June Issue 2008

By | People | Profile | Published 16 years ago

“After my demise, my ashes should be immersed in the rivers of South Asia so that my message of social peace and religious harmony reaches every person who drinks the water of these sacred rivers,” Dr Nirmala Deshpande, 79, instructed her followers prior to her death on May 1 in Delhi. So, in accordance with her will, her ashes were flown down from Delhi to Pakistan to be scattered in the River Indus at Sadhu Bela, Sukkur, by nine-year-old Nisa Alam. In her will, she also stated that her 11-year-old adopted daughter, Shambvi, perform her funeral rites

Born in Nagpur in 1929, Pande, a disciple of the prominent social reformer Vinoba Bhave, was known as a staunch supporter of Gandhian principles. Didi, as she was fondly addressed by her admirers, was nominated twice to the Rajya Sabha and was serving as a member of the committees for the empowerment of women and rural development and the parliamentary forum on children. In recognition of her social services, she had been conferred the Rajiv Gandhi National Award and the Padma Vibhushan Award, which is the second highest civilian award of India.

The celebrated peace activist dedicated her life to the cause of the downtrodden by struggling against religious and caste discrimination in India. Didi’s commitment to the empowerment of landless farmers led her to participate in the Bhoom Movement, initiated by Vinoba Bhave, that urged landowners to donate land to the landless. A historic 40,000 kilometres-long march was held in India and people donated a million acres of land, which was then distributed among landless tenants.

Invariably draped in a white khadi saree, Didi was always an outspoken critic of war and violence She dared to publicly condemn the Indian military operation in Kashmir and console Muslims on the injustices meted out to them.

Didi worked ceaselessly for religous harmony and considered Sufism as the best way of achieving that end. She organised several interfaith dialogues around the world, including the one at the Aligarh University in 2002, which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. Several religious scholars took part in the discourse and, for the first time, over 200 peace activists from Pakistan also participated in the event.

Being a social revolutionary, and a woman herself, Didi explicitly focused on the uplift of women. As part of her strategy, she often brought women social activists to the fore, even in her efforts to normalise Indo-Pak relations: in March 2000 she travelled by bus from Delhi to Lahore along with prominent women activists.

Maulana Ubaidullah Bhutto, the president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Sindh, recounts his experience with her: “I received a call from Didi Nirmala Deshpande just as I crossed the Wagah border into Pakistan after attending the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. She requested me to come to Delhi to speak at the International Interfaith Conference. She made all the travel arrangements including visa, lodging and boarding. When I reached Delhi she received me at Gandhi Ashram and kept me with her for one week. It was an honour for me that when I delivered my speech in Urdu on ‘Islam: The religion of peace,’ she translated it into English so that foreign dignitaries could understand my point of view.”

Pande was a strong supporter of people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan. She formed the India-Pakistan Peace Coalition to provide opportunities to people from various backgrounds to visit each other’s countries. Her long-time associate and renowned peace activist, Karamat Ali, revealed that Didi was looking forward to establishing a South Asian Union on the pattern of the European Union and had already started consultations with peace activists in South Asia.

Didi had also expressed a keen desire to visit Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s mazar. She was expected to arrive in Pakistan at the invitation of Sindh University, Jamshoro at the end of May. But she passed away before she could pay homage to the Shah of Bhit. Nevertheless, her ashes were brought to Bhit Shah, and to the echo of Sufi songs and her famous slogan, ‘Jiye jagat’ (Long live the people of the world), lowered into the River Indus at Sadhu Bela, travelling along its waters, crossing the mazar of the Sufi poet, Sachal Sarmast