In memory of Nirmala Deshpande
by Ravi Nitesh
Published on Daily Times
“Let me look at the world with friendly eyes,
So that the world will look to us with friendly eyes,”
an old phrase stated by Nirmala Deshpande from her last speech on Indo-Iran society at Jawahar Lal Nehru University New Delhi, a day before her demise.
The day simply went. It was May 1 when Nirmala Deshpande, a peace activist, left this world six years ago in the year 2008. Nirmala Deshpande was a veteran peace activist who worked tirelessly for peace among people of different countries, especially India and Pakistan and largely for South Asia, Asia and beyond as well. On this day, in this year, when all others in India were busy with election scenes, it was only the peace museum of Panipat (in Haryana, India) that observed this day and paid tribute to her.
Fortunately, I visited this museum just a few months ago and came to know about its story. The museum was built just to preserve the memories of Nirmala Deshpande who worked for peace but, after her demise, her belongings were laid out in New Delhi in a room. Later, one of her close associates, social activist Ram Mohan Rai, thought of putting all her belongings in a hall and, with this thought, he brought all belongings to Panipat and dedicated one hall as a peace museum.
Interestingly, Panipat is a place that is popular for its wars in history books. Panipat is synonymous with the first, second and third battle of Panipat but, by this move by Mr Rai, the place is nourishing the heritage of a peace activist. In this way, Didi (Nirmala Deshpande is referred to as Didi among the people who know her) is working for peace even after her death. The museum preserves the memories of her work, her struggle. One can find pictures, souvenirs awards and even her typewriter. I saw a souvenir there, which had been gifted by the chief of army staff Pakistan to her during one of her visits. I also found one poster where the tourism department of Pakistan focused on Buddha’s legacy in Pakistan to promote tourism.
During her last days, she became unable to travel much but still she continued her efforts for peace. She received the Padma Vibhushan in the year 2006, which is one of the highest civilian awards in India. She was born in Nagpur in 1929 and worked for the promotion of peace and communal harmony throughout her life. She was well-learned and received her education from the famous Ferguson College. She authored a few novels and regularly published a magazine named Nityanootan. This magazine is now being published by Mr Rai.
Later, after partition, when India and Pakistan came into existence and there was poverty due to land ownership with rich people, she joined the Bhoodaan Movement (movement for donation of lands) led by Vinoba Bhave in 1952. With her deep faith in Gandhian principles, she traveled approximately 2,500 miles on foot for this movement. She was twice a member of Rajya Sabha (an upper house of Indian parliament), nominated by the president of India from the field of social service. She was conferred the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, one of the highest civilian honours of Pakistan. On her death, it was both India and Pakistan that expressed their condolences, including the then president and other political leaders of Pakistan.
It was an honour for her that, at the time of her last rites, not only Indian leaders and activists, which included the vice president of India, but a five-member delegation from Pakistan were also present. Many other delegates from other countries (especially from South Asia) and of various religions attended the last rites and also took back her ashes to their own countries. In Pakistan as well her ashes reached Karachi through a Pakistani delegation that attended her last rites in New Delhi. In the words of the attendees, “Nirmala Deshpande Didi belonged to all of us without any specific identity of religion”.
Like her whole life, where she fought for harmony and equality, she decided that even on her death she would send out a message for equality. She had already declared that, in case of her death, the last rites would be performed by a girl from her close associates. It was again a decision of courage and a step to break the boundaries of myths because, in Hinduism, it is rare that the last rites be performed by a girl instead of a boy.
She was an Indian by virtue of citizenship but she was a follower of Gandhian philosophy with the approach that the whole world is one for its people and that there should not be any kind of enmity among the people.
Ravi Nitesh is the founder of Mission Bhartiyam(India) and core member of Aaghaz-e-Dosti