Suvash Darnal: The Consummate Democracy Activist

Remarks made by Carl Gershman at Darnal Award for Social Justice on August 15, 2016

The sudden death in 2011 of Suvash Darnal at the age of 31 produced an outpouring of shock and sorrow among the international democracy advocates he had befriended that was unusual for someone who died so young and whose work had been confined to the relatively small and remote country of Nepal.  While Suvash had not yet achieved great international stature, everyone he interacted with in the course of his work saw that he had special qualities and enormous potential as a leader.  Understanding the attributes that made Suvash Darnal so unusual can serve as a guide and an inspiration for those fighting for democracy in Nepal and other countries. 

I have been able to identify five such attributes, the first of which was a remarkable ability to connect with people and establish close bonds of trust and camaraderie.  At the time of his death, Suvash had just completed a summer fellowship program at Stanford University.  He had been with the other fellows and the Stanford faculty for just three weeks, but one person after another, in writing remembrances for a collection of tributes the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) prepared for the memorial meeting we held for Suvash, used words like “devastated,” “crushed,” and “depressed” to convey their reaction to his death.  Many spoke of his of his bright countenance and the passion he brought to his work, his seriousness of purpose that was always leavened by his “infectious” sense of humor, his natural humility, and his “unending positivity against all odds.”  Larry Diamond reflected a common view when he wrote that Suvash’s “idealism, energy, determination, and tremendous personal warmth – epitomized by his ever-present and winning smile – lit up our program and inspired us all.”

Suvash’s ability to connect with people is something I immediately experienced when I met him at a welcoming reception at the start of his Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at NED in the fall of 2008.  In our very first exchange, he not only established an instant personal rapport but, zeroing in on my political role as NED’s leader, he told me how grateful the people of Nepal were to Senator Patrick Leahy for his steady and forceful defense of human rights for all Nepalese.   I quickly acted on that prompt and set up a meeting with Tim Rieser, Leahy’s chief aide on the Appropriations Committee who, conveniently, also helped manage NED’s congressional appropriation.

What I learned by accompanying Suvash to this meeting was that he was a very purposeful and clear-headed political operative and analyst.  This was the second attribute that I found impressive – his political astuteness.  I was not very knowledgeable about the political situation in Nepal, so in the taxi going to the Senate, and then while we were waiting outside Tim’s office as he finished another meeting, Suvash gave me a quick but comprehensive briefing on the civil war, current political developments, and most importantly, the condition of the Dalits, Nepal’s “untouchable” caste whose liberation from poverty and discrimination was Suvash’s raison d’etre.  He explained the importance of the Dalits, many of whom had joined the Maoist uprising because of their exclusion from the mainstream of Nepal’s society and politics.  He also explained how the Maoists, who just months before had won a plurality in parliamentary elections, were likely to split under the new conditions of democracy, with the larger faction likely to form a party committed to social democratic reform.  This, at least, is what he hoped would happen, something he explained in the context of his own personal journey from being a Maoist sympathizer to organizing an alternative nonviolent movement for reconciliation and reform.

Then we had the meeting with Tim, and that, too, was memorable.  Suvash learned that Tim, a very influential Hill staffer, was the person behind Senator Leahy’s outspoken and consistent support for human rights in Nepal.   Tim, in turn, learned that Suvash was the person behind all the human rights reports that he had been receiving from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  It was a very successful meeting, and Suvash followed it up by preparing a policy memo for Tim, which I dutifully transmitted just before Suvash returned to Nepal in February 2009. 

The memo was a model of succinct policy analysis with specific recommendations.  He warned that the peace process in Nepal was on the verge of collapse but said that the issues, though complex, were not “intractable.”  While he recognized that the responsibility for moving forward rested with the domestic political actors, he felt that the new leadership in Washington – this was just weeks after the inauguration of President Obama – was “in a good position…to prod Nepal towards social and political inclusion, genuine reform, and a lasting peace.”   He urged the U.S. to press for the integration of the Maoist army into the Nepalese armed forces, a step called for in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 and something Suvash believed was a precondition for political stability.  He also urged the U.S. to support continued funding for the UN presence in Nepal, to encourage the Nepali Congress Party to join the coalition government, and to use its influence to promote the inclusion of the Dalits and other marginalized groups in the political process. 

