"Every once in a blue moon, is born a person, who has the clarity of vision, and the greatness of deed, to make us all recognize the dizzying heights the human spirit can really achieve, Baba Amte is one of those people."- Neesha Mirchandani
Murlidhar Devdas Amte was born on December 26, 1914 in Hinganghat, Wardha district in Maharashtra, state of India. As the eldest son of a wealthy Brahmin landowner, Murlidhar had an idyllic childhood. Murlidhar was amongst the affluent and lucky few of those days and hence received a wholesome education. He found himself born into a family where the father’s conservative notions about social class and status were strictly enforced. By the time he was fourteen, Murlidhar owned his own gun and hunted boar and deer. He developed a special interest in cinema, wrote reviews for the film magazine The Picture Goer and even corresponded with Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. When he was old enough to drive, Murlidhar was given a Singer sports car with cushions covered with panther skin! But even then, Amte did not appreciate the restrictions that prevented him from playing with the 'low-caste' servants' children.
"There is a certain callousness in families like mine." Baba says. "They put up strong barriers so as not to see the misery in the world outside and I rebelled against it."
Laxmibai, his mother was the only one who dared to question such rigidities of traditions in the Amte household. From early childhood, the boy was a puzzle to his father, a stern and distant man and a dutiful government official, for Murlidhar was consistently and congenitally irreverent. As a schoolboy in a red blazer, he was often seen with a can of worms and a fishing rod, a good Brahmin was not supposed to take life. At 14 he slipped away from home to learn hunting from the Madia Gonds, the tribes deep in the Gadchiroli forests. Endowed with traits of curiosity and questioning, of rebelling against rigid, meaningless norms, Murlidhar appeared distinct from the rest of the brood. Unfortunately even when Murlidhar was young, as a result of some domestic conflict, which much exceeded her endurance limit, Laxmibai felt prey to acute psychosis. Her mental illness, however, never mitigated the son’s admiration for the mother.
“She was an uneducated artist and did go mad. But she helped me keep myself sane in an insane world” recalls Baba.
During the college holidays, Baba traveled all over India. He visited Shantiniketan, initially attracted by Rabindranath Tagore's music and poetry. Shantiniketan, located amid lush natural beauty, was a microcosm of Tagore's ideal world - here was a community united in joy, work and love. Baba came away deeply touched and somehow altered for life. Closer to home, at Sewagram (Gandhiji's ashram) near Wardha, Baba was equally fascinated with Gandhi's relationship with God. Through Gandhi, Baba saw that:
God is that indefinable something, which we all feel but which, we do not know. To me, God is truth and love, God is ethics and morality, and God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life, and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience.
Simultaneously, he was deeply impressed by what he saw as Gandhi's scientific attitude to life. For Bapu's ideals were never some personal fetish but the rational basis for finding solutions to the problems of life. He felt closer to the worldview of John Ruskin and Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, which emphasized the empowerment of the community with greater freedom from the state.
When Baba was in high school, his father retired from government service and moved house to Dharampeth – a posh area of a larger town Nagpur. There he joined the Morris and Hislop College. After gaining a B.A. degree, he studied at a government law school, graduating with a law degree in 1936. He would have preferred to have studied medicine but yielded to his father’s wishes and entered legal profession. Amte built up a lucrative practice as an advocate in Warora. On weekends, he looked into affairs at the family's farm of 450 acres, at Goraja near Warora. A restless, dissatisfied, disturbed mind in search for raison d’etre of life roused in him a wanderlust. At times he often wandered into the nearby jungles and villages.
“That microscopic look at the village life taught me to hear the heartbeat of reality”, he recalls.
He was appalled by the poverty, hunger, disease and deprivation that he witnessed all around. Learning of the plight of the downtrodden he also gained an overwhelming sense of potentialities latent in the most humble and afflicted human being. This faith in humanity has been one of the main springs of life and one of the principle reason for his success in bringing out the best in patients, workers, outcast and even those rejected by their own people. By now Murlidhar Amte has become a recognized lawyer, on weekends; he looked into affairs at the family's farm of 450 acres, at Goraja near Warora. Soon he was organizing farmers' cooperatives and was eventually elected vice-president of the Warora municipality. But the money, prestige and comfort were not making Baba happy. Instead, he became restless. This surely could not be the purpose of life, he thought. At times, his legal practice forced him even to be dishonest. This bothered him still more. He discovered that many clients expected him to lie for them:
A client would admit that he had committed rape and I was expected to obtain an acquittal. Worse still, when I succeeded, I was expected to attend the celebration party.
