The Illustrious Gandhian Legacy
Source: The News International
Monday, May 19, 2008
The pro-freedom Tibetans were there. So were stern-looking Chinese diplomats. People from both sides of
With the death of Nirmala "Didi" Deshpande,
The loss is all of
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
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
Nor did she get to visit
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
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
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
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
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
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