Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Death Of Suvash Darnal

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, I have spoken over the years about the political transformation that has been taking place in Nepal since 2005, from a corrupt, autocratic monarchy to an emerging democracy. 

That process has moved forward by fits and starts, plagued by political infighting and the seeming inability of political and ethnic factions to unite for the good of the people.  We are struggling with partisanship and divisiveness in this country, so I understand the problem, but Nepal is at an historic crossroads and cannot afford for this process to fail.  

Key issues that were at the heart of the internal armed conflict, such as impunity for crimes against civilians by both sides, have not been addressed.  Shielding perpetrators of gross violations of human rights from punishment is incompatible with a democratic society based on the rule of law.

There are many other challenges, like reform of the army, demobilization of former Maoist combatants, improving literacy, building effective, transparent government institutions, and reducing poverty.   The United States is helping, but Nepal’s competing political leaders must point the way forward by making the necessary compromises.

Today I want to speak briefly about caste discrimination, which is at the core of Nepal’s feudalistic history.  I do so by paying tribute to an extraordinary leader of Nepal’s Dalit community, Suvash Darnal, who was tragically killed in a motor vehicle accident in Virginia on August 15, 2011. 

Mr. Darnal was only 31 years old when he died, but he had already achieved far more than most people, even people with every advantage, do in a much longer life. 

Mr. Darnal was of humble beginnings, with nothing but hardship and unfairness to look forward to.  Yet he managed to overcome daunting obstacles to become a respected leader with boundless energy, a quenchless thirst for knowledge, extraordinary vision, and a tireless determination to help improve the lives of his people.   

As I have said before in this chamber, Nepal’s democracy cannot succeed without the inclusion of minority castes, including Dalits, in political and economic decision-making.  Mr. Darnal devoted himself passionately to that cause, through journalism, research, and advocacy. 

He was an inspiring example of why caste discrimination has no place in the 21st Century, and his death is a tragic loss not only for Dalits but for all of Nepal.  He had the humility, integrity, intellect, and dedication to his people that Nepal needs in its leaders, and I hope others of his generation are inspired by his life and work to continue his legacy.   

Mr. President I ask unanimous consent that an August 16th article in the Kathmandu Post about Mr. Darnal be printed in the Record.

Bidushi Dhungel, “Palpali Flame,” Op-Ed, The Kathmandu Post, August 16, 2011

The tragic death of 31-year-old Dalit activist and media entrepreneur Suvash Darnal is a huge setback to Nepal’s Dalit movement. Well known for being the founder of Nepal’s first ever Dalit-focused media organisation, Jagaran Media, co-founder of the Collective Campaign for Peace and most recently, the Dalit-focused think tank, Samata Foundation, Darnal made undeniable contributions to a burgeoning rights-sensitive society.

Born in Mujhung in Palpa, and one of four siblings, Suvash was schooled “by accident,” at a local school that just happened to be in close proximity to his home. He was never told to go to school, nor did he initially see it as necessary, “it just kind of happened,” he would say. Darnal’s perseverance meant that he became the first Dalit to the pass the SLC from his village. That achievement, and the positive reaction it garnered from the upper echelons of society that once treated him as untouchable, gave him the motivation to work harder.

But behind every success story, there is a long, hard struggle. Looking at Suvash in his last years, one could never guess that he’d come to Kathmandu with nothing except the fire of convictions. He spent months selling watches immersed in a bucket of water on the Ratna Park roadside. And having made a few contacts here and there, Darnal ventured into writing for small media houses. The ideas for the foundations of the Jagaran Media Centre came in these days. It was to be the largest Dalit-led media outlet in South Asia. Even now, Jagaran media has a radio station that produces a radio magazine that is broadcast throughout India and Nepal.

These were turbulent times. By the time the media centre was established and running smoothly, King Gyanendra took over and attempted to reverse the course of history. Public outrage was growing and so was the demand for the return of democracy. At this crucial juncture, Darnal and his close friend founded the Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP). “I wanted to play my part in what I knew would be a momentous time in Nepal’s history,” said Darnal. He often recalled those days saying that at the heart of the uprising, it became an unofficial “secretariat” for the civil democratic movement in Nepal.

It was after this that Darnal set off to undertake the most mammoth of his life’s work. He realised that democracy would be of little use to Dalit society unless there was a way to bridge the gap between politics and caste. This was where Darnal’s deep frustrations with society resided. The idea that discourse at the policy level was necessary gave way to the Samata Foundation. Initially called the Nepal Center for Dalit Studies, late in 2009, the name was changed and became an officially registered organisation.

The Samata Foundation is now the hub of Dalit research. Last year, under Darnal’s direction, Samata held Nepal’s first ever International Dalit conference. An avid reader and fan of B.R. Ambedkar, Darnal had set out to establish caste-based policies in the country. His book, A Land of Our Own: Conversations with Dalit Members of the Constituent Assembly, came out in 2009. Although enthused by the 2008 elections that ushered in some 40 Dalit Constituent Assembly (CA) members, it didn’t take long for Darnal to realise it wasn’t going to be enough. He often said that it was only natural that the Dalit CA members wouldn’t be educated, but that it was then his task to give them the information and competence to stand out and be clear about their demands. In this endeavour, he decided to publish a Nepali translation of Ambedkar’s book. The translation was done by Dalit leader and CA member Aahuti, and was published earlier this year. Darnal held a special prominence in his head and heart for the personality and works of Ambedkar and the translation of the book and its subsequent publishing was a source of joy to him.

The Dalit movement has a long history in this country, but with Suvash Darnal it rose to new heights. From raising national awareness to travelling abroad for guest lectures, Darnal had the conviction to make Nepali society aware, not only of the harsh realities of caste, but of the repercussions of its perception in politics and society. Suvash’s Samata Foundation was in the process of achieving precisely this. The organisation is now without its founder, and the Dalit movement without a capable leader. The work he undertook was as much professional to him as it was personal, and that’s what allowed for his success. Suvash Darnal’s close friends refer to him as very much of a family man. And with only a few close friends, he maintained very close ties with his family. He is survived by his wife and two year old daughter.

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