The Illustrious Gandhian Legacy


The pro-freedom Tibetans were there. So were stern-looking Chinese diplomats. People from both sides of Kashmir were in mourning. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis and Afghans mingled with Indians as her last rites were performed in Delhi–significantly, not by an adult male but by a young girl. From across the border, President Pervez Musharraf conveyed his personal condolences by telephone. And in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi joined leaders cutting across political parties in recalling the extraordinary personality of the deceased.

With the death of Nirmala "Didi" Deshpande, India has lost its last great Gandhian in the tradition of Vinoba Bhave, Dada Dharmadhikari, R R Diwakar, Thakurdas Bang and Siddharaj Dhadda.

The loss is all of South Asia‘s. In both her vision and activity, Deshpande was a quintessential South Asian. She was at the centre of the India-Pakistan peace process, and citizen-to-citizen dialogue and solidarity campaigns for human rights and people-centred policies in the region.

"We in Pakistan will miss her especially sorely," said Karamat Ali and B M Kutty, peace activists from the Karachi-based Pakistan Institute for Labour Research and Education, who came for her funeral, along with three political party leaders, including Information Minister Sherry Rehman. Ali and Kutty carried Deshpande’s ashes to Pakistan, where they’ll be immersed in the Indus–a tribute to South Asia‘s shared civilisational roots.

Said Ali and Kutty: "Only five Pakistanis could attend the funeral at short notice–because we were privileged to have long-term multiple-entry visas. But if Pakistanis were allowed to drive freely across the border, as Westerners are, more than 5,000 would have come."

Very rarely has an Indian been so deeply loved, admired and respected in Pakistan as Deshpande. The reason for this is Didi’s pivotal role in bridging national boundaries, linguistic and cultural barriers, and even emotional divides.

Thus, she could as easily unite soldiers professionally trained to fight one another, or catalyse the Indo-Pakistan Forum of Parliamentarians as organise cross-border visits of schoolchildren. She effortlessly commanded the trust not just of "friendly" competitors, but of viscerally hostile rivals. She could apply the Gandhian healing touch to wounded sentiments and make the most paranoid of people feel comfortable.

It’s a pity that Nirmala Deshpande died just days before she was due to visit Nepal to launch what had the potential to become an epochal dialogue between Gandhian and Maoist ideas, similar to the great conversation between communism and Catholicism begun by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s.

Nor did she get to visit Pakistan after the February elections. Indeed, she didn’t even live to see the consummation of the clemency process for Sarabjit Singh, which she took up with Musharraf.

If the Indian and Pakistani governments even remotely believe in the praise they lavish upon Deshpande, they must pay a tribute to her by creating a visa-free travel regime in the subcontinent. If India can consider granting visas on arrival to nationals of scores of countries, as it’s doing, it should freely give visas to Pakistanis. And vice versa. That would promote understanding and live interaction between the two peoples and help create conditions for a regional union/confederation, an idea Deshpande passionately espoused.

Great as her role in promoting regional dialogue was, Deshpande cannot be reduced to just that. She fought for numerous causes, which are at the heart of popular struggles worldwide. She was uncompromisingly anti-communal and anti-casteist, categorically opposed to capitalist globalisation, totally against nuclear weapons, warmongering and jingoism, and radically critical of profit-maximising technologies that uproot people and destroy livelihoods.

Equally, she was a staunch defender of freedom and democratic rights, an advocate of devolution of power to autonomous village-based committees–what Gandhi called Gram Swaraj, or "direct democracy"–and for bottom-up development in which Dalits, landless people, marginal farmers and artisans come first.

Bharatiya Janata Party politicians now hypocritically pay lip service to Deshpande, but she was as staunch and principled a critic as you could find of Hindutva and the politicisation and abuse of religion–in a manner typical of Gandhi, with his notion of the unity of all religions. Following the Gujarat carnage, she demanded the dismissal of Narendra Modi and prosecution of the guilty. To her last day, she believed this still remains imperative.

In recent years, one can only think of Siddharaj Dhadda, who died two years ago, as an equally indefatigable crusader against communal hatred and violence and against the surrender of sovereignty to global capital. Dhadda courted marginalisation by opposing the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Most Gandhians, especially in Gujarat, became abject apologists for the dam. During the 2002 carnage, the Sabarmati Ashram even refused to protect the victims and save their lives.

The Gandhian movement is now dead. As is the Sarvodaya–"rise and progress of all"–ideal of promoting social cohesion and unity through "constructive work" and moral persuasion. Most Gandhians have succumbed to crude nationalism, soft-Hindutva and militarism. Part of their frustration and despair arose because many Sarvodaya programmes lacked realism and collapsed under the force of modernisation, social polarisation, and class- and caste-based politics.

The Sarvodaya movement’s biggest campaign was Bhoodan, donation of land by the rich to the landless, through which the countryside transformed. This was a repudiation of the class struggle doctrine, which is central to Marxism. Vinoba launched Bhoodan in 1951 in Telengana, which had just seen a communist-led peasant uprising and its bloody repression. Deshpande joined Vinoba a year later. They walked the length and breadth of India to "persuade" the rich to gift land.

Bhoodan was a colossal failure despite the "donation" of 4.6 million acres. Rich landlords pledged land to which they had no clear rights, or which was poor and degraded. Just half of this was distributed, much of it uncultivable. Bhoodan failed to break the hold of the landed gentry and change agrarian relations.

Undeterred, Vinoba launched an even more ambitious programme, Gramdan, or the gift of an entire village. Under Gramdan, all land would be legally owned by the village. Village affairs would be managed by a council made up of all adult members, making decisions that would be accepted by everybody. In a class-divided society with great power disparities, this was bound to fail, and fail it did.

Another problematic aspect of Deshpande’s past was her proximity to Indira Gandhi and her defence of the Emergency. She had convinced herself that Indira Gandhi’s draconian measures were a response to certain "external threats to India," which she was sworn not to identify. This didn’t prevent her from distancing herself from the Congress or condemning the 1984 butchery of the Sikhs.

What was remarkable about Nirmala Deshpande was that she reinvented herself by learning from these mistakes and recaptured her relevance while retaining her core beliefs in Gandhian ideals, including non-violence. Of pivotal importance here was the ideal of grassroots people’s solidarity across national borders, based on shared universal values.

In the past few years, Deshpande forged special bonds between the Indian political left, the Congress, civil society, and people’s resistance movements based on livelihood issues.

Deshpande’s agenda remains unfulfilled. The best way of completing it is to further strengthen these bonds and work for a South Asia in which borders become truly irrelevant.

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