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The Agony and Ecstasy of Late Youth


Homage to a fellow traveller

The first light had just broken over the river when a terrible blow struck. Someone came rushing from Badwani with the news that Shankar Guha Niyogi had been shot dead. Sorrow battled with anger as Baba began to pace restlessly in the fledgling garden of the Kasravad home. If he were younger, healthier, he could have rushed to Dalli Rajhara to be with the thousands who would be mourning their loved comrade. Baba had met Niyogi just once but had followed and admired the life and work of this unusual trade union leader. Now he felt even closer to Niyogi - for the man had known that his life was threatened but still refused to carry weapons or keep an armed guard.

Four days later, on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, 1991, Baba wrote a message for the comrades of the Chattisgar Mukti Morcha, whom Niyogi had led:

It was a murder by proxy.
The palpably dazzling murder
Makes a mockery of our civilization
Which takes centuries to mature
And relapses into barbarity in no time.
He fell victim to the conspiracy
Of those who do not believe in
Sane, equitable and enlightened society
They mocked him, by their pious cruelty,
Those who craved his blood
Now call him martyr
A mighty fortress blasted by cowards.

Call him the inspired mouthpiece of God.
He could bear great anguish,
Courage and conviction were his blood and bones.
I never saw a young man like him
With an astonishing sensitivity
Rich in compassion and bold wisdom.
He explained to his people who they are
And offered a road map for
Where and how they would chart out their struggle.
He gave the workers a taste of freedom and justice.
He gave full-blooded sincerity to his sublime task.
He made the toughest decisions
with amazing speed.
Here was a soldier's instinct, to deal from strength
And the shrewd touch of a gambler
Which kept the power-holders guessing.
He knew what trump cards they had,
He pre-empted them, showed the right direction
To his comrades and forged them into
One of the strongest trade unions.
He had an athlete's timing while in struggle
And a magician's ability to convince the people.
Above all-he had a gentleman's equilibrium.
Marxist by passion.
He left the politician Marx way behind
Who could be defused, defeated.
Marx, the human being, gripped him.
He withheld nothing, his sincerity was pristine.

Niyogi delighted in crusade,
In a vision of the Future.
He revelled being surrounded by raging war.
All good citizens must act
For the common good
Becoming participants in the path
Marked by Niyogi
And proclaim courtesy to their opponents,
How much more effective is this, than
The obscene violence which killed Niyogi.
Oh Supreme Shame, comrades like him
Are dyed in their blood in this nation of Gandhi.
Bloodhounds-the mafia gangs, industrialists
And the petty politicians
Have started using their pet card
'Eliminate, exterminate Ye, those
Who oppose the regime'
In Chattisgarh or, here, in the Narmada valley.

The last sigh whispered
On the banks of Narmada,
'Civility invites Civility; Justice invites justice'.
Niyogis do not die, they might succumb
A tribute to them-Reason and Resolve.
To sharpen the struggle, to widen the horizon
Tirelessly, as Luther said, 'Lest I rust'
The unshed tear in the eye of Narmada
Is a silent tribute to this comrade
Who now rests in the lap of Bliss

The living example of Niyogi deepened Baba's convictions about revolution. He began to see his own existence with the quietude of Rewa Maiya as a manifestation of what he calls a 'Post-revolution perspective'. At just about the time that Baba moved to Kasravad the pulling down of the Berlin Wall had signalled the collapse of communism. This event marked a turning point in the history of ideas. Perhaps now, Baba thought, the world would be ready to accept what he had learnt in his Youth from Gandhiji and Tagore-that every revolution devours its children:

There is a danger that tomorrows blade of the guillotine may be smeared with your blood ... A true revolution is not destructive but creative. Its face is not smeared with blood, but covered with sweat. Negative slogans may appear at first more powerful, but they are short-lived, constructive movements, though they may appear weak, have a touch of lastingness.

Tomorrow's leaders

This was easier said than done. All around Baba a new generation of political workers were grappling with the apparent conflict between constructive work and bold struggle that actively threatens the status quo. For all the reverence and affection he won from some youngsters, Baba could sense scepticism from others. The sceptics doubted if the 'social-work' energies which allowed Baba to cure leprosy patients would help to stop the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) dam or transform economic relations all over India.

Unaffected by these doubts and criticism, Baba continued to exhort these new, young companions in his life's journey:

Carry your ideals before you like banners; it is not enough to put them on pedestals. Ideals which grip the masses prove to be a mighty force. Their force is stronger than the hope of earthly gain and they are more productive of real wealth ... Nationalized ownership that throttles all creative effort, will no more be the test of revolution. Participation in decision-making will stimulate workers to greater efforts and common ownership will be the aim. ... The war-cry will no more be with Marx and Mao: the spirit of revenge cannot build a new world ... Only a revolution which leads to a higher sense of human dignity can lead to a higher and nobler way of life. Revolutions based on hatred and violence do not really change the situation. They merely transform the people who had been exploited into a new class of exploiters but hatred and exploitation remain. Therefore, there is no substitute for Gandhi's way of rousing the impoverished masses to creative awareness.

