A Consummate Democracy Activist

by Carl Gershman
Date Published
August 16, 2016
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A consummate

democracy activist

by Carl Gershman

Suvash knew that real change would require activist institutions of civil society capable of collective action

The sudden death of Suvash Darnal, at the age of 31 in 2011 produced an outpouring of shock and sorrow among the international democracy advocates he had befriended—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 so unusual can serve as a guide and an inspiration for those fighting for democracy in Nepal and other countries.

Five great attributes

I have been able to identify five such attributes, the first of which was his 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 programme at Stanford University, where he had been with other fellows for just three weeks. But one person after another, in writing remembrances during the memorial meeting we held for Suvash, used words like “devastated” and “crushed” to convey their reaction to his death. Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, reflected a common view when he wrote that Suvash’s “idealism, energy, determination, and tremendous personal warmth—epitomised 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 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 the leader of National Endowment for Democracy (NED), he told me how grateful the people of Nepal were to Senator Patrick Leahy for his steady and forceful defence of human rights for all Nepalis. I quickly acted on that prompt and set up a meeting with Tim Rieser, Leahy’s chief aide.

What I learned by accompanying Suvash to this meeting was that he was a very purposeful and clear-headed political operative and analyst. Suvash gave me a quick but comprehensive briefing on the civil war, current political developments, and most importantly, the condition of the Dalits 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 mainstream Nepali society and politics. He spoke of his journey from being a Maoist sympathiser to organising an alternative nonviolent movement for reconciliation and reform.

The meeting we had with Tim was also memorable. Suvash learned that Tim was the person behind Senator Leahy’s 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.

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 recognised 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 US to support continued funding for UN presence in Nepal and to use its influence to promote the inclusion of the Dalits and other marginalised 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 outlined the pyramidal structure of pure and impure castes, talked about the beginning of the Dalit resistance in the 20th century, and noted the passage of laws and constitutional provisions making untouchability illegal. Nonetheless, Suvash explained, anti-Dalit violence and massive discrimination continued. He then outlined a five-point programme of “affirmative action”, a term he borrowed from the effort in the US to eliminate racial inequality in the 1960s.

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 organisation and his ability to create cutting edge groups that could help the Dalit struggle. One such group, created in 2000, was the Jagaran Media Center—the largest Dalit media outlet in South Asia and 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 organisations 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 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 victimisation. 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 pity. He always took the high road and appealed to common ideals of social justice and shared humanity.

His positive attitude carried over into the pride he took in being a Dalit. Pratek Panda of the Jagaran Media Center recalls that Suvash once told him, with his usual smile, that his email address was Dalitright@gmail.com and not Dalitrights@gmail.com “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’.”

It was with the same engaging humour 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 colonised and we know how to win, though we are surrounded by China and India. We are not land-locked, we are land-linked.” That is another way of saying that for Suvash, the glass was always half full. He never put people off with rancour and righteous anger but always drew them in with humour, warmth and wit.

A model and inspiration

It was because Suvash combined so flawlessly these different 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 organised the march on Washington in 1963 and who was, in my view, the preeminent American democracy activist of the 20th century. Rustin had all of the attributes that Suvash exemplified—the humour and warmth; the ability both to light up a room and to give strategic guidance; the capacity to inspire, organise and stand for a large moral purpose with dignity, courage, and humility. What was remarkable about Suvash is that he was so politically mature and had developed such a seasoned worldview and organisational ability at such a 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 inspiration. Suvash’s life and work should also be studied by activists in other places, who will benefit from understanding his role as they respond to new threats to democracy at a very troubled time in world history.