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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 21

A Great Force of Peace and Harmony is No More

Wednesday 14 May 2008, by Manoranjan Mohanty


The news of the sudden passing away of Nirmala Deshpande, the most prominent Gandhian of contemporary India, is a great shock to all the workers in the peace and social transformation movements of India. Rajya Sabha MP, leader of the Harijan Sewak Sangh, Gandhi Smriti and President of the Peoples of Asia, she was, above all, an ever-smiling, self-effacing social worker always ready to help. With her demise India has lost a devoted social worker who dedicated her whole life to the service of the downtrodden and peace and harmony among communities.

Nirmalaji—she was called Didi by all her friends and co-workers—worked for communal harmony throughout her life. In the post-1992 period she worked tirelessly in Mumbai and later in Gujarat in 2002 giving solace to the victims of riots. As the leader of many peace initiatives between India and Pakistan she earned the goodwill and solidarity of peace forces in both the countries. She took the women’s peace bus from Delhi to Lahore which had tremendous impact on the political environment paving the way for governmental dialogues. In the post-2001 climate of utmost tensions when communications were suspended between the two countries, she led delegations of peace activists to meet the leaders of all the political parties of India to urge upon them the necessity to open up channels of communication between India and Pakistan. This did succeed finally in paving the way for dialogue. She actively participated in the Conventions of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy.

Even while being close to the Dalai Lama and working with him on programmes of peace and religious harmony, she made continuous attempts to facilitate dialogue between him and the Chinese leaders. During her trip to China she made appeals to the Chinese authorities in this regard. At the current moment her role indeed had crucial significance.

After the Orissa super-cyclone in 1999 Didi joined the Delhi University-Gandhi Darshan joint effort in the Orissa Reconstruction Campaign and mobilised resources for support to the victims in Jagatsinghpur.

There is much to remember about Nirmala Deshpande’s contribution to contemporary India in healing the wounds on many fronts and affirming the power of love. Some of us were privileged to be close witness to a few of her campaigns. We will immensely miss her in our activities on the centenary of Hind Swaraj planned for next year. The best tribute to her by the workers in the peace and social transformation movements is to rededicate themselves to her cherished goals.

The author, a former Professor, University of Delhi, is the Durgabai Deshmukh Professor of Social Development, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

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