Two-and-half decades of youth camps at Somnath had given Baba the confidence that:

The new leadership in India is taking shape quietly, without any drum-beating through the newspapers. ... Various centres, the centres of energy and strength in the life of society are gaining tremendous momentum. May be, the surging new generation of today appears to have lost its bearing, to have lost its soul. But it is absolutely certain that one day it will have its own leader and prophet.... I am absolutely confident that the phoenix of a new leadership is rising from the ashes of all its failure. Soon the world will witness the lightning hidden in its beak and the storm hidden in its wings.

Christ's lute

These ideas and related work won Baba a vast fan following. But many of his most ardent supporters and admirers were dismayed by his shift from humanitarian work to political action which threatens to rock the boat. His opposition of the SSP and decision to move to Kasravad were even ridiculed as a misguided emotional gesture. But the toughest test of Baba's patience and equanimity came at the peak of the NBA's activities in 1992. That was when the Madhya Pradesh police practiced-what Baba Amte called- 'shout-at-sight tactics'. The police set up camp near his house and blasted various kinds of noise and abuse from loudspeakers round the clock. And then, in December 1992, there was the agonizing blow of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the communal violence which followed, all over the country. Baba and Tai immediately rushed to Surat, from where there were reports of the most barbaric violence. As he moved through different localities in his van, people warmly welcomed his soothing, loving presence. It was not a moment to dwell upon differences over the SSP.

Weeks later, when Mumbai suffered a prolonged period of communal violence, Baba and Tai went and parked themselves near Behrampada, one of the worst-affected areas. This allowed him to rush there in the middle of the night to oppose Shiv Sena workers who were preventing the fire brigade from reaching burning homes. He could not stop the riots but he could be with the suffering. Having witnessed all this, Baba returned to Kasravad a deeply saddened man.

Such experiences have brought Baba ever closer to Christ. Echoing in his consciousness is the sound of Christ's lute falling from his hand, as the Roman soldiers nailed him to the cross:

The Cross on which you spent your last breath has become to me not a sign that your service has come to an end, I see in it the sum of all that gives value to our life. To me it is not a symbol of violence wrought on you. To me it has become the voice of compassion.
The Cross ... asks us to yield up the love of life for the life of love, to back our conscience with our blood. Where there is fear there is no love. Fear of leprosy, fear of loneliness in the tribal belt, this scarecrow of fear cannot be allowed to guide your conscience. Everyone should attempt to walk in the shadow of that Cross. That means you are in the company of that life which scuttled itself to save carry the others. I haven't the arrogance to say I can carry the mighty load of His Cross, but I do try to walk in its shadow. He wants to carve your life like a crucifix. Every calamity is a crucifixion, crucifying your ambition, your lust. Each is a tiny lesson, and then the imprint of the crucifixion is on your life. What is your plan of sacrifice today? You and I, petty souls, sacrifice for our children. Christ sacrificed for tomorrow's whole world. Whenever I see slum-dwellers, with their hunger and poverty, that obscene poverty, I feel He is crucified like that. When I come across a person suffering from leprosy, foul-smelling, ulcerous, I can see the imprint of His lips, His kiss. What did they not do to sufferers of leprosy in His time, yet the carpenter's son cared for them and touched them. That hand is an emblem for me, that hand which cared for the loneliest and the lost. The Christian is ... he who not only lights the darkest corner in the world but also the darkest corner in his own heart.

This means living and working for a mission, not seeking death in its name. So though Baba sees himself as a ' . . . blood-hound sniffing out the sacrifices of martyrs in all times ' he is ' . . - just living here by the river. I will not rush into the swirling waters, but if the water rises above my house I will not move.'

Several times over these years the waters did rise over sixty feet, from the regular sandy bank of the river, to touch the doorstep of Baba and Tai's home. In 1994, as the water crossed the danger mark, the local District Collector ordered Baba and Tai to be moved to the Circuit House. Why did Baba allow this? 'What was I to do?' asks Baba with some exasperation, 'kick and scream, bite their hands?'

And so Baba Amte has arrived at an unexpected dilemma or crossroads. He expected to live by Rewa Maiya, for as long as fate decreed and then surrender to the flow of the river, if and when the time came. Both options are being denied to him. It is almost certain that every time the waters rise beyond the danger mark the authorities will remove him from his home. All the quibbling over whether this is an arrest or 'safe-custody' will not ease Baba's plight.

Cut off from the day to day hurly-burly of the movement, Baba is sometimes exasperated by the physical limitations on his mobility. He can no longer travel to the front-line of action as activists of the NBA set up various kinds of constructive work projects in the valley and simultaneously spread the struggle to the other dams to be constructed further upstream.

A Supreme Court stay order and shortage of funds has delayed completion of the SSP. But if the dam's wall rises any higher, at some point Baba Amte's vanprastha ashram at Kasravad will be submerged. 'Where will you go then?' his sons ask Baba. What next? He does not have a ready answer. This uncertainty troubles Baba Amte. Yet he rallies with the faith that God and nature will provide an answer.

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