Enduring importance of DarnalSuvash Darnal was an ardent and effective spokesman against caste discrimination
I visited Nepal recently to attend two days of memorial events held in honour of Suvash Darnal, an activist for Dalit rights who perished in a terrible car accident in Washington in 2011. I first met Darnal a decade ago when he was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the organisation that I head. I found him to be an unusually gifted democracy activist. He had a marvellously engaging personality, and he impressed many people in Washington as a sophisticated analyst of Nepal at a time when the country was just coming out of a civil war. He was also an ardent and effective spokesman against caste discrimination.
Darnal had the ability to make the Dalit issue come alive for Americans, partly by drawing parallels with America’s own history of slavery and racial discrimination. There are obviously great differences between the US and Nepal, as well as between racial and caste discrimination. But experiences have a way of travelling across borders and cultures in our globalised world, and in his public presentation as a NED fellow on discrimination against Dalits, Darnal called for a programme of ‘affirmative action’, an idea that was developed in the US after the civil rights movement to highlight the need for proactive measures to address the deeply rooted problem of racial inequality.
One of the attributes that made Darnal such an effective activist was that he understood the importance of organisation and the need for institutions of civil society capable of taking collective action. When he was only 20 years old, he took the lead in creating the Jagaran Media Centre 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, he helped found the Collective Campaign for Peace, a coalition of 43 non-governmental organisations that became the secretariat for the civic movement fighting for the restoration of democracy. And when he returned from his fellowship at NED, during which he had thought deeply about the need 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.
What has impressed me about
the Dalit movement in Nepal is that it did not succumb to discouragement by Darnal’s tragic death, but has found a way to build upon his legacy of struggle and organisation. The programme of remembrance on August 14-15 consisted of three major events—a conference at Tribhuvan University at which five young Dalit scholars and practitioners presented papers on different dimensions of the continuing struggle against caste discrimination; an evening forum where four prominent international scholars placed the Dalit issue in a global context; and a concluding award ceremony at Kathmandu’s City Hall attended by 500 people at which frontline Dalit activists were recognised for their efforts to carry forward Darnal’s vision of social justice.
These events took place at a time of deep anxiety among Dalits over the rise of nationalism in Nepal that has led the Left Alliance government to dismiss demands for minority rights and the inclusion of marginalised groups as inconsistent with the need for national unity. This problem was addressed by a paper delivered at the Tribhuvan University conference by Amar BK, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh in the US, who wrote that despite the hopes for an end to untouchability engendered by the adoption in 2007 of a progressive interim constitution, the recent rise of Hindu religious nationalism has caused an anti-Dalit backlash. Other conference papers highlighted the persistence of exclusion and discrimination in the judiciary in Nepal and the need to refute ‘dominant narratives’ against affirmative action, such as that the policy undermines meritocracy.
Despite the current backsliding on the Dalit issue, I was heartened that the movement is pressing ahead at every level. In Parliament, Dalit Members of Parliament are preparing shadow bills on the critical issues of land reform, employment, housing, health care, education and the defence 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 Assemblies. 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.
Path of nonviolence
What especially impressed me was the invariably positive and hopeful attitude that the Dalit activists take to the challenges they face, despite the legacy of harsh discrimination and a bloody civil war. At the Tribhuvan University conference, for example, grassroots activist Sona Khatik movingly described the terrible injustices she had suffered, yet said that she had decided early on to take her revenge by doing good deeds, not by using violence. Darnal’s widow Sarita Pariyar also took the path of nonviolence by invoking the memory of Dr Martin Luther King when she
spoke about ending the scourge of caste humiliation.
This positive attitude exemplified the spirit of Suvash Darnal, who always rejected the politics of grievance and victimisation. He never appealed to people’s sense of guilt over the injustices done to Dalits, nor did he ever ask for sympathy, let alone pity. Rather than put people off with rancour and righteous anger, he preferred to draw them in with humour, warmth and wit. He always took the high road and appealed to common ideals of social justice and shared humanity. The Dalit movement is building upon what Suvash accomplished, and is using his example as a model and inspiration. If they succeed, they will make Nepal a stronger and more successful country, and will give inspiration to others around the world who are responding to new threats to democracy at a very troubled time in world history.
Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy in the US.