So Baba set about changing what he could. Harijans (also known as untouchables) on his family's lands had always walked a long distance to collect water because the village well was forbidden to them. Baba defied the bitter opposition of the upper-caste villagers and opened up the well to all people. During the Quit India movement, in 1942, he organized lawyers to take up the defense of the jailed leaders and he was thrown into prison. Soon Baba lost all interest in the law practice. More and more he admired the 'richness of heart of the poor people' and despised 'the poverty of heart of the rich'. It was the 'common man', he decided, who was really uncommon. Perhaps, one-way of ensuring a full life was to become one with the poor and oppressed. Baba let his hair and fingernails grow and spread the word that he had taken a vow of celibacy.
While attending the wedding of a distant relative, Baba met Indu Ghuleshastri. She belonged to a conservative Brahmin family of Sanskrit scholars. Her innocence and humane heart won his admiration and love. Having successfully made himself seem ineligible, Baba now had to work hard to persuade Indu's parents that he was indeed a suitable groom. Eventually, Baba and Indu were married in December 1946, and together they launched on an arduous joint adventure. In marrying Baba, Indu, who was re-christened sadhana, knew that she was marrying a man who lived an unconventional life and did not adhere to the codes of conduct practiced by the Brahmin caste. On their wedding day Baba renounced his property and gave up his legal practice.
In doing this he left behind his family, virtually forfeiting all claims on their support and his large inheritance. The couple began by setting up a shram ashram near Warora. About the same time, Sane Guruji was leading a campaign for Harijans to gain entry into the temple of Vithobha at Pandharpur. A few months after Murlidhar and Indu's wedding, in 1947, Sane Guruji began a fast-unto-death at Pandharpur and succeeded in gaining temple entry for the Harijans. Sane Guruji's example gave a deeper meaning to compassion in Baba's life. For the rest of his life, Baba carried in his heart this verse of Sane Guruji:
Through my tears I shall reach my ideal;in my tears rests the power to crush steel and stone.My tears are my God.Never deprive me of my tearsLet my eyelids never get dry.
Through my tears I shall reach my ideal;in my tears rests the power to crush steel and stone.My tears are my God.Never deprive me of my tearsLet my eyelids never get dry.
Soon there was a poor Brahmin family that knew something about agriculture, one shoemaker, one umbrella repairer and some Harijan families at Baba and Indu's shram ashram. Together this unusual community cultivated a small patch of land and shared a common kitchen. Baba and his wife were now considered outcastes themselves. So Indu could not count on her mother's help, when she was due to deliver her first child. Nor could she expect her mother to come and share a house with 'low-castes'.Meanwhile Baba's involvement in various organizations deepened. Now, he was vice-chairman of the Warora municipality and chairman of the scavengers union. For nine months he worked as a scavenger, carrying baskets filled with excreta on his head.
The turning point in his life came one rainy evening, as Baba headed home. A huddled figure lay on the roadside. At first it seemed like a bundle of rags. But then he noticed some movement. Baba looked closer and recoiled instantly. Lying before him was a man in the last stages of leprosy. The dying man had no fingers. Maggots crawled over his naked body. Horrified by this sight, terrified of infection, Baba ran home. But he could not run away from the self-loathing, which began to hound him. How could he have left a lonely forsaken man to lie there in the rain? So he forced himself to return and feed the man. He also put up a bamboo shed to protect him against the rain. That man, Tulshiram, died in Baba's care and irrevocably changed young Amte's life. Baba had always thought of himself as being fearless and daring. The encounter with Tulshiram shattered this self-image. For the next six months Baba lived with the unrelenting agony of this crisis. There seemed to be only one answer, one lone way of overcoming this problem. He must live and work with leprosy patients:
"That is why I took up leprosy work. Not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear."
Thus Baba, and Sadhana, set out on the path that is now history. He began by reading intensively about leprosy and offering his services at the Warora leprosy clinic. Soon, he was running his own clinic. In 1949, he went to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine to learn more about leprosy. By the time Baba returned home the discovery of diamino-diphenyl-sulphone had made leprosy curable. With this wonder drug in hand, Baba began treating leprosy patients in sixty villages around Warora. Soon there were eleven weekly clinics within a radius of about fifty kilometers from Warora, with a total of about 4,000 patients. But stemming the disease did not make the afflicted whole again. And receiving charity is not particularly conducive to enhancing self-respect. Amte was fully aware that merely arresting the progress of the disease was not enough. Leprosy not only harms the body but also inflicts deep wounds on the mind. It destroys the personality. Traditionally, leprosy patients are excluded from society and even from their own family. With their face disfigured, crippled hands and feet, they are shunned by all. Even if the disease is arrested, and they are no longer infectious, it makes little difference. The stigma and the fear of society make it impossible for them to live as productive members. Thus self-respect is destroyed and this hurts more than losing fingers or toes.
