Nirmala Desphande and the Death of Gandhianism

With Nirmala Deshpande in November 2002
With Nirmala Deshpande in November 2002

Nirmala Deshpande died yesterday; and she is being eulogized as a great Gandhian leader in the major newspapers and hailed by politicians across India. I strenuously demur.

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.


9 Responses to “Nirmala Desphande and the Death of Gandhianism”

  1. 1 smita 3 May 2008 at 11:48 am

    How come you didn’t put this under rants?

  2. 2 mbjesq 12 May 2008 at 6:53 am


    Are you saying that this puts the “bitch” in “obituary”? I thought it was rather dispassionately argued, especially considering the seriousness of the transgressions.

    I find it mildly interesting that none have risen to Didi’s defense in the comments here. She was revered within the Gandhian community and well-admired among many of my closest friends within the CharityFocus and Manav Sadhna communities. But there has been not so much as a peep — not even to chide me for offering a negative eulogy.


  3. 3 Nipun 7 August 2008 at 8:26 pm

    MBJ, I had “heard” of this write-up and am just now reading it. I would be one of those who would disagree your read of Didi. :)

    For example, to measure her legend with Hollywoodized metrics is a mistake. Surely, Munnabhai movie has reached a lot more of the sound-byte youth culture than Nirmala Deshpande ever did; but reach isn’t a sufficient condition for transformation. In fact, I’m not even sure if it is a necessary condition.

    During a spontaneous conversation once, she told me that she has NEVER purchased anything in her life. Millions of dollars can be spent on a global campaign for simplicity, but it would *pale* in comparison to the power of one person authentically making a statement like that. Post 9/11, when Musharraf was in power in Pakistan, fanciest of diplomats and the most popular peace activists wouldn’t have the authority or friendship to privately speak with him and tell him to be more non-violent. Nirmala-Didi did that. When Nirmala-Didi invites Dalai Lama for any event, he always comes not because she will attract millions or draw the global press the way a Congressional Award does but because he sees the deep-rooted power of her be-the-change capacity. It was that immeasurable strength, derived from the raw authenticity of her own life, that puts Nirmala-Didi in noble lineage of Gandhi.

    To anyone who says that nothing came out of the privilege bestowed on Nirmal-Didi, I would have to say: it’s time to upgrade your accounting system. :)

  4. 4 mbjesq 8 August 2008 at 11:03 am


    No life is entirely virtuous, or wholly irredeemable. If one digs deeply enough, one might even find scraps of merit in me, of all people. Didi’s accomplishments were real and properly celebrated. My point is that her failings were not only monstrous when aligned against her achievements; they were also, tragically, central to her life’s story and of deep significance to all who now despair over the eclipse of Gandhianism, which should have been the ideology that revolutionized the late twentieth century and laid the groundwork for a much different world than that we presently find ourselves.

    Not all failings are the product of venality. Sometimes people simply pass poor judgments and make flawed decisions. Sometimes we are just not smart enough to understand the choices before us. Indeed, I am fully prepared to believe that Didi’s misdemeanors stemmed from a weakness of head, not of heart. Still, they were grave. Historically significant people, like Didi, have opportunities to fuck-up that we ordinary folks will thankfully never know. This is a tremendous burden and perhaps an unfair one; but greatness is certainly the context in which Didi herself would have wished to have been judged.

    If not all shortcomings stem from evil, not all meritorious acts stem from pure motivations. For example, much of my aforementioned apparent-merit would certainly find little support on closer scrutiny. I do not have sufficient insight — and certainly no desire — to assert that Didi’s accomplishments were motivated by values less-selfless than the acts themselves would otherwise suggest. But the contrast between her successes and failings leads one to wonder about both sides of the equation.

    My “accounting system” totes up both the virtue and the vice. Your assessment, which places Didi within “the noble lineage of Gandhi,” is certainly accurate. For me, however, this sadly explains far too much about the reasons Gandhianism never established itself as a dominant ideology.

    I am grateful for your commentary, and have been waiting for someone who knew and appreciated Didi to tell the side of the story which I was bitterly reluctant to fully explicate. Both her contributions and damage to the arc of Gandhianism were momentous. In this way, her life is emblematic of the complexities of undertaking change-making work – with lessons and reminders for all of us. My intent had been to give a perspective I felt few had seen, and to which those who had seen turned a polite blind-eye. Notwithstanding the many flattering obituaries, it was important that someone who knew and loved Didi write a rejoinder, both because it is a valid and inspiring point of view and because the contrasts and contradictions in Didi’s life offer so much for us all to contemplate in our own lives. By filling in the picture, you help make these more personal lessons accessible.

    In the spirit of service,


  5. 5 smita 8 August 2008 at 4:44 pm

    What a fascinating discussion. I did not know Didi, so am not able to make any judgments about her successes and failures, but am intrigued by a point Nipun made:

    I have an elderly aunt (now 96) who was also greatly influenced by Gandhiji’s movement and has a strong belief in ahimsa. She loved to garden but would urge us to go and pull the weeds from her plot so she didn’t accrue the paap (sin) of killing them. I love and greatly admire her, but it always seemed dubious moral ground to instruct others to do something you consider morally repugnant, thereby imposing the “sin” on them while partaking of the benefits yourself.

    Perhaps Didi truly never handed over cash and received some material good or service in return. But had she never ridden in a car (purchased by someone, driven on purchased petrol) or ridden in an airplane in a “purchased” seat? Had she never taken pharmaceutical medications? Or received a gift that was purchased? Even an item as mundane as a pen must have been purchased by someone, somewhere (or did she use a quill? But then where did the ink come from?). Just because she was able to stand one step away from commerce, because she had enough supporters and helpers to do that work for her, does that really make her a better example than anyone else who lives simply with minimal material possessions?

