India: Nirmala Deshpande

Nirmala is a pioneer of peace work, especially in terms of mobilizing women and girls to engage in establishing pacifism-and the subcontinent is the net gainer.

— Nirmala Deshpande

Nirmala Deshpande (born 1929) is the face of Gandhianism in a world torn apart by strife and communal hatred. A pioneer of peace work, Nirmala has been especially successful in mobilizing women and girls, founding several organizations that function as platforms for people who believe in peace and nonviolence to come together. Also crucial are her numerous Track II initiatives to establish peace with Pakistan at a people-to-people level.

Nirmala Deshpande is the quiet face of Gandhianism in a world bloodied by strife and communal hatred. To the many people whose lives she has touched, Nirmala is known as didi (elder sister). Steadfast in her belief in Gandhianism, Nirmala joined the Bhoodan Yatra in 1952, walking more than 25,000 miles asking for gifts of land to distribute to landless peasants. To enshrine the spirit of the movement, she set up the Akhil Bharat Rachanatmak Samaj, which has thousands of dedicated activists committed to peace and nonviolence. Nirmala is a pioneer of peace work, especially in terms of mobilizing women and girls to engage in establishing pacifism. Her mass mobilizations in Punjab during the 1980s, and in the conflict-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir, are indicators. During the 2002 Gujarat riots, Nirmala and some friends formed various forums to fight communalism and help secular forces-the Sanjhi Virasat (a forum of writers and artists); the Adhyatma Jagaran Manch (with Swami Agnivesh and Reverend Valson Thampu, the collective voice of the opressed and the poor in India, to use spirituality to counter the misuse of religion); and the Peoples' Integration Council (to mobilize all sections of society for national integration and communal harmony). Nirmala has also been active in Track II initiatives to bring peace with Pakistan. She organized the Indo-Pak Amity Meet in Delhi in 1996, and a women's bus for peace from Delhi to Lahore. She also founded the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia. Her Indo-Pak Soldiers' Initiative for Peace in India, and its counterpart in Pakistan, is a strangely emotive initiative-those who fought each other in three wars were embracing one another and pledging to work for peace. It is not a sight that can leave any eyes dry on the subcontinent.

All-India Harijan Sevak Sangh (AIHSS) Akhil Bharat Rachanatmak Samaj (ABRS) National Centre for Rural Development (NCRD)