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A votary of peace and harmony

Gargi Parsai

Nirmala Deshpande dedicated her life to the cause of the poor and downtrodden: Manmohan

— Photo: S. Subramanium

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paying homage to veteran Gandhian and Rajya Sabha MP Nirmala Deshpande in New Delhi on Thursday.

NEW DELHI: The renowned Gandhian, social activist, writer and Sanskrit scholar Nirmala Deshpande died here on Thursday. She was 79 and unmarried.

Ms. Deshpande, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, woke up at 4 a.m. and recited prayers in bed. When her personal attendant returned an hour later, he found that she had breathed her last, Ms. Deshpande’s former private secretary Peter Parekattil told The Hindu. He said she attended the Upper House on Wednesday.

The funeral will be held at the Lodhi Road electric crematorium at 9.30 a.m on Friday.

President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi, diplomats, Cabinet Ministers and Gandhians were among those who visited Ms. Deshpande’s Shahjehan Road residence to pay their last respects.

A disciple of Vinoba Bhave, Ms. Deshpande joined his Bhoodan Yatra in 1952 and walked more than 40,000 km during the Bhoodan Movement, propagating non-violence.

She spent her early years at Vinoba’s Paunar Ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, before moving to Delhi to be with Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and in the post-Emergency years when she lost the elections.

Popularly known as ‘Didi’, Ms. Deshpande was conferred the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavana Award in August 2005. In 2006, she was conferred the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour, for her social initiative including development of the Gandhi Global Peace Centre at Gandhi Ashram, Kingsway Camp in Delhi. At the time of her death, she was the president of the Harijan Sewak Sangh, a national body set up by Mahatma Gandhi and dedicated to working for the uplift of Dalits, and member of several other organisations.

Peace teams to Pakistan

A votary of communal peace and harmony, Ms. Deshpande was actively involved in efforts to usher in peace, especially between India and Pakistan, and she led several peace delegations to Pakistan. In 2005, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ms. Patil expressed deep sorrow at the demise of Ms. Deshpande, whom she described as a close friend. “The nation lost a person who dedicated her life to communal harmony, peace, amity and understanding.”

Recounting Ms. Deshpande’s contribution to the empowerment of women, promotion of communal harmony and rural development, Vice-President Hamid Ansari said these were undertaken within the framework of Gandhian philosophy.

Expressing deep grief, the Prime Minister described her as a “living Gandhian,” who had dedicated her life to the cause of the poor, the downtrodden and the marginalised. A leader of the people who led by example, her activism saw her going beyond the Bhoodan struggle.

For Congress president Sonia Gandhi, “Nirmalaji was an abiding and cherished source of guidance, support and steadfast friendship, whose loss leaves a void that will be hard to fill.”

The former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said Ms. Deshpande’s life was a mission. The best tribute would be to follow her path, said the former Prime Minister, V.P. Singh.

“Her relentless efforts for the establishment of a secular and inclusive society and to bring about peace in the sub-continent will always be remembered,” said Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

“An institution”

Describing her as an “institution, not just a dedicated individual,” the Communist Party of India said the country lost a great fighter for peace, non-violence, secularism and democracy.

In a special tribute to her, Pakistan’s Information Minister Sherry Rehman is leading a delegation of mourners.

“Icon of peace movement”

PTI reports from Islamabad:

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani described Ms. Deshpande as an “icon of the peace movement.” In a condolence message, he lauded the “noble role played by her for the peace movement for over 25 years, particularly to help improve relations between India and Pakistan.”

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