Baba Amte, 93; Champion of Lepers and Outcasts

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Baba Amte, 93, a widely honored social activist who abandoned a life of privilege in the late 1940s to dedicate himself to lepers and other outcasts, died Feb. 9 at the leprosy shelter he founded at Warora, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. He had leukemia.

Mr. Amte was considered a leading humanitarian in Mohandas Gandhi's tradition of justice through nonviolent protest.

He called his leprosy shelter Anandwan, or "forest of joy," and chose as its motto, "Charity destroys, work builds." He emphasized dignity and self-reliance among the tens of thousands of people who came to Anandwan, which offers treatment, schools, farms and cultural activities.

Mr. Amte overcame great prejudice, including his own, when he began working with lepers. The prevailing view was that leprosy was punishment for a sin committed in an earlier life. Although the disease was largely treatable, its victims were usually forsaken.

On the surface, Mr. Amte was an unlikely crusader for the marginalized. He came from a land-owning, socially insular Brahmin family, the highest Hindu caste. He studied at prestigious schools and counted among his youthful indulgences a fondness for upholstering his sports cars with panther skin.

At the same time, he was drawn to the writings of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong and the socially stirring poems and music of Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate who is regarded as a father of modern India.

So inspired, Mr. Amte showed an early fearlessness toward interacting with lower castes. He ran away at 14 to live with a tribal group, volunteered at 19 to help earthquake victims at Quetta, in what is now Pakistan, and became a follower of Gandhi.

None of this was done with the encouragement of his parents.

"There is a certain callousness in families like mine," he said. "They put up strong barriers so as not to see the misery in the world outside, and I rebelled against it."

At his father's urging, Mr. Amte practiced law. He developed a flourishing practice in the late 1930s but detested the work.

"A client would admit he committed rape, and I was expected to obtain an acquittal," he said. "Worse still, when I succeeded, I was expected to attend the celebration party."

He withdrew from his practice and, in the Gandhian tradition of humility, toiled in agricultural fields owned by his family alongside societal outcasts known as "Untouchables." He campaigned for them to use communal wells and to attend a temple, achieving the first by pulling social rank and the second through a threat to fast until death.

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