Nirmala Deshpande, 79, a veteran Gandhian, died in her sleep at her home in Delhi, Thursday morning. It is natural to mourn the passing of a dear friend. Though I did not know her personally, I mourn her passing as if she was a close friend. We knew of her great sacrifice and struggle to keep the flame of humanity and justice alive against powerful winds of hatred and strife around the world, particularly in her homeland, India, the land of Gandhi.
Her being was a source of strength to many who saw and felt her piety. Many took sustenance from her selfless work for the downtrodden and marginalized in a fast changing society, where sectarianism has become entrenched in the halls of power. In that respect she became a dear friend to all who cared. To them she was popularly known as “Didi” (respected elder sister in Hindi).
Her passing is particularly sad, because she was a great soul. She was seventy-nine years old and no one has defied the law of nature to live forever. Her life was a beacon and her death should be a time of reflection. People like her are a gift to humanity by the providence. Fortunately humanity continues to produce people like her in every generation to carry the torch of humane concerns. Democracies, though imperfect, provide secular saints such as Nirmala Deshpande a modicum of sustenance to nudge the conscience of many to uphold the values we often preach, but do not practice.
All freedom and justice-loving Indians loved and respected her. Muslims, Christians and untouchables in India are especially indebted to this frail woman born in a Brahmin family, for her tireless efforts against discrimination and marginalization. Her fearless stand rallied many Indians against the pogrom carried out by the fascistic provincial government of Gujarat against Muslims in 2002, in which about 2,000 Muslims were brutally burned and massacred.
She saw the tyranny of governments cloaked in crass nationalism, used as an excuse to foster hatred. She tried to bring the peoples of India and Pakistan, former brothers, now contentious neighbors, towards understanding and amity. She knew that constitutional safeguards work only when the majority community considers it a duty to protect the minority rights. Therefore she took up the cause of marginalized minorities in India.
In her memory, Muslims all over the world, especially in India and Pakistan, owe it to Islam and humanity to convince the Muslim majorities in all countries to protect the rights of minorities. Thoughtful Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh have found their voices in Nirmala’s Gandhian tradition to speak up for Hindu and Christian minorities. Their rights have been violated by some out of visceral hatred or financial gains, especially resulting from seemingly good, though egregious blasphemy laws.
Protecting the minorities is a test of civilization. It protects the rights of all. Looking the other way or ignoring small violations of human rights leads to greater discrimination and injustice.
She adhered to the best of the creeds that humanity offers. Widely known as a Gandhian, she was able to carry the torch of Gandhi Ji’s ideals at a time when Gandhi Ji’s name is reviled by a large section of Indian polity or at best is used only for ceremonial purposes by those who profit from his name, but consider his ideology and humanity to be impractical or at best, quaint.
Of course the Gandhian path that Nirmala Deshpande traveled is difficult to follow. Gandhi Ji did not live an easy or opulent life. It is certainly much more difficult than succumbing to self interest in the pursuit of wealth and political power to the detriment of the weaker sections of the society.
Humanity has innate potential to rise above its selfish baser instincts, but only a few harness it to help lead their people towards a better tomorrow. She lived in the tradition of the great conscience keepers of their nations.