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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 20

Tribute: Didi

Friday 9 May 2008, by Sumit Chakravartty

It is difficult to believe that Nirmala Deshpande—Didi to all of us—is no more.

She was, of course, a Gandhian by conviction and practice and spent long years with Acharya Vinoba Bhave (who regarded her as his manaskanya) having joined his bhoodan movement 56 years ago, in 1952. Yet she left an indelible imprint not on the Gandhian or bhoodan movements but on the polity through her efforts to heal the wounds in Kashmir and Gujarat, fight the communal forces and bridge the India-Pakistan divide at the level of the peoples of the two countries in particular.

A year ago she was at a meeting held to convey India’s solidarity with the democratic struggle of Burma. She spoke passionately in support of the Burmese people’s tenacious movement on this score under the able leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and tried to assure the Burmese that despite its apparent silence on the issue, the Government of India too was in total sympathy and solidarity with their cause. The Burmese struggle for democracy and the movement for preservation of Tibet’s self-identity and indigenous culture found in Didi an outspoken advocate of both the causes which were naturally close to her heart.

In fact one was drawn to her precisely because of her wholehearted espousal of Indo-Pak amity at a time it was not popular to do so. One was struck by her non-sectarian approach at every step of promoting Track II diplomacy; which is why she could endear even a military ruler like President Musharraf. In fact following the Gujarat carnage of 2002 she had, during one of her visits to Rawalpindi, plainly told Musharraf that after Gujarat Muslims were under threat in India and he should not do anything that could heighten the danger to them. The Pakistan President had carefully listened to her and thereafter promised to abide by her sage advice.

Gujarat 2002 left a deep scar on the psyche of many of us, notably of Didi. One vividly remembers that evening when she phoned me to disclose how she had received a call from a Muslim friend in Gujarat narrating their plight in the face of marauding attacks and how she could distinctly hear in the backdrop cries of “humain bachao (save us)”. It was an experience that could not but move one beyond measure. She asked me to reach out to anyone in authority to ensure that the Army was deployed at the earliest in the disturbed areas of the State. I did whatever was possible in the circumstances.

It was under Didi’s instruction that one had met several political leaders, including the then CPM General Secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, with the same message. One also remembers how, in consultation with Surjeet, one had made a list of BJP leaders who could be contacted for the same purpose.

It was at Didi’s initiative that some of us met a host of political personalities to impress on them the necessity of reviving the Indo-Pakistan peace process at a time ‘Operation Parakram’ was at its height and the bilateral relations between the two neighbous was worsening with every passing day. She was also the moving spirit behind the formation of the People’s Integration Council to further the cause of communal harmony.
AT the same time there is no gainsaying that Didi did take controversial positions on different occasions. This has been brought out in bold relief by Sudarshan Iyengar, the Vice-Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, in his tribute to Didi in The Indian Express. As he recalls,

During 1974-75, she was involved in a major controversy. The Sarvodaya movement was at the crossroads on the issue of the crisis of democracy in Bihar. Jaya Prakash Narayan had decided to lead a public movement to root out the corrupt Bihar Government. The matter was discussed in the Sarva Seva Sangh, the national body of all-India Sarvodaya workers. Vinoba Bhave was of the opinion that people should not confront the state as the time was not opportune and the country faced external threats. JP stood his ground and there was a divide among Sarvodaya workers. Nirmala Deshpande firmly stood beside Vinoba Bhave.

In the years to come, she grew close to Indira Gandhi and it was said that she had become her conscience keeper. It is true that during and after the Emergency, she enjoyed tremendous confidence of Indira Gandhi. I met her during the last one year on many occasions, but I did not see any remorse in her with respect to this subject. She had arrived at her own truth and she stuck to it.

And yet she was also able to transcend all controversies and come out in the service of weak and the persecuted. That was seen in her work in Gujarat, in Kashmir, in Punjab. She used to end all her speeches with Jai Jagat that instantly showed how effortlessly she could cross all barriers to proclam her citizenship of the world as a defender of mankind as a whole.

She never raised her voice while speaking in the true Gandhian spirit that calls for reconciliation and dialogue instead of conflict and confrontation.

Gandhiji had once written in Bengali—“Aamar jiban-i aamar baani (My life is my message)”. The same holds true of Didi who has now passed into history.

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