LONDON — In a year of rapidly proliferating conflicts, the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday renewed attention on one of the world’s most durable and dangerous standoffs by splitting its annual peace prize between a teenage Pakistani activist and a graying Indian Gandhian.
The richly symbolic selection brings together individuals who took very different paths to the award, but who hold much in common in their outspoken advocacy for the rights of children.
The pick also reaches across ethnic, religious and political lines to kindle new hopes for peace on the South Asian subcontinent, where one-fifth of the world’s population lives.
The conflict between India and Pakistan — a tense showdown between nuclear-armed neighbors that has featured four major wars over 67 years — has flared again in recent days, with cross-border shelling in the disputed region of Kashmir.
The prime ministers of the two nations may have an important and unusual chance to discuss the conflict in person in December at the Nobel awards ceremony, having been invited by the winners. Although there was no immediate response, the invitation puts pressure on both leaders to translate the warm feelings generated by Friday’s prize into more concrete progress toward a deescalation.
Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 became the youngest Nobel laureate, won the prize exactly two years and one day after she was nearly killed by a bullet to the head during a Taliban assassination attempt in her native Swat Valley. She was targeted for her outspoken advocacy of female education — a cause she has championed relentlessly ever since, in spite of further threats.
Speaking from the British city of Birmingham on Friday, she reveled in the committee’s decision to share her prize with an Indian, 60-year-old Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent decades crusading against child slavery.
“One is from Pakistan, one is from India. One believes in Hinduism, one strongly believes in Islam,” she said in a statement to the world’s media that she gave only after finishing her usual school day, having learned of the award from a teacher Friday morning. “And it gives a message to people, gives a message to people of love between Pakistan and India and between different religions.”
The selection of Yousafzai and Satyarthi was heralded by leaders on both sides of the line dividing India from Pakistan. It was a rare occasion when both populations could celebrate the same event. Abdus Salam was the first Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize, when he captured the physics award in 1979. Satyarthi is the first Indian-born Nobel Peace Prize winner; Mother Teresa, a naturalized Indian citizen, won the Peace Prize in 1979.
But it was less clear whether the Peace Prize will actually change any of the underlying dynamics in a dispute that has never ended since India and Pakistan were violently partitioned from one another in 1947.
“It’s a timely reminder that this conflict hasn’t gone away. There are a lot of conflicts in the world, but here’s one between two nuclear powers that seems to be flaring up,” said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Price said the prize will probably have “less impact than it should.” That’s because India has signaled its intention to focus first on improving relations with Nepal and Bangladesh, while Pakistan endures the latest round in a decades-long internal struggle between its military and civilian leadership.
Neither Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nor Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately jumped at the chance to accept the winners’ invitation for the pair to attend the December awards ceremony at Oslo City Hall.
Satyarthi, speaking on Indian television, called the joint award “a big statement” about India-Pakistan relations but acknowledged there would be no quick breakthroughs.
“It will not take one day or one month,” he said. “It will take a long time.”
At the very least, Price said, Friday’s prize illustrates that Pakistan and India “very much face shared challenges.”
High among them is the welfare of children — an issue that has been central to the activism of Yousafzai and Satyarthi.
The Nobel Committee praised the pair “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Yousafzai became a worldwide symbol of Taliban atrocities after she was critically injured in a 2012 attack by militants who stormed the bus she was riding with other students. At the time of the attack, she was already known across Pakistan for daring to defy the radical Islamist group by speaking out against its policy of denying education to girls.
Rather than shrink from further Taliban threats after her recovery, she instead expanded her advocacy work, writing a best-selling book and giving addresses at major international gatherings, including at the United Nations.
Her appeals, however, have angered militants and others in her native country. Yousafzai and her family have been forced to live in exile in Britain since her recovery.
In her native town of Mingora on Friday, many were reluctant to celebrate.
“Some people are silent as they don’t like her and her father, but others are quiet due to the possible threat from the militants,” said Aftab Ali, a 41-year-old businessman.
Nonetheless, Sharif on Friday called Yousafzai the “pride of Pakistan.”
“Her achievement is unparalleled and unequaled,” Sharif said. “Girls and boys of the world should take the lead from her struggle and commitment.”
Satyarthi is not nearly as well-known as Yousafzai. In making the announcement, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjorn Jagland credited Satyarthi with “maintaining Gandhi’s tradition” by leading “various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.”
Satyarthi is credited with helping free tens of thousands of children from harsh working conditions and other forms of forced labor, including in the carpet industry and traveling circuses popular in India.
In selecting a pair of winners from South Asia, the Nobel Committee injected itself directly into the India-Pakistan standoff, but sidestepped direct commentary on other conflicts that have commanded far more attention this year. Among them are the proxy war between Russia and the West in Ukraine, the capture of wide swaths of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State and the third major round of battle in the Gaza Strip in the past six years.
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the nationality of the Nobel Committee; this version has been corrected. This article also previously said Kailash Satyarthi was the first Indian-born Nobel Prize winner. This version has been updated to clarify that Satyarthi is the first Indian-born Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Brian Murphy in Washington, Haq Nawaz Khan in Mingora, Pakistan, Rama Lakshmi and Annie Gowen in New Delhi and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.