New Delhi: Human rights activist Bezwada Wilson and south Indian classical musician T.M. Krishna have been conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2016, along with Philippine ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, Indonesian charity organisation Dompet Dhuafa, Laos’ free ambulance service Vientiane Rescue and Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers.
Born to a family engaged manual scavenging for generations, Wilson became the first in his family to pursue a higher education. But on being treated as an outcast in school and elsewhere, he “channel[ed] this anger to a crusade to eradicate manual scavenging,” according to his citation.
Launching the SKA in 1993, Wilson “has spent 32 years on his crusade, leading not only with a sense of moral outrage but also with remarkable skills in mass organizing, and working within India’s complex legal system. SKA has grown into a network of 7,000 members in 500 districts across the country. Of the estimated 600,000 scavengers in India, SKA has liberated around 300,000. While Bezwada has placed at the core of his work the dalits’ self-emancipation, he stresses that manual scavenging is not a sectarian problem,” the citation says.
Krishna, born in Chennai to a priviledged family, had been exposed to Carnatic music from a young age. Although choosing to be an artist, he “question[ed] the social basis of his art”.
“He saw that his was a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s cultural legacy. He questioned the politics of art; widened his knowledge about the arts of the dalits (“untouchables”) and non-Brahmin communities; and declared he would no longer sing in ticketed events at a famous, annual music festival in Chennai to protest the lack of inclusiveness. Recognizing that dismantling artistic hierarchies can be a way of changing India’s divisive society, Krishna devoted himself to democratizing the arts as an independent artist, writer, speaker, and activist,” reads his citation.
“Now a leading advocate in India of “music for all and music for a better quality of life,” he says: “Music and the arts are capable of bridging cultures and civilizations and liberating us from artificial divisions of caste and race,” the citation adds.
Many Indians have received the prestigious award in the past, including Mother Teresa, Jayaprakash Narayan, Satyajit Ray, Kiran Bedi, P. Sainath and current Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.