In 1951, the government gave Baba some barren land for his leprosy project. The land was rocky, covered with scrubs and infested with scorpions and snakes. In June 1951, with a lame cow and a dog, and fourteen rupees, accompanied by his wife, Sadhana Tai and two infant sons, Vikas and Prakash, and a handful of patients, they called this place Anandwan the Forest of Joy. Baba worked and the leprosy patients worked shoulder to shoulder with him. Self-trained and self-taught, they converted rocky barren land into lush green fields. Life in the early days was very hard. They were extremely short of money. Somehow they survived. So they started growing not only vegetables but also prepared fields for growing millets, bajri and jowar (grains). Within three years, the Amte family and a community of sixty patients had dug six wells and cleared enough land to have a substantial harvest of grains and vegetables. Gradually, the scale and facilities of Anandwan grew. Once the leprosy-affected persons were fit enough to leave the hospital they ceased to be 'patients'. They became working members of the community, busy in the fields or workshops where a variety of products were being manufactured. This made Anandwan a virtually self-sufficient 'village'. Most of the erstwhile patients, having learnt a skill, returned to the world outside, self-reliant and capable of earning their own living. Eventually they added at Anandwan a College of Agriculture, a primary school for blind children, a school for deaf and dumb children and an orphanage. These multi-dimensional efforts won Anandwan a string of national and international awards, which brought it both fame and funds.
Baba lay motionless on the cot staring hard at the ceiling, his jaw tightly clenched. He felt as though he were lying in a coffin, awaiting burial. On one end of the bed was a contraption that kept his spine in traction for twelve hours every day. Murlidhar Devdas 'Baba' Amte was only fifty. The doctors diagnosed the agonizing pain in his back as a case of severe cervical spondylosis, which was causing a progressive degeneration of the spine. In 1971, friends collected money and sent Baba to London for a major operation on his spine. This kept him in bed for much of 1971 and 1972. His agony was compounded by the need for another operation, performed in Mumbai some years later. These operations allowed Baba to live but left him with a permanent handicap. He would never be able to sit again. He could either lie down or stand, but only for limited periods.
Baba Amte's success in building Anandwan had a two-fold impact on his mind. It increased his desire to lead India's suffering millions to a resolute effort at self-development and it strengthened his conviction that this could be done by rousing the impoverished masses to a creative awareness.
Baba now asked himself: 'If we could build up a happy community under the most difficult circumstances, why cannot healthy people do the same under much more favorable circumstances? Why can the youth of India not do the same?' For all the vehemence with which he posed this question, Baba somehow remained free of bitterness. Closely observing developments in Russia and China, Baba concluded that a true revolution would make people aware of their own capabilities. It would propel them to practical action:
I believe that political awareness without constructive work is impotent, and that constructive work without political awareness is equally sterile. If you must put a label to what guides my action, it would be 'creative humanism'.
He began by focusing his attention on a plan for a Workers' University. He envisioned students studying for a degree and simultaneously undergoing training for learning some practical skill. This plan gained support from the Planning Commission and thus 2,000 acres of barren land at Somnath, about a hundred kilometers south of Anandwan, was given to Baba for starting this work. In this case, however, there was vigorous opposition by the local people. Eventually, much of the land had to be relinquished and the plan for a Workers' University was abandoned. The remaining land at Somnath was developed as a center for annual youth camps. It became the starting point for a wide range of social and political activists who went on to identify with different political activists ideological streams from the Gandhian to the Marxist-Leninist. When Baba reached his 'late youth', many of these activists, then middle-aged themselves would enliven his world by their endeavors in different fields. The work at Somnath also led, in the mid-80s, to the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan. This campaign took Baba and teams of young people on a cross-country journey to appeal for communal harmony and peaceful solutions to regional disputes.
Hemalkasa was the place that truly shaped the politics of Baba's 'late youth'. It was also his most daring act of velour, defying his physical pain. In 1973, barely a year after he had undergone surgery for his back problem, Baba pitched a tent at Hemalkasa, a place deep in the forests about 350 kilometers south of Nagpur. In 1974, Baba and Tai's younger son, Prakash, graduated from medical college and came to work in Hemalkasa. Soon Prakash and his wife Mandakini, who had been a fellow-student, decided to settle there permanently. Like the senior Amtes, this couple faced many years of struggle with severe hardships, shortages of food, medicine and susceptibility to many diseases.Gradually, the hardships decreased and a community of workers came together based on a shared bond with the local people, the wild animals and the abundant fauna and flora. This community includes Renuka, whom Baba and Tai had adopted as an infant, and her husband Vilas Manohar.
