History,  People

Gandhi and leprosy

When he lived in Sevagram, Mahatma Gandhi used to take long walks. One cold winter day in December 1939, as he stepped out of the ashram, he encountered a man who was carrying a bundle in his hands. The man fell at Gandhi’s feet and paid obeisance. Gandhi’s face fell on recognizing the visitor. It was Parchure Shastri. He understood Gandhi’s predicament. “I know I should have waited for your response to my letter before coming here from Haridwar, but I couldn’t restrain myself,” he told Gandhi. Parchure Shastri then handed over the bundle of yarn that he had spun in Haridwar to Gandhi. “I came here for your darshan. I will spend the night under a tree and return tomorrow morning,” he said. Gandhi directed one of the ashram inmates to serve him food, and returned to the ashram, his mind turbulent.

Parchure Shastri was a learned scholar of the Vedas. He had contracted leprosy, which was not responding to treatment then. Given the stigma surrounding leprosy during those times, he was housed in a separate cell in Yerwada Jail when Gandhi first met him in 1932 in Pune during the Satyagraha movement. They were both arrested as political prisoners and Gandhi had gone on a fast. When the time came for Gandhi to break his fast, he chose to receive his first sip from the hands of Parchure Shastri to break the stigma surrounding patients of Hansen’s disease.

Today is Martyrs’ Day — the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. But as 2019 is Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th year of his birth anniversary, this year India is observing 30 January also as World Leprosy Day. Across the globe, World Leprosy Day is usually observed on the last Sunday of January (so it should have been 27 January in 2019). This year’s theme for World Leprosy Day is ‘ending discrimination, stigma, and prejudice’. It was the French humanitarian Raoul Follereau who chose this day as a tribute to the life of Gandhi.

So what was the connection between Mahatma Gandhi and leprosy? And why did Gandhi feel sad to see Parchure Shastri at Sevagram if he was such a compassionate person?

Aware of the myths and stigma surrounding leprosy, Gandhi faced a moral dilemma. There were other inmates in the ashram and would he be correct in imposing his views on them. Would they agree with his decision to welcome a patient of leprosy in the premises? He spent a sleepless night.

The next morning, after the prayers, he posed the question to the ashram inmates. He was met with stunned silence. Clearly there were misgivings and resentment. Gandhi persisted with his arguments. Here was a learned man. Parchure Shastri needed to be nursed back to health. These were testing times. To turn him away was to turn away God. “Give your consent only if your conscience agrees to this. But you can take my word that this ailment is not contagious.” Eventually the inmates agreed to invite Parchure Shastri within the ashram.

Parchure Kuti in Sevagram Ashram

A special hut was built at the eastern side of the ashram where Parchure Shastri lived. Each morning, Gandhi would go to him, wash and cleanse his wounds and dress them. He took care of his diet and massaged him. Despite his hectic schedule Gandhi followed this regime every morning. Gandhi’s visits perked up Shastri’s spirit. He would recite Sanskrit poetry and talk animatedly to Gandhi. Dr Jivraj Mehta put him on dapsone. His health improved. Clearly, acceptance and love went volumes in improving his well-being. Shastri stayed in Sevagram ashram until 1942.

Manohar Diwan started leprosy rehabilitation work and set up a leprosy home in Dattapur in Wardha. Increasingly involved with the freedom movement, Gandhi asked Diwan to take up responsibility of looking after Parchure Shastri, and Shastri shifted to Dattapur. He lived there until his death in 1942.

The Maharogi Sewa Mandal (now called Maharogi Sewa Samiti) is still functional in Dattapur. India still has the world’s highest number of patients of leprosy. Clearly there is a lot to do to erase the scourge of leprosy. And a lot of it is in the minds of people.

(The photographs of Gandhi and Shastri used in this post are from a photo-exhibition organized by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sevagram and the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation on the occasion of World Leprosy Day)

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