The first recipient of the International Darnal Award for Social Justice is a 28-year-old educator, journalist and legal advocate Raksha Ram Chamar (Harijan) who was born into a family of highly marginalized Madhesi Dalit tenant farmers in a village in Nepal’s Kapilvastu district. The inaugural award ceremony was jointly organized by the Sarita Pariyar Trust Fund and Jagaran Media Center in Kathmandu’s City Hall on August 15, marking the five-year death anniversary of Dalit activist Suvash Darnal.
Chamar opened his acceptance remarks by dedicating the award to the oppressed Dalit community and acknowledging Suvash Darnal, whom he referred to as “a warrior of Dalit revolution”. He thanked his parents as well as the legal advocate and chairperson of the Terai Human Rights Defenders (THRD) Dipendra Jha for encouraging and supporting him in his fight against social injustice in Nepal. At the end of his concise and potent speech, Chamar reiterated his commitment to work in the legal field to help the oppressed and said that the award has made him more responsible. “Legal means is the only way to fight against structures that perpetuate social inequality,” he added.
After completing tenth grade, Chamar moved to Sakhatpur, an Indian town across the border, to complete high school, paying sixty rupees per month for lodgings. Towards the end of twelfth grade, he worked on the street to gather funds that he needed to pay for his marksheet. Despite overwhelming odds, Chamar’s educational pursuit was relentless. He worked as a road construction worker and a temporary policeman during elections to pay for college. Now he holds a bachelors and masters degree in education and is currently pursuing a degree in law. While studying, he also managed to establish a school in his village community with the help of local leaders so that marginalized families did not have to leave in search of affordable education for their children.
Later, Chamar worked as a reporter for a paper in Kapilvastu and became the editor of a weekly newspaper, Pradeshik Samachar, which aimed to raise awareness about the Dalit situation and agenda. By this time, Chamar had become determined to combat severe social injustice and political barriers that are prevalent across Nepali society and systems. He volunteered as a human rights worker at Mahuri Home, a human rights organization in the Tarai. In 2012, he came to Kathmandu to work for the Tarai Human Rights Defenders alliance. Since then, Chamar has filed numerous writs at the Supreme Court to expand opportunities for the marginalized. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor on a case Chamar had filed jointly with Rita Shah and Vijay Kant Karna. They had argued that an agreement by the top three political parties to promulgate a constitution leaving details on federalism for future resolution was unconstitutional. The parties were subsequently forced to bring out a constitution that included a map of the federal structure.
The International Darnal Award for Social Justice was founded in order to honor Suvash Darnal’s short life and continue the work he had started. Born in 1980 in a small Palpa village, Darnal rose to prominence because of his tireless and passionate efforts to ensure justice and dignity for the Dalits of Nepal. He founded Jagaran Media Center in 2000 to train Dalit journalists to document and publicize cases of caste-based discrimination and untouchability. He was also one of the founders of Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP) and played a key role in the 2006 People’s Movement. Later, aiming to institutionalize changes through policy advocacy, Suvash Darnal co-founded Samata Foundation, a think-tank that conducts research to support evidence-based policy and advocacy for Dalits. Recognizing his commitment to the cause, he was awarded prestigious fellowships at the London School of Economics, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington DC and at Stanford University. At the beginning of Monday’s award ceremony, a panel discussion was moderated by Ashok Gurung, Director of the New School’s India China Institute. The panelists were Larry Diamond (Stanford University), Carl Gershman (President of NED), Sukhdeo Thorat (Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research Sukhdeo Thorat), Dulari Harijan (Member of Parliament from CPN-MC) and Sarita Pariyar (wife of Suvash Darnal, board member of Samata Foundation and designer of this Award). Suvash Darnal died in a traffic accident in the outskirts of Washington DC in 2011.
As part of the first Darnal Award for Social Justice program, a symposium titled “Politics of Dignity and Equity: Dalits in Nepal” took place at Tribhuwan University on August 14. Later that evening, an interaction program was held with emerging Dalit youth leaders at Nexus Culture Nepal. At the end of the Nexus program, Raksha Ram Chamar opened an exhibition titled “The-Lit: Exclusion Within” that featured five artists. One of the exhibits, titled “Auspicious Suspicious” was put together by artist Manish Harijan. In this exhibit, Harijan has used grains and powders that are used by high-caste Nepali families during auspicious, religious occasions. “If Dalits touch the same grains, it’s considered to be inauspicious,” Harijan mentioned while describing his work to me. In this way, the exhibit questions the status quo and compels visitors to reexamine their relationship with objects. In his artist’s statement, Manish Harijan has written that his artwork attempts to create multiple dialogues related to social structures, caste issues and poverty.
Some of the content has been paraphrased from Darnal Award publications.