    I had to ask :) but I really want to know.

  6. 6 viral 15 August 2008 at 7:56 am

    great discussion indeed — MBJ, i appreciate your amazing ability to look deeply into things and share your findings. of course, i don’t always relate to the magnitude of the criticism :-)

    lots i could write, but wanted to zoom in on smita’s reflection. agreed, that the example of the weeds is morally dubious ground. and your point about every material thing used having its own history is a good one. but i think the example nipun was citing (of nirmala deshpande, although i didn’t know this about her), has some distinguishing nuances:

    there is a courage that comes from not engaging commercially, because you have to be cool with whatever is given. now, if what is given is an airplane ticket, that is almost besides the point. when someone (anyone) has the pure volition of renunciation, that is the real example, and not the mere avoidance of the material world.

    my two cents — thanks for posing the question, and again, great discussion.

  7. 7 smita 15 August 2008 at 9:47 am

    Hi Viral,

    I had not looked at it from that angle! Thank you for drawing the distinction – your point is well taken. I totally agree that it may well be harder to live as part of the material world passively, without exercising one’s own choices, than in withdrawing from it completely.

    On the other hand, MBJ might argue that the vast majority of Indian women already live their lives that way….

    To echo what you said…great discussion! Thanks!

  8. 8 mbjesq 16 August 2008 at 2:32 am


    In the case of Nirmala Deshpande, I think thundering criticism is quite warranted, both because of the tremendous impact of her neglect and misdemeanors on the vitality of Gandhianism and because of the one-sidedness of the discussion on the occasion of her passing. This was a woman of incalculable historical significance as a direct disciple of both Gandhi-ji and Vinoba-ji. Yet, if historians were to review the testimonials and reflections written at the time of her death (or, for that matter, while she was still alive), they would get only the willfully suppressed, sugar-coated story of a woman who, in reality, was a deeply failed acolyte.

    I was privileged to have had a bit of access to Didi at various points over the years and, in the process, to have gotten a far less flattering view of her than that offered for public consumption. I think her suppression of Vinoba-ji’s memoranda and her gross mismanagement of the Harijan Sevak Sangh deserve particular consideration; yet I found them discussed nowhere in the media. I also think Didi’s passing offered a significant milestone from which to reflect on the tragic arc of Gandhianism since Gandhi-ji’s death, and to examine where responsibility for this remarkable failure might lay. Certainly there is fault enough to go around; but the blameworthiness of the immediate heirs to Gandhi-ji’s legacy, like Ms. Deshpande, seems irrefutable.

    Were my criticisms too harsh? I’d say they were ugly; but only because the true story of Ms. Deshpande’s life happens to have some extremely ugly chapters. I’d also say they were fair, objective, based on first-hand information, and presented with relative dispassion.

    What is to be gained by politely ignoring Ms. Deshpande’s astounding shortcomings? The avoidance of controversy may allow everyone a feel-good moment instead of forcing an awkward, difficult reappraisal. But, for me, the stakes are simply too high for this kind of milquetoast dishonesty. The world should not be allowed to turn a well-mannered blind eye to the chronically stuttering impotence of post-Gandhi-ji Gandhianism. Gandhi-ji’s political philosophy represents the once-and-future best-bet for creating a more peaceful world, and we owe it to ourselves to candidly assess what has gone wrong — and to fix it if we can.


  9. 9 mbjesq 17 August 2008 at 11:30 am


    I think there may be some significant distinctions between the unempowered relationship of traditionally constrained Indian women to material culture and the very empowered, if somewhat rudderless, willful passivity of the kind of renunciation Nipun and Viral are talking about.

    The problem I have with blindly celebrating Ms. Desphande’s renunciations — or going overboard in praise for much of her unambiguously good work, like her India- Pakistan peace initiatives — is that this is a woman whose bread was clearly buttered by playing the role of the good Gandhian. She knew it, and one might easily believe she milked it for all it was worth.

    The notion of passive renunciation fits neatly into this cynical view. To paraphrase your critique: it is all the calories with half the guilt.

    The discussion has veered from its original course in a way I want everyone to clearly understand. We are now looking at issues surrounding Ms. Deshpande’s moral character. Nipun says: she was a good person because she served others and was, in some sense, a renunciant. You make the point that we cannot necessarily infer moral purity from the complex dynamic of her situation. My critique, however, had little or nothing to do with judging her morality or inner-most motivations; I simply assessed the shocking nature of some of her actions and inactions, and their profound consequences for the Gandhian legacy she inherited.

    I didn’t know Didi well enough to either to condemn her as a fraud and poseur or to add my voice to her spiritual lionization. Certainly much of what I have seen and reported might lead one to question her motivations. Usually, the truth lies in the shades-of-gray. If I had to guess, I’d say that she was profoundly touched by the power and inspiration of the seminal figures to whom she was so close in the heady days of Independence and the Bhoodan Movement. I think she understood the power of selflessness and public service and chose that life with the highest of intentions. In my opinion, she was not intellectually gifted enough to fully exploit the opportunities given to her, and that most of her failings were those of the head, not of the heart. I also believe that, over time, she was seduced by the celebrity and comfort that came with being a high-profile acolyte of Gandhi-ji and Vinoba-ji, and that she became so entrenched in the role that it is impossible to say what her motivations were for any specific project or action. But this is all speculation.

    Serving without ego is certainly one of the greatest challenges known to humanity. I can’t sustain it; and I have know very few who could (two of whom, incidentally, are Viral and Nipun). Because of this, I really don’t attack Nirmala Deshpande for venality, but focus instead on her concrete, tangible failures as measured against her own purported objectives.


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