Hundreds of people have received honours and awards in Rashtrapati Bhavan over the last 50 years. But few were as scantily dressed as Baba Amte was when he accepted the Gandhi Prize from the hands of the President some days ago. All he wore was a white singlet and shorts and what looked like a towel on his shoulders, going by the visuals which appeared on television the same night and the newspapers the next morning. He made quite a contrast to the ADC and an officer of the President's Bodyguard who stood next to him.
One's mind went back to Mahatma Gandhi's famous repartee when he met King George V in London at the time of the Round Table Conference. "Is that all you wore when you met the King?" an incredulous journalist asked the Mahatma when he returned from Buckingham Palace in his loin cloth. "The King wore enough for both of us," the Mahatma replied. He also described his garb as minus fours in contrast to the plus fours which were then the vogue among golfers.
Baba Amte can rightly be described as a person who had so much in while having so little on. The assembled gathering had a spot demonstration of his immense inner richness when he announced that the entire sum of one crore rupees which went with the prize he received - the Gandhi Prize is monetarily India's largest - would go to the leprosy service organisation which he had founded 50 years ago, the Maharoga Nivaran Samiti.
President Narayanan described Baba Amte as a living legend. Yet how few people in our country really know about what he has done? Our living legends tend to come from the world of cinema, sport, fashion, and nowadays from among writers of risqué fiction, rather than from people who have given their breath and blood to serve their fellow human beings. Even in Baba Amte's case, more is heard of his championship of the cause of people displaced by the Narmada Dam than his lifelong commitment to the most wretched of the earth and the most shunned in our land, the unfortunate victims of leprosy.
There are many references to leprosy in our ancient books, but I do not know whether they contain any accounts of lepers being nursed. I shall be grateful if some reader of this column would enlighten me on this point. It is to the credit of the Christian church that the service of lepers was recognised as one of the most pious things a person could do. That is because Christ himself washed the wounds of those afflicted by this dreaded disease. Down the centuries many devout Christian priests and laymen have emulated his example. There were more than 2000 leprosaria in France alone in the 13th century. Whatever our people may have against the proselytising activities of Christian missionaries in India, we must be grateful to them for having made us aware of our duty to these unfortunate brethren of ours. Mahatma Gandhi, who was unashamed about learning from others in order to correct our shortcomings, gave a high place to the service of leprosy patients in his Constructive Programme. I remember how deeply moved I was as a student when the newspapers carried photographs of Gandhiji tending the wounds of Professor M.D. Bhansali, one of his followers who was himself a leprosy patient. In the south, Professor T.N. Jagadisan flung himself into this noble task. His writings were powerful and persuasive, especially because he was also a victim of the disease.
Leprosy today is regarded as a disease which is found only in backward countries, but in the old days there was no country and no segment of society that was free of the scourge. Authoritative books cannot explain how it disappeared from Europe and north America, just as modern science, which has found remedies against leprosy, is still baffled precisely how it spreads. Although we are assured that it is not very contagious, as believed earlier, the terror and the revulsion have not gone out of leprosy because of the hideous deformity and disfigurement that it causes and also because it is so slow to arrest and cure. It does not kill but it sentences a person and his relations to lifelong torture. Now that we have the help of antibiotics, we should make a determined effort to rid our country of the blot of having the world's largest numbers of leprosy sufferers.
The work requires people with deep inner motivation which can only come from religion or from some life-enhancing faith like Gandhism. It cannot be done by well-paid personnel of affluent NGOs. Even Gandhian organisations are more and more carried away by the glamour of politics rather than the hard haul and drudgery of the Constructive Programme. You get noticed and praised if you play an adversarial role and take political stances. Taking Gandhian workers away from such basic social work into the easier and transitory temptations of political action is one of the unintended disservices rendered by Jayaprakash Narayan. The other problem with Gandhians is their idiosyncrasies and their inability to work in a team. Most of them tend to think that the truth has been vouchsafed to them alone and others are in error. There is a familiar jibe about the people from Kerala to the effect that wherever there are two Malayalis they form a Kerala association and where there are three Malayalis there are two Kerala associations. This could be said about Gandhians also. In spite of this there are hundreds of self-effacing Gandhian workers all over the country who have done solid work, caring little whether they are invited to seminars in Delhi or Honolulu. Our media should take greater note of such persons.
Back to the idiosyncrasies of Gandhians. Indira Gandhi once said that in her long years keeping house for her father, the most difficult experience was looking after groups of Gandhians when they came to Anand Bhavan. One would demand that the rotis served to him should be made from hand-pounded wheat flour. Another would insist that the milk should only be cow's milk and not buffalo's; yet another wanted gur and not sugar, and so on. They were after all emulating their master who took only goat's milk and not cow's milk just because his wife had once taunted him in sheer exasperation. Rightly did the irrepressible Sarojini Naidu remark that it cost the nation a small fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. An old class fellow of mine, N.V.K. Murthy, who was Director of the Pune Film Institute and Registrar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, has a rollicking story about the redoubtable Gandhian, Kaka Kalelkar. Years ago Murthy had been given the duty of looking after Kakasaheb. The first evening, he dutifully asked the guest what he would like to have for dinner. "Beta, I don't eat much at night, in fact no cooked food at all," he replied. "Just bring me a pitcher of milk." After a pause, he added, "Some honey to go with it... If there are a couple of apples and bananas, that would be nice." After another pause, "And you might also leave a handful of raisins and almonds... and dried figs and cashew nuts, if you can get them. And maybe some oranges and mangoes. You see, I take very little at night, or for that matter, during the day. My needs are very few." In the morning, Murthy found that the guest had done justice to the fare. After all it was a simple meal.