BABA AMTE'S VANAPRASTHA
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.
SHANKAR GUHA NIYOGI
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.
SHANKAR GUHA NIYOGI
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.
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
Unaffected by these doubts and criticism, Baba
continued to exhort these new, young companions in his
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.
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
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.