If the memo showed Suvash’s political sophistication, his public presentation as part of his Reagan-Fascell Fellowship highlighted the third attribute, which was his role as a fervent and informed spokesman for Dalit rights.  He began his presentation by describing the 3,500-year history of caste-based discrimination in South Asia.  He outlined the pyramidal structure of pure and impure castes, talked about the beginning of the Dalit resistance in the twentieth century, and noted the passage of laws and constitutional provisions making untouchability illegal.  Nonetheless, Suvash explained, anti-Dalit violence and massive discrimination continued, including the mass rape of Dalit women, the denial of access to common resources like water, high levels of Dalit poverty and social exclusion, and political marginalization.  He then outlined a five-point program of “affirmative action,” a term he borrowed from the effort in the United States to eliminate racial inequality in the immediate aftermath of the passage of major anti-discrimination legislation in the 1960s.  The program included economic empowerment through land reform and other measures, equal political representation at the national and village levels, new and stronger legal protections, educational opportunity and reform, and employment quotas in government and some private-sector jobs. 

Suvash knew that real change would not come about just through legislation and advocacy.  It would require activist institutions of civil society capable of collective action.  This relates to the fourth attribute that made Suvash so effective – his appreciation of the importance of organization and his ability to create cutting-edge groups that could help the Dalit struggle move forward.  One such group, created in 2000 when Suvash was just twenty years old, was the Jagaran Media Center.  It was not just the largest Dalit media outlet in South Asia, but also an advocacy group fighting caste-based discrimination and defending human rights.  The following year, when King Gyanendra took power and  eventually 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. 

Suvash’s thinking continued to evolve, and following his fellowship at NED, he created the Samata Foundation to promote discourse at the policy level about how to bridge the gap between politics and caste.  “The problem with our political parties, civil society, and intellectuals,” Suvash said, “is that we don’t see the political situation in Nepal in the casteist framework.”  Achieving democracy, he believed, would involve more than political reform and economic empowerment.  According to Suvash, it would require changing the pure-impure dichotomy of the caste-based culture and system.

These four attributes – Suvash’s ability to connect, his political intelligence, his spirited advocacy, and his organizational skill –  were complemented by a fifth virtue that is rarely given the importance it deserves, and that was his rejection of the politics of grievance and victimization.  Suvash never appealed to people’s sense of guilt over the injustices done to the Dalits, nor did he ever ask for sympathy, let alone for pity.  He always took the high road and appealed to common ideals of social justice and shared humanity.  Suvash’s belief in those ideals was a part of his character and a dimension of his soul.

One of the Stanford fellows, Titus Gwemende from Zimbabwe, remembers Suvash saying that “I love my work so much that sometimes I sleep in my office overnight just to finish assignments.”  His positive attitude carried over into the pride he took in being a Dalit, which is a Marathi word meaning “broken people.”  Pratek Panda of the Jagaran Media Center recalls that Suvash once told him, with his usual smile, that his email address was and not Dalitrights “because Dalits are always right.  Their agenda is right, their movement is right, and so is the demand for their rights.  Therefore, 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 Titus Gwemende how proud he was to be a Nepali: “The world has a lot to learn from Nepal 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.  

It was because Suvash combined so flawlessly these different human, intellectual, political, organizational, and moral attributes that I consider him to have been a consummate democracy activist.  Without any exaggeration, I think he can be compared to Bayard Rustin, the great American civil rights leader who organized the March on Washington in 1963 and who was, in my view, the preeminent American democracy activist of the twentieth century.  (Full disclosure: I knew Rustin and worked with him for more than 18 years.)  Rustin had all of the attributes that Suvash exemplified – the humor and warmth; the ability both to light up a room and to give strategic guidance; the capacity to inspire, to organize, and to stand for a large moral purpose with dignity, courage, and humility.  To be sure, Rustin lived much longer than Suvash – he died in 1987 at the age of 75 – and he was able to evolve beyond a youthful militancy that occasionally led to mistakes he would later regret.  What was remarkable about Suvash is that he was so politically mature and had developed such a seasoned worldview and organizational ability at such a very young age. 

Someone like Suvash is irreplaceable, and his passing is a loss of immeasurable proportions.  Still, the Dalit movement in Nepal can build upon what he accomplished and use his example as a model and an inspiration.  Suvash’s life and work should also be studied by activists in other countries and regions, who will benefit from understanding his role as they respond to new threats to democracy at a very troubled time in world history.