With Nirmala Deshpande in November 2002
There is no question that Didi – as she insisted on being called, effectively mandating a gesture of affection from others – lived a fascinating life. She had the good fortune and great privilege to be the personal secretary to the great Vinoba Bhave-ji, from shortly after of the commencement of the Bhoodan Land Reform Movement until the time of his death. She used this impressive association throughout the rest of her life to establish her own celebrity and, ultimately, to garner a seat in the Rajya Sabha of Parliament and the nation’s second highest award, Padma Vibushan.
I do not mean to imply that Didi’s self-promotion was not used without broader social benefit. She lent her efforts to a successful, people-to-people India-Pakistan peace program and spoke effectively to quell violent flare-ups in Jammu and Kashmir. She wrote several well-regarded novels, which incorporate Gandhian themes, and a biography of Vinoba-ji. (I confess to not having read them.)
Didi was probably at her best with small audiences, telling stories about Vinoba-ji and her participation in the 40,000 km Bhoodan Movement padytra across India. She was able to convey the spirit of the time in thrilling detail – history from the mouth of one who witnessed it and participated in its making. If her retelling of the story was slightly varnished and naive – crediting only Vinoba-ji’s undisputed brilliance and charisma, her version of events invariably omitted mention of the fear of communism which often lubricated the landowners’ willingness to part with some of their property – it was also captivating and credible in its simplicity and authenticity.
To my mind, however, Didi’s life was emblematic not of the successes of Gandhi-ji’s immediate disciples, but of their tragic failures. In “six decades of service,” Didi compiled remarkably few achievements, particular given the opportunity and leverage accorded by her fame. She never struck me as intellectually gifted or creative; but these shortcomings could easily have been overcome with a modicum of effort and passion. The fact is that she, and others of her generation who were close participants in the events of the Independence and Land Reform Movements, have been negligent and ineffectual custodians of Gandhi-ji’s legacy, which has essentially evaporated in the sixty years since Independence. It is a sad, but indisputable fact that Sanjay Dutt’s simplistic, cartoonish Munnabhai character has done more to popularize Gandhianism among the children, youth, and middle-aged of India than Didi ever did.
Didi’s negligence in keeping alive the vision of Gandhi-ji and Vinoba-ji, however, was far more extensive and palpably culpable than the mere lack of inspirational, effective teaching for which she and her aging Gandhian colleagues can be properly faulted. For example, she was the President of the Harijan Sevak Sangh, the organization founded by Gandhi-ji in 1946, and head of the trust responsible for the preservation of the Harijan Sevak Sangh Ashram, where Gandhi-ji spend his time while in Delhi. The HSS, which solicits funding from both Indian and Foreign sources, has been accused of financial mismanagement and impropriety and the ashram grounds have been allowed to fall into unspeakable dilapidation and encroachment from neighboring buildings. The limited school activities which still occur on the land for Harijan children are an embarrassment, and other schools run by the HSS under Didi’s stewardship have been judged so poor as to cause the Government to withdraw public support.
One of the most pathetic structures at the Delhi ashram is the library, in which books and paper lay rotting and unprotected. In July of 2007, it was publicly revealed that hundreds or thousands of Gandhi-ji’s books and private papers, which had been housed at the Delhi ashram library, had been given away indiscriminately and without record, or simply had been allowed to be taken. After witnessing the carelessness with which the archives were being treated in February of 2006, I personally raised the question with Didi, which she dismissed. “There isn’t much of value there,” she said.
If her custodianship of Gandhi-ji’s library was shockingly irresponsible, Didi’s disregard for the legacy of Vinoba-ji is, perhaps, even more appalling. Few people know that Didi had kept scores of volumes of notebooks, containing all the dictation she took from Vinoba-ji as his personal secretary, until the time of his death in 1982. A close friend of mine implored Didi to make these documents available to the public, but she declined. She explained that the notebooks would be useless, since the notation involved a combination of script and invented symbols which only she could decipher. He offered to set up an audio recoding system, so that she could preserve these invaluable historical documents for future scholarship, simply by reading them aloud. She refused. When I made my own appeal for her to record the contents of her notebooks, I stressed the historical importance of original documentation, reminding her that Vinoba-ji’s land reform movement represented the largest peaceful redistribution of wealth in human experience. She casually brushed aside the suggestion, stating, “There has already been enough written about Vinoba-ji and the land reform movement.”
Didi’s passing is, indeed, a major milestone. Her life should remind us of the extremely modest successes and tremendous failings of a generation of Gandhian leaders who presided over the eclipse of Gandhianism as a significant social and political movement in India. Didi’s death does not represent the passing of Gandhianism nearly so much as her life did.