“The time has come to leave Anandwan, the place where I entered into the world of joy, and the place that symbolizes the very meaning of my existence. I am leaving to live along the Narmada ... to attain a peace that all mankind desires. The struggle for a New India is taking place in the Narmada valley. Today the Narmada valley has become the arena for a new imagination and creativity, for a society in which there must be sufficiency for all before there is superfluity for some.”
On March 1990 the sun was setting in a bright orange splash over the river waters below, as Baba's van reached the center of the bridge. Suddenly the tractors swerved sideways and came to a halt, blocking the road. The NBA now informed the accompanying policemen that they intended to block this bridge, and thus the Mumbai-Agra highway, till their demand for a review of the Sardar Sarovar Project was heard. For the next thirty hours hundreds of people from different parts of the Narmada valley made the bridge their home. The specially fitted van, which had earlier carried Baba to the corners of India on the Knit India March, now became the nerve center of this protest action. Before him, on the barren sandy slope, was a two-room cement and brick structure-which the local villagers had constructed for him. For a flash, time seemed to melt away. He seemed to be back at the beginning when he had first stood staring at the scrubland near Warora. Baba retreated into his van, away from the anguish of this inhospitable site. Already he missed Anandwan, his home for forty years. Then, slowly the river, Rewa Maiya, began to work her magic on him. Baba's involvement with the issue of mega-dams had been growing through the 1980s. In the summer of 1988 the Anandwan community hosted a meeting of over a hundred environmental activists from all over India on this issue. The 'Assertion of Collective Will Against Big Dams', also called the 'Anandwan Declaration', became a landmark in the emerging movement against big dams. Accompanied by Tai and helpers from his old home Baba planted carefully selected trees and bushes all around the two-room house. Soon a makeshift shed was added on the east side of the house, expanding the space to accommodate the inevitable stream of guests. But in the first year Baba was often on the road as activities of the NBA reached a peak.
“Consider the honeybee. Its treasure is nectar, obtained even from the chilly plant. It is not at the cost of the flower. In fact, its act of extracting honey contributes to the progress of the flowers. You need not learn from Kahlil Gibran, Marx or Gorbachev, not even from Gandhiji. Choose instead to learn your lesson from the honey bees as your silent partners: they will show you how to develop without destroying."
-Baba Amte on community Living.
For a man who once speeded in fancy cars, wrote film reviews for The Picture Goer, corresponded with Hollywood icons like Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, Baba Amte has come a long, long way since that rainy night in Warora. The sight of Tulshiram, a maggot-eaten leper, changed his life forever. In June 1951, with a lame cow and a dog, and fourteen rupees, accompanied by his wife, Sadhana Tai and two infant sons, Vikas and Prakash, and a handful of patients, they moved to this place Anandwan the Forest of Joy. Baba's legacy has lived on through the tireless work of his two amazing sons and their wives, who in their own ways have contributed significantly to furthering Baba's vision. Dr. Vikas Amte runs Maharogi Sewa Samiti and coordinates operations between Anandwan and satellite projects; his wife Dr. Bharati Amte runs a hospital at Anandwan and his brother Dr. Prakash Amte and his wife Dr. Manda Amte run the school and hospital at Hemalkasa.
Due to his health, Baba has returned from the Narmada valley to his home in Anandwan but he continues to serve as a source of inspiration to others in the anti-big dam movement, not only in the Narmada valley, but also around the world.
The books give a story of a person who is very much real and exist among us. It is easy to ignore and forget some truly great men because they do not court publicity. They are too absorbed in their service to attract attention with media. Many of them still become icon with their selfless service in the life of living societies. Baba Amte is one of them.
"The new leadership in India is taking shape quietly, without any drum beating through the newspapers. ... Various centers, the centers of energy and strength in the life of society are gaining tremendous momentum. May be, the surging new generation of today appears to have lost it’s bearing, to have lost its soul. But it is absolutely certain that one day it will have its own leader and prophet.... I am absolutely confident that the phoenix of a new leadership is rising from the ashes of all its failure. Soon the world will witness the lightning hidden in its beak and the storm hidden in its wings."- Baba Amte
"I sought my soul, my soul I could not see,I sought my God, my God elude me,I sought my brother, and I found all the three." - Anonymous