Pakistan March 29 2006 -- Wednesday -- Safar 28, 1427
A political activist’s quest for peace
By Ayesha Azfar
KARACHI: Visibly tired after participating in a lengthy TV talk show on the lawns of the KMC Sports Complex, the red-haired septuagenarian, Nirmala Deshpande, was glad to sit back and enjoy the evening breeze. The fact that the World Social Forum was being held in Karachi, she declared, was a feather in the cap of Pakistani civil society. “The WSF is very helpful. Not only does it bring people from India and Pakistan together but people from all over the world all like-minded people who are for peace,democracy, human rights and justice . This creates a people’s movement.”
Ms Deshpande, or Didi as she is popularly known, is a member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of parliament, and a committed peace activist in the Gandhian tradition. She has come to Pakistan several times as head of the India-Pakistan Forum of Parliamentarians and can vouch for the commitment of her colleagues back in India to the Indo-Pakistan peace process. “In parliament, every party has its own policy. By and large, people speak along party lines; they have to. But, although there may be a few exceptions, the parliamentarians want peace.” An indication of this, she said, comes from the broad-based membership of the parliamentarians’ forum that attracted people from all parties.
She admitted that ‘old mindset’ continues to be the biggest obstacle to the peace process, but took what she perceived as the flexibility of the present leadership on both sides of the divide to be a good sign. She was also optimistic about the younger generation taking strides towards peace as it would not be encumbered with ‘baggage from the past’. But, while she felt that there had been forward movement on the peace process, she did sound a note of warning: “Something is wrong with the whole political system. We have to find out what is wrong with it, the economic system, the social system, etc. We have to address it and find out what reforms are needed.”
Ms Deshpande is of illustrious political stock. Her father was a member of parliament and her mother was a minister. Both were active participants in the freedom struggle against British rule, and she described her childhood home as the ‘hub of social and political activity’. The holder of three honorary doctorates, Ms Deshpande did master’s in Political Science before taking up teaching for a year. Subsequently, she joined Gandhi disciple Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement and “started walking all over India” as she lightly described the 40,000-mile trek undertaken to persuade landowners to give a portion of their holdings to the landless. Today, she actively participates in several civil society movements and heads the Akhil Bharat Rachanatmak Samaj or the All India Constructive Association that is committed to bringing about social change.
Queried on how, as an outsider, she views the threat of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan, Ms Deshpande gave a cautious reply: “It is a hurdle in the peace process, in the progress of society. We also have fundamentalists in our country. All liberal forces have to join together to fight them. The common man is not with the fundamentalists in either country.”
Talking of the war on terror, she said, “when 9/11 happened, the Dalai Lama wrote a letter to the president of America that in Buddhist philosophy, we have a principle that every cause has an effect and every effect has a cause, so one has to see why this has happened. You have to find the root cause of all such problems. As followers of Mahatma Gandhi, we always try to address the root cause. Find out the cause and remove it and the effect will go.” She regretted that not enough was being done at the moment to address this.
Ms Deshpande is a firm proponent of the view that India is adhering to its non-partisan stance in this changing global order. She discounts arguments that India’s traditional non-aligned status is undergoing a transformation, especially with regard to the recent nuclear deal with the US. “I find a misconception here that India is moving towards the US and away from Russia. Nothing of the kind. India’s policy has been friendship with all, peace and non-alignment with power blocs. India has not deviated from its policy. This year is being celebrated as the India-China friendship year. We have been trying for good relations with every country, with America and of course with Pakistan.”
Equally, she gives no credence to the view that India, like many other developing countries that have been the recipients of Washington’s largesse, will from now on be under America’s thumb. “India can never come under pressure. Never. India has always withstood every pressure and, come what may, it can never follow the dictates of any country, no matter what government is in power. Because the policy of non-alignment has gone so deep, even an illiterate villager knows what is in India’s interest. So, India can never join any camp,” she concludes.