The Niwano Peace Foundation announced on Thursday that the Indian social activist Rajagopal P. V., who has earned renown for his nonviolent fight for social justice and the land rights of tribal peoples and other marginalized communities in India, will be the recipient of the 40th Niwano Peace Prize.
“The 40th Niwano Peace Prize will be awarded to Mr. Rajagopal P. V. of India in recognition of his extraordinary work in the service of justice and peace,” the Niwano Peace Foundation stated in an announcement shared with BDG. “Mr. Rajagopal’s actions in favor of the poorest and most marginalized of his country, carried out through peaceful and nonviolent methods, and his struggle for the recognition of the equal human dignity and equal rights of every man and woman, irrespective of caste or gender, inspires great admiration. His particular accomplishments that garner the highest esteem include negotiating the surrender and facilitating the rehabilitation of gangs, the education of young people in the service of the poor, and, well aware that the primary needs of the poor are water, land, and forests, his commitment to care for the environment.”
The award will be conferred at a formal presentation ceremony on 11 May in Tokyo. The Niwano Peace Prize takes the form of a certificate, a medal, and a cash award of ¥20 million (US$150,000).
Established by Nikkyo Niwano (1906–99), co-founder and the first president of the Rissho Kosei Kai Buddhist organization in Japan, the Niwano Peace Foundation was chartered in 1978 with the aspiration of working toward the realization of world peace. The foundation promotes research and other activities in fields such as education, science, culture, and philosophy. The foundation established the Niwano Peace Prize, which has been awarded annually since 1983 “to honor and encourage those who are devoting themselves to inter-religious cooperation in the cause of peace, and to make their achievements known.” (Niwano Peace Foundation)
Rajagopal, who uses only his first name in public to avoid identification with India’s socially pervasive caste system, was born in 1948 in the southern Indian state of Kerala. From the beginning of the 1970s, having completed his education, Rajagopal began dedicating his energies toward the promotion of nonviolent social activism. In the Chambal Valley of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, he worked on behalf of the children of the “dacoits”—violent youth gangs from the most marginalized communities of India’s population. In the face of endemic violence and injustice, Rajagopal worked as peacemaker alongside other senior Gandhian leaders, rehabilitating and reintegrating members of these gangs into mainstream society and initiating national youth engagement programs in the service of the poorest members of society.
Rajagopal’s commitment to nonviolent social justice and peacemaking led to the inception in 1989 of Ekta Parishad (Unity Forum), an umbrella organization and community dedicated to nonviolent activism for securing land and livelihood rights for marginalized communities, and “constantly promoting nonviolence as a way for the struggle, dialogue, and constructive actions towards building a peaceful and just society.” (Ekta Parishad)
Through successful land-rights marches with the participation of thousands, Rajagopal’s social activism attained national and international visibility, with milestones that include securing land rights for nearly 500,000 families, creating grassroots leadership for more than 10,000 people, protecting forest ecosystems and water bodies, and framing several laws and policies related to land reform in India.
“[Rajagopal’s] lifelong commitment and work have been rooted in the Gandhian principles of satyagraha1 and nonviolent activism. [He] addresses structural violence through multiple types of people’s movements, finding unique ways to address their most pressing needs and capacities,” said Niwano Peace Prize Committee member and executive secretary of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) Somboon Chungprampree. “[Rajagopal’s] approach contains a global vision, yet began in local Indian communities and has since spread throughout the country. [He] catalyzed and led many mass marches for land and livelihood rights, and tribal rights, some of which have led to the return of ancestral lands and responsive substantial changes to public policy.”
In his acceptance letter to the Niwano Peace Foundation, shared with BDG, Rajagopal stated:
In receiving this prize, I believe it is my good fortune to have been born in the same geographical area as the birthplaces of Gautum Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. In Asia, where [the] Buddha’s influence has been widely felt, the idea of nonviolence may sound commonplace. However, in many parts of the world where I have travelled, people have not seriously imbibed the idea of nonviolence and believe that war and violence are the means to making peace.
At this historical juncture, we see a world community living in uncharted territory where peace between human beings, and peace between humans and nature, is elusive and yet such an imperative..! There are the challenges of: a burgeoning arms race, a climate crisis, and persistent poverty and discrimination. With the arrival of social media and information technology, there are places of intractable divisions and heightened mistrust.
I want to congratulate the Niwano Peace Foundation for continuing to press for peace by identifying diverse individuals across the globe every year and encouraging them to move forward to advocate for peace in spite of such problems.
Each year, the Niwano Peace Foundation surveys a broad range of scholars, religious leaders, and organizations representing 125 countries and various world religions to nominate suitable candidates. Each nomination is rigorously screened by the Niwano Peace Prize Committee, comprised of seven religious leaders from various parts of the world, all of whom are involved in movements for peace and inter-religious cooperation.
Past recipients of the Niwano Peace Prize include: Taiwanese Buddhist Master Ven. Shih Chao-hwei, who was awarded the 38th Niwano Peace Prize in 2021; the Korean Seon (Zen) master Ven. Pomnyun Sunim, who received the 37th Niwano Peace Prize in 2020; Thai social activist and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists Sulak Sivaraksa, who won the award in 2011; Taiwanese Buddhist nun Master Cheng Yen, founder of the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, who was awarded the prize in 2007; and Cambodian monk and peace activist Ven. Maha Ghosananda, who won the award in 1998.
1 A policy of passive political resistance.