Baba Amte: A Social Reformist

Baaba Amte, or Murlidhar Devidas Amte, was born on December 26, 1914, in Hinganghat, Wardha district, Maharashtra, British India. In addition to being a lawyer, he was a social activist who dedicated his life to helping India’s poorest and least powerful people, especially those who suffered from leprosy. Numerous international awards have been conferred on him, including the 1988 UN Human Rights Prize, a share of the 1990 Templeton Prize, and the 1999 Gandhi Peace Prize. Amte was born into an affluent Brahman family and grew up in a privileged environment. His legal practice began in 1936, following his graduation from law school. While Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India campaign was being launched against the British occupation of India, he acted as a defense lawyer to those imprisoned. Gandhi’s nonviolent fight for justice inspired Amte to give up his legal career in the 1940s and join Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram, Maharashtra, India, where he worked among the downtrodden.

Following an encounter with a man suffering from advanced leprosy, Amte’s attention turned to that disease. At the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine, he took a course on leprosy, worked at a leprosy clinic, and studied the disease. Amte established Anandwan, an ashram dedicated to the treatment, rehabilitation, and empowerment of leprosy patients, in 1949. Over time, the centre offered programs in health care, agriculture, small-scale industry, and conservation, as well as serving people with disabilities.

Amte was also involved in numerous causes, such as environmentalism and religious tolerance, in addition to his work with lepers. He opposed the construction of hydroelectric plants in particular dams on the Narmada River, both for environmental reasons and because of the effects on those displaced by the dams. As part of his commitment to this cause, Amte left Anandwan in 1990, but he returned to the ashram toward the end of his life. He left philanthropic work to his sons, Prakash and Vikas Amte, who became physicians.

Sadhna Tai, Baba’s wife, deserves special mention. Her family of Sanskrit scholars raised her in the orthodox Hindu tradition, and after her marriage to Amte she let go all caste prejudices and worked alongside him, despite difficult circumstances. Their unrelenting efforts led to the foundation of Maharogi Sewa Samiti (MSS), an organization dedicated to curing and rehabilitating leprosy-affected people. Registration for this company dates back to 1951.

As Baba Amte infamously said, “I don’t want to be a great leader; I want to be a man who goes around with an oil can and if he sees a breakdown offers his assistance. A man who does that is greater than any holy man in saffron-colored robes. The mechanic with the oilcan: that is my ideal in life.” Over the course of his 94 years, Baba Amte was awarded the Padma Shri, Ramon Magsaysay Award, Padma Vibhushan, United Nations Prize for Human Rights, Rashtriya Bhushan, Gandhi Peace Prize, and many others.

Sheetal Amte-Karajgi, a beneficiary of Baba Amte’s ‘new India’ vision, describes her grandfather as a man who fights injustice with a stick, believing Anandwan to be a shining example of this idea.

The 9th of February, 2008, marked the passing of Baba Amte.

His contributions to blurring the psychological divide between the marginalized and the privileged have continued even after he died, via the activities of Anandwan, even as a Gandhian by ideology.