Baba Amte: The inspiring gardener

By Medha Patkar
Published: Saturday 15 March 2008

Baba Amte: The inspiring gardener

-- "I am not a sadhubaba," Baba Amte always made it a point to assert. The indomitable spirit behind the struggle towards a 'total revolution' is no more. An Ambdedkarite by philosophy and a Gandhian by his political actions, Baba devoted his life to antyodaya--uplift of the most oppressed.

Baba was a nickname from childhood, and Muralidhar Devidas Amte wore his religion lightly. He would often tell his followers and admirers that he was neither a saintly person nor a pretentious monk. He didn't pray or plead, certainly not before any court of power. Baba was an advocate by profession till he began a path of advocacy.

"Charity destroys, work builds"--that was Baba's credo. His was a mission to motivate, rejuvenate and empower. He planted a seed each at Anandvan, a centre for leprosy patients, and at Hemalkas and Ashokvan, centres for tribals, that grew into trees, tall and rooted. Anyone who has visited these places would see in their working the very rare combination of a fantastic visionary and a great activist.

Everyone at these centres was inspired when Baba worked with his hands in the soil, when he built structures and planted trees. He often likened his mission to that of the gardener's or farmer's--creating an organic farm or a green cover over a barren land. He continued to spread his message even when confined to his bed in the last few years of his life. A Marathi poem which Baba often recited captured his indomitable person, rather aptly: Shrunkjala Payi Ashaley, Me gatiche geet gai (Let there be shackles in my feet, I still sing the song of progress). But Baba was no poet, and his vision was not utopic. Prosperity for him meant nurture of both human and natural resources. Nature for him was a companion, not a commodity or a tourist's abode. He was a soldier of conscience in his own words.

Baba moved out of his ashram to violence-hit Punjab, the dam-hit Narmada valley and to communal riots-affected basti s in Mumbai. When he moved, he was not alone. Thousands of youth joined him on his Bharat Jodo movements from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in 1985 and Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh in 1988. The movements were his ways of inspiring people towards a casteless, secular and integrated India. They were also borne out of a deep-rooted belief in the essential unity of humankind.

But Baba was not just a moral supporter of struggling farmers and labourers. In March 1989, he brought his vision of alternative politics and economy to the Narmada valley. He could see through the politics of profit over people. In spite of being treated as a celebrity and feted, both nationally and internationally, he stayed within the battleground with his uncompromising vision. His dialogues with chief ministers exemplified his understanding of Indian democracy: the chief minister had to be engaged with because he was a mass leader. He was always for influencing politics and draw strategies for alliances. He knew that the liberalized economy and corporatized polity had to be taken on at several fronts. But while he was ready to engage with the powers that be, Baba never swayed from his commitment to ecologically sustainable ways of life and livelihoods. He returned his awards when he was challenged by the state on the Narmada front.

His uncompromising attitude sometimes lost him supporters. But his opposition to big dams was unwavering: at Bhopalapatnam, Ichampally, and in the Narmada valley.

While his wife Sadhanatai stood by him all through his tumultuous life, he inspired his sons Vikas and Prakash along with their wives, all of whom are medical graduates, to take to selfless service. Baba has also left behind empowered activists whom he inspired through a unique series of youth camps. We in India are often guilty of eulogizing people, but it can be said without doubt that Baba exemplified the humanitarian politics of Gandhiji.

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