Murlidhar Devidas Ante was born on 26th December, 1914 in Hinganghat, Wardha District, Maharashtra, as one of eight children of a Brahmin Zamindari family. They had 450 acres in Goraju village near Warora. His father, besides being a Zamindar, also held a government job. Even as a child Murlidhar had a rebellious spirit that was to blossom later into a continuous battle against social injustice. As a child he reacted to caste prohibitions as he wasn’t permitted to eat with Harijans working in his house. This annoyed his father and led to an irreconcilable rift between them year later. He developed a deep compassion for afflicted people. When he was eleven, he was given money to buy fire crackers on Diwali. Passing a blind begger, he was moved to give him all he had. The blind man first thought the boy had thrown pebbles in his bowl, but as he felt the coins, his look of hurt and anger changed to joy and gratitude. That smile remained etched in Murlidhar’s memory forever. At 14, he disappeared from his home for a few days and lived among the Madia-Gonds. This was the beginning of his love for tribals.
He studied at Ramakrishna Mission Schools, then Morris College and Hislop College, Nagpur. After his BA he joined the Government Law College from which he graduated in 1936. In college he led a hectic life. He liked motor racing, hunting, horseback riding, and wrestling. He loved misic, films, and wrote poems and articles. He drove a sports car with the seats upholstered with a tiger skin. He loved good clothes. So there were two side to his character -- one was a dashing young man bubbling over with an irrepressible zest for life. The other was of a deeply compassionate social worker, out to bring justice and peace to the world. In 1933, he went as a volunteer when he hard of the earthquake in Quetta.
Young Amte started his law practice in Durg. Soon he was disturbed by the social inequalities prevalent in society. He saw the poor living in squalor and the rich living in comfort. So he chose to live in a thatched cottage, when he visited his family’s farm land. He ate with Harijans and allowed them to take water from the family-well. He was not satisfied with law practice, his large fees he always contrasted with the illiterate labourer’s pay -- they worked long hours and yet got so little they couldn’t keep body and soul togehter. He disliked criminal cases, where you not only were expected to get a man (accused of rape) acquitted, but also celebrate with him (if he won the case)! His father advised him to deal only with civil cases.
Amte Struggles for Freedom of Oppressed
After four years, in response to his father’s wish he returned to Warora to manage the family property. Here he found time to work for the neglected and down-trodden social groups. He helped weavers, sweepers, and scavengers to organize themselves. In the 40’s he was drawn towards the Independence Movement and was smuggling arams for the Indian Revolutionary Party. He joined the Quit India agitation of 1942 and courted arrest and imprisonment. After release from prison he plunged himself into fifhting a political case. The Mahar regiment of the army placed in Chimur had committed atrocities against the local people. A commission was appointed to investigate the case. Murlidhar was a pleader on behalf of the local people and earned Rajagopalachari’s praise for his work. He organized lawyers of Warora to give free legal service to political prisoners. He won the title of "Abhay Sadhak" (Conqueror of Fear) from Mahatma Gandhi in the following incident. British soldiers in a train were teasing a newly married couple. The wife was very shy and upset by the boarish, vulgar comments. Her husband was afraid to speak up. So Amte raised a strong protest against the teasing. It escalated into a physical tussle, but being outnumbered, Amte was badly beaten and thrown out of the compartment. He did not give up, but stopped the train until the commandant of the regiment came to settle the issue.
Amte Marries Indu
When he was nearing 30, marriage proposals were coming in. To ward these off he grew a beard and donned the saffron clothes of a sanyasi. But when he was 32, he found a girl of his own choice, whose family he knew, Indu Ghule Shastri from Nagpur. Two weeks before the wedding, he was staying at her house and a burglar came. Amte pounced on him and received knife injuries for which he was hospitalized. He appeared at the wedding swathed in bandages. he asked Indu if she would have married him if he’d lost an eye -- and she heartily said yes. Their married life was marked by high thinking and extremely simple living. It was a magnificent adventure of toil and moil, harship and achievement, agony and ecstasy. Indu completed 2 years college and belonged to a conservative Brahmin family of Sanskrit scholars. Amte had shed most of the caste practices by the time of his marriage. He mingled freely with Harijans, and ate in their homes. Indu was slowly and steadily initiated into Amte’s unconventional life style. As president of the Seavenger’s Union, he frequently visited their hutments. Indu often accompanied him. The first time she drank water in a Harijian home, the barriers of religious orthodoxy began to crumble. Indu knew she was marrying an unusual man and was fully prepared for it. However, they were frowned upon by high caste Hindus and had to move out of the rented house owned by a Brahmin. A friend Mr. R.K. Patil offered him a house and 7 acres of property. They called it Shrama Ashram (Workers’ Hermitage) and it was open to all, irrespective of caste, creed or occupation. Each shared the earnings and the work of running the place.
Two Sons are Born
In 1947 their first son, Vikas was born, with no help from her mother, due to their not complying with Brahmin rituals.
During her second pregnancy Indu fell ill with typhoid. After their second son, Prakash, was born, Indu developed an abscess, low fever drained her energy and they feared TB. Slowly she regained her health and could care for her two small sons.
