Social activist fought bias, assisted lepers in India

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Murlidhar Devidas Amte, an Indian social activist who fought against caste and religious prejudice and founded clinics for lepers and disabled children, died Saturday in India. He was 93.

Amte was diagnosed with leukemia last year and died in his sleep at a clinic he founded for the disabled in Chandrapur in the western state of Maharashtra, his son Vikas Amte, a doctor at the facility, said.

Amte, a Hindu, was widely known as "Baba," a term of respect in many Indian dialects. His largest leper center covered 450 acres, accommodated thousands of people and included a library, bank, theater and technical college.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday called Amte a "saint of our times."

Inspired by the humanitarian activism of India's revolutionary leader Mohandas K. Gandhi in the 1940s, Amte set about training lepers and the disabled to work. A motto at his centers was "Charity destroys, work builds."

"I took to leprosy because I knew that man all over the world was being punished for no fault of his own, and no one symbolized this as much as the lepers, those who walked alone in the world," Amte told The Times in 1990, more than 40 years after he opened his first leprosy clinic.

"Through leprosy, I tried to make the world see the greatness of all men, even the weakest," he said. "After all, these eyes that see beauty in broken monuments, palaces, fortresses and tombs like Taj Mahal could not see the same beauty in the ruins of man."

Amte was born Dec. 26, 1914, into a wealthy family and educated at a Christian college.

He went on to become an attorney and rebelled against caste barriers.

He was revered across India for his work on behalf of people from the lowest rungs of the country's complex caste system, those known as "untouchables."

Amte won the Padma Vibhushan, which is India's second highest civilian honor.

He also garnered international honors, including the Magsaysay Award, recognizing integrity, idealism and community service; the Templeton Prize for progress in religion; and the United Nations Human Rights Prize, which was also given to Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

His survivors include his wife and two sons.

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