By Beena Sarwar
DURING the World Social Forum in Mumbai, or Bombay as some of the lefties still prefer to call it, Jan 17-21, 2004, a loudspeaker announcement in Hindi was often heard over the din of the crowd, the beating of drums and other assorted noises that formed the backdrop of the event: “Will any Pakistanis at this forum kindly come to such-and-such corner, Nirmala Didi wants to meet them.”
Those who paid heed to this announcement and made their way through the international throngs to the grassy tree-lined nook around the corner from a line of stalls along the dusty path (including Kishwar Naheed’s Hawwa Associates with its embroidered kurtas) found Dr Nirmala Deshpande seated there, her diminutive, smiling, bespectacled sari-clad figure crowned by her short-cropped hair hennaed a cheerful orange. Didi, as she was widely known, wanted to personally welcome the Pakistani delegates, many of whom were visiting India for the first time.
Her warmth and down-to-earth manner belied her position as one of India’s senior-most politicians and a twice-nominated member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament). Among the numerous voluntary offices she held was that of chairperson of the India-Pakistan Forum of Parliamentarians.
A record number of Pakistanis, some 600, had been granted visas for the WSF. Although a fraction of the 5,000 originally envisaged they still formed probably the largest ever Pakistani delegation to India. As a bonus, they had ‘non-police reporting’ visas, allowing them to skip the normal procedure that requires Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s countries to report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure. Since the closure of its consulate in Karachi, the Indian Embassy in Islamabad has been the sole visa-granting authority here, just as the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi is the only visa-granting authority in India since the closure of the Bombay consulate.
Nirmala Didi had long fought against such restrictions. Her very personal welcome to the Pakistani delegates at the WSF in 2004 was just one of the many ways she struggled for peace between India and Pakistan. She was involved in the largest people-to-people peace initiative between the two countries, the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy launched in February 1995, besides being a founding trustee of Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) and active with South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR).
Many remembered her from her leading role in initiating the historic Women’s Peace Bus to Lahore from Delhi in March 2000, cutting through the tension that marked the post-Kargil months since that misadventure of 1999. The peace bus involved several women’s groups under the umbrella of the newly formed WIPSA. The women “proved more eager for peace, less worried about government positions and policies”, as Didi’s friend and colleague in the peace movement, Asma Jahangir, commented at the time, having been on the phone with her several times during the planning stages.
Tensions between India and Pakistan ran so high at the time that the Pakistani side initially planned to quietly ferry the Indians from the Wagah border to the historic Falettis Hotel where they would be staying. The decision later to make a public event out of the arrival in order to make a statement about the people’s demands for peace was a courageous one in that tense atmosphere.
Asma Jahangir led the welcome delegation that greeted the Indian women on their arrival at Falettis with flower garlands and music. They also exchanged bangles, traditionally seen as symbols of weakness, subverting the negative connotations to positive by using them as symbols of peace. The colourful reception got a fair amount of media attention. Given how high the nationalistic fervour ran in those days, not all of it was positive (some reporters called it ‘un-Islamic’ and ‘anti-Pakistan’).
Always a visionary, in April 2008, Nirmala Deshpande had called for setting up a South Asian Union on the lines of the European Union, which she believed would lead to more peace in the region. “If the countries in Europe which were fighting with one another on various issues can come together to form a European Union with a common currency, why can’t we have a South Asian Union with a common currency?” she asked.
As a long-time champion of workers’ rights, Didi may have appreciated the symbolism of passing away on Labour Day, May 1. She had not been keeping well for the past few days and died in her sleep, aged 79, depriving the peace lobby of one of its most vocal and influential spokespersons. It says much for the wide acceptance she inspired that she was also the recipient of some of India’s highest awards, and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and opposition leader L.K. Advani were present at the mourning ceremony where they laid wreaths and paid homage to this eminent Gandhian who had in her youth taken a vow to remain single in order to devote her life to social work.
Nirmala Deshpande headed the Indo-Pak Soldiers’ Initiative for Peace (IPSI), an organisation she had helped form, leading a delegation to Pakistan in 2001. The joint convention of IPSI’s India and Pakistan chapters will be held on May 10-12 in Mumbai this year as scheduled “as Didi would have liked it that way,” wrote IPSI general secretary Virendra Sahai Verma in an email informing friends of her passing away. She will also be sorely missed at the upcoming PIPFPD convention scheduled later this month in Peshawar.
The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in Karachi.
Source: Daily Dawn, 3/5/2008