Shift from Law to Leprosy Work
Nothing daunted Amte. As Chairman of the Scavengers Union they started a strike for better working conditions and wages. They asked him if he could do their dirty work carrying night soil on rainy days. Amte accepted the challenge not for just a day, but he did the work for the next nine months. He got up at 3 am, worked as a scavenger from 4-8 am and then did legal practice. One day while removing night soil, he met Tulsiram, a disfigured leprosy patient lying in a gutter. Amte was frightened and wanted to run away. But he returned and put up a temporary shelter over the patient. In his mind he pictured what it would be like if he or his family got leprosy. An unexplainable fear haunted him for months. It ended with a moment of truth, he decided to work to make leprosy less frightening and leprosy patients more acceptable. He applied himself fully to their welfare and rehabilitation. Indu whole heartedly supported him in his decision, which meant giving up his legal practice. On Vinoba Bhave’s advice, he began attending the Leprosy Hospital at Dattapur to learn how to treat the disease. Some leprosy patients were also a part of his household, with Indu cooking and doing household chores. By now there was a complete transformation in Amte’s life-style. Good clothes, good food, movies and fast cars were all things of the past.
Maharogi Sewa Samiti Founded
Amte founded MSS in 1949 (The Maharogi Sewa Samiti) for the rehabilitation of Leprosy afflicted people. He renounced his family property and went to the School of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta for higher training in leprosy work. As this school was only for medical graduates, Amte was admitted due to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention. He offered himself as a guinea pig to have leprosy bacilli injected into his body. Fortunatley the test had no effect on him.
MSS was Registered as a Society in 1951 and MP Government gave 50 acress of barren, rock ridden waste land, 5 km from Warora, near the Chandrapur, Nagpur road. They cleared the jungle, drove wild animals away, burnt the scrub, and tilled the land for agriculture. Amte and six leprosy patients began the work with axes and hoes,. It was out-caste land for outcaste people.
They dug a well, and struck water at 30ft. Their first house was a hut without walls. Indu was frightened of wild animals, their 4 dogs were carried off one by one by panthers. By 1954 there were 60 patients and 6 wells. Patients were producing potatoes, cauliflower, beetroot, and brinjal. The place was becoming "Anandwan" (Forest of Joy). It was at this time he was christened Baba Amte and Indu, Sadhanatai.
In 1954, Pierre Applinger, a social worker from Switzerland, organized volunteers of the Service Civil International to India. He came with 50 volunteers and constructed six buildings in four months. These volunteers made an impact on the people of Warora who donated food for them. Over the years about 4000 LA patients have left Anandwan and settled in their own communities. By 1957 he had 11 clinics over a radius of 30 miles.
It was hard to get dedicated doctors, many were afraid of contracting the disease, so often, Baba functioned as a doctor, giving injections, drugs, and dressing sores and ulcers.
In 1954 he began a dairy -- at first people were afraid to buy milk thinking they’d get leprosy. But gradually their prejudice dissolved.
In 1957 Baba bought 120 acres of land near Nagpur for an additional rehabilitation centre called Ashokwan. It is a satellite of Anandwan. It has a dairy, hospital with OPD, agriculture and social forestry. He started a Primary School for LA children in 1960. A Post office was started in 1962.
In 1964 they opened a college of arts, science, and commerce. In 1965 the college of agriculture came into being. In 1964 Baba began suffering from cervical and lumbar spondyloses and was off and on in bed.
The LA patients lived in three large communes, with hospital in a central place. In 1966 a school for blind children was opened.
In 1966 Baba applied to the government for more land. He got 2000 acres of forest land near Mul. but immediately land disputes erupted. There were ancroachers, LA people were prevented from taking canal water. They had to walk three miles for drinking water. Malaria and Filaria were rampant Finally he submitted for arbitration to Vinoba Bhave and MSS lost a good part of the cultivable and existing sources of irrigation. So they constructed dams, dug wells and canals and over 350 LA people are settled there now with agriculture as their major activity. This was called Somnath, it has six residential units or communes. They pray, sing Bhajans, and work together to improve the land and life of the residents. Somnath has rustic beauty.
With the help of a polio-disabled Polish Count they built Sandhi Niketan, a centre for tranning physically handicapped in handicrafts, carpentry, leather works, tailoring, spinning and weaving, wood carving, cane work and making of greeting cards.
Many summer camps are held for people all over the world to improve the area and to learn by doing. In 1971 Baba’s back deteriorated so he was taken to London for spinal surgery and bone graft. In 1974 his sons Dr. Vikas and Dr. Prakash joined him in his work. Their wives, also doctors, joined in Baba’s projects.
Hemalkasa is for Madia-Ghonds. In 1974, 20 acres of land were cleared and crops sown and harvested in the middle of a forest. Baba’s adopted daughter, Renuka, and her husband Vikas, are a part of the team. Renuka is a teacher and Vikas a technician for mechanical appliances. Hamalkasa has a medical centre, Gokul for orphan children, zoo, dairy, poultry, lift irrigation and agricultural research.
These tribal have their own special characterstics of honesty, craftsman-ship and use of animal horn for communication and music.
Baba has received many national and international awards for his humanitarian work. He is an example to all the world not only for his leprosy rehabilitation but also for :
His latest Bharat Jodo Abhiyan, Knit India March, was from November 1, 1988 to March 26, 1989.
The objects were :
Baba Amte has many crities who want to tear down his work. This is always true when anyone renders selfless services to help the down-trodden. He has suffered much -- physically, mentally and emotionally at the hands of evil doers. But still he carries on valiantly to complete his life’s journey as God has inspired him to live it. He has given his life to bring about an India united in peace and love.