comes the saga of Iqbal getting resold and working in wretched conditions. "It is the way things are" was his motherís cold and bloodless response to his complaints against his brute carpet master.

Iqbalís first desperate and painful bid to escape from slavery turns to be a vain endeavour thanks to a corrupt police officer. The chapter "Street Life" is a touching description of the wretched days Iqbal spent wandering in streets guarding his second gallant escape from the carpet master. He lived on the food left by the people for their dogs. However, he was ecstatic about his hard won, though unsafe, freedom.

The escapee Iqbal stumbled across the activist Ehsan who was championing the cause of Bonded Labour Liberation Front. Ehsan took Iqbal to Lahore, only with the approval of the latterís mother, and sheltered him in his freedom campus. At Lahore Iqbal struggled to be a literate.

Even after his release from the prison of the factory, Iqbal "was still woken at night from time to time by nightmares in which he was spinning upside down in the dark . His physical growth was stunted by malnutrition, long hours of work on the loom in dusty and dangerous environment and constant lashing he received from the master. The book also speaks of the sexual abuse of child workers.

Under the tutelage of Ehsan Khan, Iqbal risked his life to liberate other bonded children and adult labourers from factories. He spread the word about the child labour rampant in Pakistan to countries across the border. It was his trip to other countries "relatively free from corruption and bullying", which brought him the acclaim and mass audience that fully liberated him from the Phobia of the carpet master. He was honoured with Reebok Youth in Action Award, and a scholarship to an American university.

But before he could avail himself of these opportunities , he was shot to death in a village in his own country, Pakistan. Threatened by the corrupt police commander, the boys who witnessed the incident accused the mentally weak Aasrif of Iqbalís murder. However, Ehsan maintained that the carpet manufactures were responsible for the murder as the sales of carpets had fallen in other countries.

The poignant life and violent death of Iqbal Masih created a furore among children in other countries, it was given a "gruesome turn" by political echelons in his native land.