Baba Amte, a follower of Gandhi whose dedication to helping the lepers of India brought him the Templeton Prize and many other international awards, died on Feb. 9 at his shelter for leprosy patients in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. He was 93. The cause was age-related ailments, said his eldest son, Dr. Vikas Amte.
Mr. Amte, who was trained as a lawyer, turned from an early life of hunting, playing sports, driving fancy cars and writing film reviews to working with the poor of his country, but his direction was irrevocably determined by an encounter with a destitute leper. After that, he gave up his father's huge estate and dedicated himself to the service of lepers. To the end of his life, he worked, marched and protested for better treatment for them and the rest of India's least powerful.
Murlidhar Devidas Amte — later known by the honorific "baba" — was born on Dec. 24, 1914, in Hingaighat in Maharashtra, the eldest son of an affluent Brahmin landlord. His life was privileged, but even in his youth, Mr. Amte rebelled against injustice and discrimination on the basis of birth, caste and creed. Despite his parents' disapproval, he often ate with servants and played with lower-caste children.
After earning a bachelor's degree, Mr. Amte went to law school at the request of his father, who gave him a sports car with panther-skin seat covers. He graduated in 1936.Mr. Amte was inspired by the ideas of Marx and Mao, John Ruskin and the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin. Drawn to the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore because of his poetry and music, Mr. Amte visited Mr. Tagore at his ashram in Calcutta.
But he was definitively influenced by Gandhi's ideals of simplicity and truth and his fight against injustice. He spent time at Gandhi's ashram in Sevagram, took part in his movement to get the British to leave India in 1942 and organized lawyers to defend the movement's jailed leaders. He was also arrested and imprisoned. Seeing grim poverty in and around his father's large estate, he gave up his lucrative law practice in his early 30s and began working with untouchable sweepers and night soil carriers. He let his hair and fingernails grow and took a vow of celibacy.
That vow ended one day when he saw Indu Ghuleshastri quietly slip away from her sister's wedding festivities to help an elderly maid wash clothes. "I told her parents that I was the suitable groom for her," he said. The two married in 1946. Besides his son Vikas and his wife, he is survived by another son, Prakash, and a daughter, Sheetal.
Mr. Amte and Indu, renamed Sadhna after their marriage, set up a labor ashram near Warora. In 1947, they were joined by a poor Brahmin family who knew something about agriculture, a shoemaker, an umbrella repairer and a few untouchable families. Mr. Amte even worked for about a year as a scavenger, carrying away baskets of human waste.
One rainy night on his way home, he saw a leper named Tulshiram lying naked by the road. Horrified by the sight of his fingerless and maggot-ridden body and fearing infection, Mr. Amte at first ran home, but he returned when his conscience got the better of him, fed the man with his own hands and gave him shelter for the short remainder of his life.
After that, Mr. Amte read voraciously about leprosy and worked at the Warora leprosy clinic. He took a course on leprosy at the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine in 1949 and even let his body be used for an unsuccessful experiment in growing leprosy germs.
In 1951, he established his own commune for lepers, called Anandvan, on rocky land in Maharashtra State that was covered with scrubby vegetation and infested with scorpions and snakes. The nearest well was more than a mile away. With help from his wife, their young sons, six leprosy patients and a lame cow and a dog, he turned the barren place into a thick forest.
Later, 50 young volunteers from dozens of countries would work for three-month stints at Anandvan, which became the nerve center of Mr. Amte's relentless crusade. His goal was to help leprosy patients become self-confident and capable of cooperative and creative leadership. By the 1950s, with a newly discovered sulfone drug for leprosy available, he began treating patients in more than 60 villages around Warora.
Despite having a back ailment later in his life, Mr. Amte took part in long protest marches for causes including environmentalism, religious tolerance, peace and justice. He was a supporter of India's indigenous tribes and opposed the construction of a "super dam" project on one of India's largest rivers; it eventually destroyed many villages.
To the end of his life, he emulated Gandhi in wearing homespun and living a simple life while working for village industry and the empowerment of ordinary people. In addition to the Templeton Prize, which he won in 1990, his awards included the 1988 United Nations Human Rights Prize.
SOURCE : New York Times