Yesterday was the veteran Sobho Gianchandani's 88th birthday. Sobho
ji, a lawyer and political leader based in Larkana, once described
himself as a 'three-headed monster' for the establishment being "a
Sindhi, a Hindu, and a Communist". He still addresses seminars and
other gatherings where he is invited - here's wishing him health and
happiness for years to come. Long may he remain an inspiration to
On a sad note, the tireless peacemaker Nirmala Didi passed away in
Delhi on May 1. Below, my tribute to her.
Shanti, Nirmala Didi!
By Beena Sarwar
DURING the World Social Forum in Mumbai, or Bombay as some of the
lefties still prefer to call it, Jan 17-21, 2004, a loudspeaker
announcement in Hindi was often heard over the din of the crowd, the
beating of drums and other assorted noises that formed the backdrop
of the event: "Will any Pakistanis at this forum kindly come to such-
and-such corner, Nirmala Didi wants to meet them."
Those who paid heed to this announcement and made their way through
the international throngs to the grassy tree-lined nook around the
corner from a line of stalls along the dusty path (including Kishwar
Naheed's Hawwa Associates with its embroidered kurtas) found Dr
Nirmala Deshpande seated there, her diminutive, smiling, bespectacled
sari-clad figure crowned by her short-cropped hair hennaed a cheerful
orange. Didi, as she was widely known, wanted to personally welcome
the Pakistani delegates, many of whom were visiting India for the
Her warmth and down-to-earth manner belied her position as one of
India's senior-most politicians and a twice-nominated member of the
Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament). Among the numerous voluntary
offices she held was that of chairperson of the India-Pakistan Forum
A record number of Pakistanis, some 600, had been granted visas for
the WSF. Although a fraction of the 5,000 originally envisaged they
still formed probably the largest ever Pakistani delegation to India.
As a bonus, they had 'non-police reporting' visas, allowing them to
skip the normal procedure that requires Indians and Pakistanis
visiting each other's countries to report to the police within 24
hours of arrival and departure. Since the closure of its consulate in
Karachi, the Indian Embassy in Islamabad has been the sole visa-
granting authority here, just as the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi is
the only visa-granting authority in India since the closure of the
Nirmala Didi had long fought against such restrictions. Her very
personal welcome to the Pakistani delegates at the WSF in 2004 was
just one of the many ways she struggled for peace between India and
Pakistan. She was involved in the largest people-to-people peace
initiative between the two countries, the Pakistan-India People's
Forum for Peace and Democracy launched in February 1995, besides
being a founding trustee of Women's Initiative for Peace in South
Asia (WIPSA) and active with South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR).
Many remembered her from her leading role in initiating the historic
Women's Peace Bus to Lahore from Delhi in March 2000, cutting through
the tension that marked the post-Kargil months since that
misadventure of 1999. The peace bus involved several women's groups
under the umbrella of the newly formed WIPSA. The women "proved more
eager for peace, less worried about government positions and
policies", as Didi's friend and colleague in the peace movement, Asma
Jahangir, commented at the time, having been on the phone with her
several times during the planning stages.
Tensions between India and Pakistan ran so high at the time that the
Pakistani side initially planned to quietly ferry the Indians from
the Wagah border to the historic Falettis Hotel where they would be
staying. The decision later to make a public event out of the arrival
in order to make a statement about the people's demands for peace was
a courageous one in that tense atmosphere.
Asma Jahangir led the welcome delegation that greeted the Indian
women on their arrival at Falettis with flower garlands and music.
They also exchanged bangles, traditionally seen as symbols of
weakness, subverting the negative connotations to positive by using
them as symbols of peace. The colourful reception got a fair amount
of media attention. Given how high the nationalistic fervour ran in
those days, not all of it was positive (some reporters called it 'un-
Islamic' and 'anti-Pakistan').
Always a visionary, in April 2008, Nirmala Deshpande had called for
setting up a South Asian Union on the lines of the European Union,
which she believed would lead to more peace in the region. "If the
countries in Europe which were fighting with one another on various
issues can come together to form a European Union with a common
currency, why can't we have a South Asian Union with a common
currency?" she asked.
As a long-time champion of workers' rights, Didi may have appreciated
the symbolism of passing away on Labour Day, May 1. She had not been
keeping well for the past few days and died in her sleep, aged 79,
depriving the peace lobby of one of its most vocal and influential
spokespersons. It says much for the wide acceptance she inspired that
she was also the recipient of some of India's highest awards, and a
nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Indian Vice President
Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and opposition leader
L.K. Advani were present at the mourning ceremony where they laid
wreaths and paid homage to this eminent Gandhian who had in her youth
taken a vow to remain single in order to devote her life to social
Nirmala Deshpande headed the Indo-Pak Soldiers' Initiative for Peace
(IPSI), an organisation she had helped form, leading a delegation to
Pakistan in 2001. The joint convention of IPSI's India and Pakistan
chapters will be held on May 10-12 in Mumbai this year as
scheduled "as Didi would have liked it that way," wrote IPSI general
secretary Virendra Sahai Verma in an email informing friends of her
passing away. She will also be sorely missed at the upcoming PIPFPD
convention scheduled later this month in Peshawar.
The writer is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker
currently based in Karachi. beena.sarwar@...