Touching the Untouchables

The Life of Baba Amte

When Baba Amte died here in India in February, at the age of ninety-three, he was remembered as the champion of people affected by leprosy. The morning of his funeral, my husband Ravi was on his way to Nagpur, an hour from Anandwan, the ashram Baba Amte established in 1951 in the central Indian state of Maharashtra. On the flight, Ravi met a friend who was attending the funeral, and Ravi decided to tag along.

Indian crowds are always large, but the one at Baba Amte’s funeral was staggering. People, most of them poor, came from every corner of the state, on foot and by cycle, to pay their respects to one who had devoted his life to inclusion, the environment, and the common good.

It began with leprosy. Baba was born into a wealthy Brahmin family and trained as a lawyer. Along with Sadhna, his wife, he abandoned a comfortable life in favor of serving the poor and marginalized. He worked to organize the untouchables, the lowest of the low, and for nine months worked as a scavenger carrying baskets of human excrement on his head, enduring the filth and the stench. He thought of himself as a man of the people, one who knew no fear. Then one evening, coming home in a downpour, he passed a leper lying in the road. To his shame, he was repelled by the sight of the half-naked man, whose hands had been eaten away by the disease and whose body was covered with maggots. He passed by quickly, but when...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.