Baba Amte was the quintessential experimenter who sought to nimble-footedly learn from doing, every day reinventing, restlessly seeking out that which worked
Baba Amte would have entered his 100th year tomorrow. I have really struggled to write this tribute. Often this owes to one’s closeness to the person. This is not my excuse. Yes, in many ways, Baba played a decisive role in the course my life has taken. He gave the organisation ten of us cofounded in 1990 its name — Samaj Pragati Sahayog. He shaped our thinking and became an inspiring example of how a joyous, energetic, positive life may be lived in a world of injustice, impermanence and sorrow.
But the difficulty I have had in writing about Baba has been in trying to formulate his worldview. For Baba’s life and work itself embodies the paradigm he believed in. He would never be bothered to formulate it in the usual linear terms of the world of the intellect, he was too much of a poet for that, he was too much of a karma yogi for that. He would be happy to act and leave his actions to speak for themselves, which is not to say he did not have a way with words. He was in fact a real craftsman of the literary and his poetry, especially in Marathi, was brilliant. But his was the way of aphorisms, riddles and koans, rather than linear prose.
Baba was not a systems builder à la Gandhi. He defied categorisation. He abhorred the tyranny of systems and believed, rather, in the fullness of immediate action, so that, in the words of Longfellow, one could at the end of the day, sing like the village blacksmith, “something attempted, something done, has earned a night’s repose.” This living in the present and responding wholeheartedly to all that was around him was his deeply held Buddhist belief. His humility was not an affectation but spiritually grounded. He would, therefore, never claim to propose final answers to all the problems of humanity. He was no messiah of a new dawn.
Baba wanted us to understand the rhythms of the natural world and then to weave our interventions into the contours of Nature. He was fiercely critical of the dominant paradigms of the 20th century that aspired for complete control over Nature. He stood rather for harnessing the bounty that Nature offered but in ways that were sustainable. It is in this spirit that he articulated an alternative vision for the Narmada valley. He wanted rivers to flow — the poet in him celebrated the wild joy of a river swirling in full spate.
But at the same time, he was not a fundamentalist and abhorred all forms of fundamentalism. This was one of the grounds for his break from formal Gandhism. He was the quintessential experimenter who sought to nimble-footedly learn from doing, every day reinventing, restlessly seeking out that which worked. He had an evergreen sense of wonder that is to be found either in children or in the greatest of scientists. His eyes firmly set on the goal, he would, like a true yogi, move forward with perfect concentration and determination, to seek out the means, best aligned with what he was trying to achieve. He was a seeker of solutions, always moving forward, not one who would paralyse you with lofty, dogmatic idealism. To those with extreme views on agriculture, he would jokingly remark, “natural farming will die a natural death.” To every problem he sought practical, doable solutions, always willing to engage in a dialogue with those opposed to his view, to hammer out a workable compromise. He tried valiantly to find such a resolution to the Narmada conflict but sadly failed. This had to do with the dogmatism of the opposition but also the recalcitrance of his colleagues, who would brook no middle path whatsoever. Such failures did not break his spirit, however. What mattered was the in-itself of the action, which he would relentlessly pursue; the rest he left to the functioning of the cosmic order.
Even as Baba stood for a life of great simplicity, in his case this was never a life-denying, killjoy kind of austerity. His was the austerity of the earth, where simplicity and frugality were themselves a source of soul-enriching joy. He was a spartan who expressed delight and fulfilment in its earthiness. He was the elemental Gandhian. His irrepressible humour and infectious laughter would light up every meeting. Like the Buddha, he believed in giving direction to the fire within, not in extinguishing it. A passionate yogi of the world, he named the community he founded 65 years ago: Anandwan, meaning “a forest of joy.”
Anandwan is the largest community of differently-abled people in the world. Instead of doing charity, it seeks to affirm the dignity and self-respect of each of its inhabitants, who together build the institution. Once people are cured of their affliction, they work and craft a range of products. A wide range of products are produced by the community, both for self-consumption and for sale, earning revenues for Anandwan.
Anandwan is a community deeply rooted in compassion. The spirit animating the work is an uncontrollable outpouring of love for all, without discrimination. Indeed, the outreach would always be to those whom society had been unfair to – those afflicted with leprosy, protecting them from those who were mentally afflicted by it and the development refugees, which included Adivasi communities, as also the creatures of the wild, who Baba had a special love for, ever since he had come to live with them, when he set up Anandwan. And for each of the marginalised, his aim was integration and unity, but unity that respected their distinctiveness. Baba’s was a celebration of diversity, in his quest for its unifying principles. He would respect people with whom he had profound differences, which is perhaps why he boasted of having friends from extreme ends of the ideological spectrum.
Courage as soul’s liberation
Baba Amte’s life was a struggle to answer the profound questions of the human quest: what is it that makes one’s journey on earth acquire authenticity? Perhaps the answer was: a life of courage — the courage that he summoned from the deepest recesses of his being, one rainy evening, as he returned home after a hard day’s labour, as a manual scavenger. He came across a figure lying on the roadside, which at first seemed like a bundle of rags. Shockingly, he realised that it was a human being, still alive. As he recounted to me: “A man in the ultimate stages of leprosy. A rotting mass of human flesh with two holes in place of a nose, without a trace of fingers or toes, with worms and sores where there should have been eyes.”
Horrified at the sight, terrified of infection, he ran from the place. But he could not run away from the self-loathing that followed. How could he have left a lonely, forsaken man to lie alone in the rain? He forced himself to return, put up a bamboo awning to shield the man from the rain, gave him food and looked after him. The man died in his arms. That man, Tulshiram, irrevocably changed Baba Amte’s life. The encounter with Tulshiram shattered his self-image as fearless and daring.
For the next six months he lived with the unrelenting agony of this crisis. He was certain “where there is fear, there is no love; where there is no love, there is no God.” So what should he do? There seemed only one answer. He must live and work with the leprosy afflicted.
“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 is a by-product. But the fact is that I did it to overcome fear.”
(Mihir Shah is a grassroots activist who has lived and worked in tribal central India for the last 25 years. He was Member, Planning Commission, 2009-2014.)