At the Forum on “The Politics of Dignity and Social Justice,” The Hotel Himalaya in Kathmandu
The cause of advancing Dalit rights in Nepal took an important step forward on August 14 when five young Dalit scholars and practitioners presented papers at a conference at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu on different dimensions of the continuing struggle against caste discrimination. These “emerging change-makers,” as they were called, showed that the Dalit movement is developing a promising new generation of leaders and intellectuals despite the difficult challenges and obstacles that it continues to face.
One of these leaders was Raksha Ram Harijan, a Dalit lawyer and the winner in 2016 of the first Suvash Darnal Award for Social Justice, who described in great detail the persistence of exclusion and discrimination in the judiciary in Nepal. Amar BK, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, reviewed the modern history of the arduous struggle for Dalit rights, which reached what he called a “joyous” moment following the civil war and the adoption of a progressive interim constitution promising an end to untouchability, but which more recently has succumbed to the rise of Hindu religious nationalism and an anti-Dalit backlash. Dr. Ramesh Sunam, a postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University in Tokyo, persuasively challenged several “dominant narratives” against affirmative action for Dalits, such as that the policy undermines meritocracy, and explained how integrating Dalits into the civil-service bureaucracy could improve service delivery while also countering discrimination. Sona Khatik, a grassroots activist, told a moving story of personal struggle that powerfully affirmed the importance of courage and perseverance in defending human dignity. Not least, Sarita Pariyar, the widow of Suvash Darnal and an important emerging voice in her own right, delivered a powerful paper on the scourge of caste humiliation that drew inspiration from the struggle for racial justice in the United States.
Interestingly, this hope-inspiring event took place at a time of deep anxiety over the rise of nationalism in Nepal that has led the Left Alliance government to dismiss demands for minority rights and the inclusion of marginalized groups as inconsistent with the need for national unity. Despite the backsliding in government policy, the Dalit movement is nonetheless pressing ahead at every level. In the federal parliament, Dalit MPs are preparing shadow bills on the critical issues of land reform, employment, housing, health care, education, and the defense of political rights and freedom of assembly and association. At the state level, the Samata Foundation is developing a leadership academy to train new Dalit members of provincial parliaments. Training and protection are also being provided to the thousands of Dalits who have been elected to positions on local councils, but who are being blocked by old-line forces from carrying out their responsibilities. And of course there are continuing efforts to address the critical long-term need for youth education and capacity-building.
It’s remarkable, in my view, that the Tribhuvan University conference and this evening’s forum on placing the Dalit struggle in a global context, as well as tomorrow’s biennial award celebration, are all a product of the desire to remember Suvash Darnal and to build upon his legacy of struggle for Dalit rights. When Suvash was killed in that terrible accident seven years ago, it was a devastating blow to the Dalit movement. But I think it says something about Sarita Pariyar and the larger Dalit movement that they have not been discouraged or deterred by Suvash’s death, but have responded the way he would have wanted by redoubling efforts to carry the movement forward.
As I said when I was in Kathmandu in 2016 at the first award event remembering Suvash, he was a model democracy activist, comparable in many ways to the great American civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin for whom I had the privilege to work and who was, in my view, the pre-eminent U.S. democracy activist during the heyday of the civil-rights struggle during the 1950s and 60s. Like Rustin, Suvash had a magnetic personality and a rare ability to win people’s trust and affection. The accident that took his life occurred immediately after a summer fellows program at Stanford University that was just three weeks long. Though the other fellows had known Suvash only briefly, they used words like “devastated,” “depressed,” and “crushed” in expressing their grief over his death.
There were also other traits that Suvash had in common with Rustin. He was a sophisticated political analyst, something he demonstrated at the end of his NED fellowship in early 2009 when he drafted a memo on Nepal for the new Obama Administration that was a model of succinct policy analysis with practical recommendations “to prod Nepal towards social and political inclusion, genuine reform, and lasting peace.” If the memo showed Suvash’s political sophistication, his public presentation as part of his Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at NED highlighted a third attribute that he had, which was his capacity to be a fervent and deeply knowledgeable spokesman for the cause of Dalit rights.
In addition, Suvash knew that real change would require institutions of civil society capable of taking collective active. Like Rustin, he had an appreciation for the importance of organization. When he was only twenty years old he created the Jagaran Media Center which was both the largest Dalit media outlet in South Asia and an advocacy group fighting to eliminate caste-based discrimination. When King Gyanendra took power in 2001 and shut down Nepal’s nascent democracy, Suvash founded the Collective Campaign for Peace, a coalition of 43 non-governmental organizations that became the secretariat for the civic movement fighting for a return to democracy. And when he returned from his fellowship at NED, during which he had thought deeply about how to change the pure-impure dichotomy of the caste-based culture and system in Nepal, he created the Samata Foundation to bridge the gap between politics and caste.
Suvash’s appreciation of the importance of organization reminds me of something once said by Rustin’s mentor A. Philip Randolph, a trade unionist who was the most important black American leader during the first half of the twentieth century. Randolph was a contemporary of B. R. Ambedkar, and he did as much to lay the foundation for the modern civil-rights movement in the United States as Ambedkar did to shape the struggle against untouchability in India. The radical Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who had disdain for the moderate civil-rights leadership, had a grudging respect for Randolph, having said once that “All civil rights-leaders are confused, but Randolph is less confused than the rest.” They frequently debated, and Malcolm would sometimes challenge Randolph by saying that whatever blacks got they would have to take. In a memorable rejoinder, Randolph said that “At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything you won’t keep anything. And You can’t take anything without organization.”
Democratic organization was Randolph’s alternative to violence and empty militant rhetoric. His mission was to fight nonviolently for equal rights through trade unions and other democratic organizations. Suvash was a product of this tradition. But he was actually much more than that. His ability to connect with people, his political intelligence and advocacy skills, and his commitment to organization were complemented by an additional attribute that is rarely given the importance it deserves. This was his rejection of the politics of grievance and victimization. Suvash never appealed to people’s sense of guilt over the injustices done to Dalits, nor did he ever ask for sympathy, let alone pity. He always took the high road and appealed to common ideals of social justice and shared humanity. I was reminded of this quality of Suvash earlier today when Sona Khatik, speaking about her terrible ordeal and the injustices she had suffered, said that she had decided early on to take her revenge by doing good deeds, not by using violence.
Suvash told one of his Stanford colleagues that he loved his work so much that he would sometimes sleep in his office overnight just to finish his assignments. His positive attitude carried over into the pride he took in being a Dalit, which is a Marathi word for “broken people.” Suvash once told a friend, with his usual coy smile, that the email he had chosen for himself was DalitRight@gmail.com and not “DalitRights” because, he said, “Dalits are always right. Their agenda is right, their movement is right, and so is the demand for their rights.” Therefore, he said, “instead of having my email as DalitRights, I made it DalitRight!” Suvash was anything but broken.
It was with the same engaging humor that Suvash told a Stanford fellow from Zimbabwe how proud he was to be a Nepali. “The world has a lot to learn from Nepal,” he said, “because we have never been colonized and we know how to win. Though we are surrounded by China and India, we are not land-locked. We are land-linked.” That’s another way of saying that for Suvash, the glass was always half-full, and if it wasn’t, he’d get a smaller glass. He never put people off with rancor and righteous anger, but always drew them in with humor, warmth, and wit.
Someone like Suvash Darnal is irreplaceable, and we all still mourn his passing. I can remember like it was yesterday the phone call I received the morning of August 15, 2011, from a weeping Larry Diamond, the Stanford democracy scholar, telling me about the accident that killed Suvash, who had been on his way to see me at the NED. If it’s painful for me to remember that day, I can only imagine how it affects you. Yet the Dalit movement is nonetheless building upon what Suvash accomplished and using his example as a model and inspiration. That is happening at our meetings today and tomorrow, and will continue to happen every day thereafter.
Suvash’s life and work are also an inspiration to democracy activists in other countries and regions, including to his friends in the United States who continue to benefit from remembering his character and vision as they respond to new threats to democracy at a very troubled time in world history.
Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. He delivered these remarks at the forum on “The Politics of Dignity and Social Justice” held at the Himalaya Hotel on August 14, 2018.