I first met Baba in the summer of 1978. I was in the twilight zone of a bright academic career and the promise of a comfortable professional life in the pharmaceutical industry. I had heard so much about the Shramadaan Shibir (voluntary service camp) conducted by Baba at his Somnath campus that I decided to attend it; little realizing that it would be the biggest turning point in my life. As we slogged in the scorching sun for full four hours daily, we initially cursed Baba and our own selves. We were dead tired and slept throughout the afternoon.
But in the evening sessions, Baba was both inspiring and unsparing. He hit out at our middle-class consciousness and reminded us that it is essential to "earn our bread by the sweat of our brow". He narrated tales, mostly from his life. He was a wonderful storyteller, his prose effortlessly merged with poetry. (Baba's anthology of Marathi poems is aptly titled as Jwala aNi Phule - Flames and Flowers.)
Baba Amte. Pic: Quest.
For full ten days, he talked with us, challenged us, and inspired us, through his words and deeds. Each building in Somnath was a product of hands that had no fingers. With so-called deformed bodies, they produced almost everything they needed and even created a surplus. The mental deformity of the middle class - its lack of sensitivity and self-indulgence - were more difficult to treat, Baba roared. By the end of ten days, we were transformed. A spirit of restlessness haunted us thereafter, for restlessness is the hallmark of youth, Baba told us. And Baba Amte is the most youthful person I have ever seen.
This way Baba charmed and transformed generations of youth and propelled them into social and political activism. For more than thirty years, young people in Maharashtra, after their encounter with Baba at Somnath shibir, embarked on the journey of activism, choosing their path, which varied, from Marxism-Leninism to Gandhism. Those who took to other modes of life, like Nana Patekar, too contributed to social causes in very many ways.
Baba really lived his life king size. At each stage in his life, he defied conventions and redefined his life. A zamindar by birth, he was already a successful lawyer while in his thirties and also the president of the Warora municipal town council in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. But being very sensitive he felt that practicing criminal law in our society (as he once told my young lawyer friend) was nothing but glamourised prostitution. And he had the guts to abandon the profession. This rare combination of sensitivity and courage made him try out for himself what manual scavenging meant (he was torn between the conflicting roles of President of Municipal Council and the Chairman of the Sweepers Union).
It was on one such occasion, on a terrible rainy day, that he came face to face with the vision that defined his life for the next several decades. --- a leprosy patient lying by the night soil, who, in Baba's own words, had neither the feet to stand on his own, nor the hands to seek the grace of the almighty. He brought him home, ran from post to pillar for seeking medical help and mental support for the leprosy afflicted.
But the society had no space for the ultimate outcaste and the mad man who wanted to be with them. So, it generously handed over a plot of thick jungle, inhibited by wild animals, snakes and scorpions to Baba. And Baba, with his committed army converted it into one of the best role models of self-reliance and constructive work. Anandvan, the rehabilitation colony for all those rejected by society, is a sure cure for depression and cynicism. Its simplicity, tranquility, sense of purpose and the aesthetic sense leave a lifelong imprint on the minds of visitors.
Baba was a true romantic and his faith in love was boundless. That's why at the height of Khalistan movement, when all others worked on tough security prescriptions, Baba undertook a 'Knit India' march to Punjab to open channels of dialogue and assuage the feelings of hurt and distrust. "Where there is love, there is no fear and where there is fear, there is no love" was his motto. So, he had no second thoughts about taking with him his wife and young kids to live with the leprosy patients. Often those who love humanity forget to love their near and dear ones.
He romanced with nature and cultivated special varieties of roses that would not hurt the leprosy-afflicted inmates of his Ashram. His longing for beauty made him a close friend of artists like Pandit Kumar Gndharva and P L Deshpande. The yearly Mitra Melava - (Gathering of Friends) organized by Baba was attended by renowned personalities from literature and art and it became an important cultural happening in Maharashtra.
Baba always dreamt big; but he was no megalomaniac. That's why he opposed large dams and supported smaller water-conservation initiatives and irrigation technologies, which were within the control of common people. He put all his reputation at stake while opposing destructive development and succeeded in stalling Bhopalpattanam and Inchampalli projects. His commitment to Narmada Bachao Andolan is too well-known, but the fact that he even returned Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan in protest against the continued violation of human rights of those displaced by Sardar Sarovar dam is often forgotten.
We live in an era where great men are reduced to a lowest common denominator, politically convenient to the elite rulers. No wonder the media wants us to remember Baba only as the 'saviour of the lepers'. Society needs such Babas who can take care of problems it is uncomfortable with. But, let's not also forget Baba Amte who at the historic Narmada rally at Ferkuwa gracefully responded to the humiliations and insults from Sardar Sarovar supporters by appeals for justice and humanity.
I was witness to another occasion when Baba was extremely sad and isolated. The post-Babri riots in Mumbai were yet to subside and Baba was in town for a major surgery. From his hospital bed, he issued an impassioned appeal for peace and brotherhood. But the response of the media was lukewarm, that of the educated Hindus was cold. There was hardly anybody around when our small group visited him. Even as he tried to assure and comfort my Muslim colleague, devastated by the riots, the unmistakable pain in his eyes could not be forgotten.
For decades he endured tremendous physical pain from several debilitating ailments and also mental agonies. His last years were like those of the legendary Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows. But, unlike Bhishma (and several great people of our times), Baba dared to take a stand and staked his reputation for it. That he chose to side with the most oppressed and for sustainable development makes all the difference. (Quest Features & Footage, Kochi)