‘I do not want your charity. I only want a chance’. This was the slogan that Baba Amte gave to tens of thousands who were the most despised and shunned, even in a land that for centuries has exiled from hope and a chance, millions because of their caste, gender, faith and ethnicity. Reviled for an illness that broke away pieces of their limbs and faces, they were long oppressed even beyond the Dalits. Survivors of leprosy — a fully curable and among the least contagious of all aliments — confronted savage extreme prejudice because they were not allowed any work at all, and were rejected even by their families and loved ones. Their children were, until very recently, barred from schools, and they are still forced into sub-human ghettoes and a life made possible only by begging, by displaying their malformed limbs and unhealed wounds.
It is for these rejected and lonely people that Baba Amte fought to ensure what he was convinced that no human being should be denied: a chance. He took them into his arms and heart, and toiled with them shoulder to shoulder to convert acres of wasteland into one of the most productive tracts in the region.
My first encounter with Baba was when, as a young man, I took nearly four years off between college and employment, for my own ‘discovery of India’, visiting, living with and learning from rural projects for development and struggle. The one that most inspired me for a lifetime was Anandvan in Chandrapur district in Maharashtra. There I found hundreds of cured patients of leprosy, along with other disabled people, led by Baba Amte engaged in diligent work, on farms, looms and cottage workshops. There were schools and colleges where children of leprosy patients studied side by side with other rural and disabled children. There were experiments in low-cost housing and appropriate rural technologies. It was a place vibrant with lived love, with the dignity of work, and with hope.
It was fittingly called Anandvan, or the Forest of Joy. There are few like it anywhere in the world. It is fitting that Baba lived to see centuries of prejudice against leprosy substantially vanquished. It is fitting that he breathed his last among those he loved most, this community of 5,000 people who had been condemned to the margins and fought back: leprosy disabled, visually and physically impaired people and orphaned children.
For a lesser person, this would be much more than a lifetime of work and service. But not for Baba. Troubled by the growing fractures of caste, communalism and language and regional chauvinism, he led a campaign of youth called Bharat Jodo — Knit India. The call he gave young people was, ‘Never raise your hand in violence or for alms. Only raise your hand to build’. He travelled to far corners of India to inspire young people to rise above chauvinistic divisions, and to work together to rebuild a humane and inclusive India.
In the final chapter of his long and eventful life, he was moved by the plight of millions of people displaced by mega projects, and added his vast moral stature to the protests of the Narmada Bachao Andolan from the late 1980s. At an age when most people would have long retired — over 70 years old — he embraced a new battle against unjust development. In the highest Gandhian traditions, he fought by inflicting upon himself the greatest suffering. He took a vow to exile himself away from where his heart and loved ones lived, in Anandvan, to relocate himself to the banks of the Narmada river for around a decade. When he left the bereft residents of Anandvan, he declared, “I am leaving to live along the Narmada. Narmada will linger on the lips of the nation as a symbol of all struggles against social injustice.”
I met him many times during this period of exile. Unable to sit because of medical complications in his spine, his spirit still remained indomitable. He stood long hours in protest outside the offices of local officials of the state government, often in the scorching summer sun of the Narmada valley, painfully grasping his walking stick, stubbornly demanding justice for those who were being forcefully displaced by the mega dam. He alternately wept and roared at the continuing injustice. But such were the times that there were none to hear or heed him.
His supporters built for him a small hut in a village, Kasravad, on the banks of the Narmada, and he said he would live there and not even visit occasionally his life’s work in Anandvan until the dam was scrapped. We believed that his sacrifice would stir the conscience of the nation. It only stirred sporadic and trivial controversy. A day came when Baba’s hut in Kasrawad was also submerged under the reservoir of the dam. Baba returned empty-handed, with his brave and devoted wife and lifetime companion Sadhana Tai to Anandvan with profound sorrow and despair. But it was not Baba who was defeated in the end. It was all of us. There are few who truly inherited the mantle left by Gandhi. One true inheritor of Gandhi is Baba — courageous, passionate, uncompromising, compassionate, unable to bear injustice. One of India's tallest sons is no longer with us.
Our greatest tribute to him would be to give justice — and egalitarian compassion — a chance.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari.