Self-confessed Maoist sympathiser Nirmala Deshpande no more

New Delhi, May 1:

The last time Nirmala Deshpande was in the eye of a media buzz was when her name did the rounds for the highest post of the land. She finally lost out to Pratibha Patil. But this day when she is no more, friends and colleagues remember the tiny woman who often sent sparks flying within and outside the establishment with her gutsy and somewhat controversial remarks.

A Gandhian to the core, 79-year-old Deshpande declared herself a “friend” of Maoists in a media interview two months ago. That was when home ministry officials were frequently disappearing into huddles, trying to thrash out the best strategy for hemming in Maoists, who were making deadly forays deep in the countryside.

But the Nagpur-born Deshpande did not bother about the timing of her remark. Neither did she cringe from saying that the Maoist victory in neighbouring Nepal left her “impressed”.

It was an odd cocktail - belief in non-violence and empathy for a political movement that swore by violence and armed insurrection. But Deshpande walked that thin line without fear or embarrassment.

It was like she did not perceive an oddity in being flanked by Mahatma Gandhi on one side and Mao Zedong on the other. “I am a friend of the Naxalites,” Deshpande said, stunning even some of her friends who could barely trust their ears with that comment coming from a woman who had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1952, Deshpande walked with Vinoba Bhave when he launched his ‘Bhoodan’ (land distribution) movement. It was then that she saw up close the wretchedness of the landless.

In Deshpande’s own words, the Naxalites, she said, were “fighting for the rights of these people”.

Walking through the corridors of power after she was elected a Rajya Sabha member made her an eyewitness to the wheels of power that keep the state and the government machinery churning. Like many Gandhians, Deshpande at times agonised over the steady attrition of Gandhian values. But unlike many others who professed the Gandhian creed, Deshpande did not let go. She worked on many fronts - from dealing with the loopholes in the Right To Information Act to campaigning for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.