The proverb ‘simple living high thinking’ aptly suits Sindhutai Sapkal. Her simplicity of life and high thoughts in morale and in conduct is rare. She never displayed her possessions everywhere and to everyone; it just got noticed by the people and her moral highness and purity of thoughts spread across the globe. Sindhutai Sapkal became a social activist after a traumatic life.
Born in a poor, cattle-grazing family in Wardha as Chindi (Ragamuffin), Sindhutai was first married off at the age of 10 to a man who was 20 years elder to her and then abandoned by her husband on charges of infidelity.
Travelling through the backwaters of Maharashtra, the Braveheart never abandoned hope and courage and ended up in San Jose on a fund-raising mission for her orphanage which still provides shelter to homeless kids.
Sindhutai was born in the Wardha district of Maharashtra on November 14, 1948. She studied only up to class 4. After her marriage, she settled in the Navargaon forest area of Wardha. During her pregnancy, a local landlord spread rumours about her, following which her husband abandoned her, her own family slammed the door on her and the community boycotted her. Sindhutai then gave birth to her child in a cowshed.
She made her living by singing and begging on trains. During this period of struggle, she realized that there were hundreds of children who needed a mother. It then changed the course of her life as she started adopting orphaned and abandoned children. Sindhutai ran an orphanage called Sanmati Bal Niketan Sanstha – in the Hadapsar area of Pune.
In this constant tussle to survive, she found herself in Chikhaldara, situated in the Amravati district of Maharashtra. Here, due to a tiger preservation project, 84 tribal villages were evacuated. Amidst the confusion, a project officer impounded 132 cows of Adivasi villagers and one of the cows died. Sapkal decided to fight for the proper rehabilitation of the helpless tribal villagers. Her efforts were acknowledged by the Minister of Forests and he made appropriate arrangements for alternative relocation.
Sapkal fought for the rehabilitation of eighty-four villages. In the course of her agitation, she met Chhedilal Gupta, the then Minister of Forests. He agreed that the villagers should not be displaced before the government had made appropriate arrangements at alternative sites. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrived to inaugurate the tiger project, Sapkal showed her photographs of an Adivasi who had lost his eyes to a wild bear. She is quoted as saying, “I told her that the forest department paid compensation if a cow or a hen was killed by a wild animal, so why not a human being? She immediately ordered compensation.
After being informed of the plight of orphaned and abandoned Adivasi children, Sapkal took care of the children in return for meagre amounts of food. Shortly thereafter, it became the mission of her life. She had received more than 750 awards for her social work. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2021, and the Ahilyabai Holkar Award in 2010 from the Maharashtra government. She had adopted more than 1,000 orphan children.
Sapkal devoted herself to orphans. As a result, she was fondly called “Mai”, which means “mother”. She nurtured over 1,500 orphaned children and through them had a grand family of 382 sons-in-law and 49 daughters-in-law.
We Indians are really proud of this legend, social activist. One ordinary young woman victim of domestic violence, forced to beg and sing in trains for a living, while begging also the abandoned children were her priority, she was homeless but fought off the shelters of many, she had to grill and grind herself in odd situations to make some lives worth living. Such courageous women make a lot of difference to society and the nation at large.
She reached the highest of the stages with her accomplishments, but she never flaunted that in her conduct, always draped in a 9-yard pink or red saree, head covered, one black Bindi of the forehead and simple chappal in feet. She used to look like Aai, a simple mother who carries the universe in her arms for her children.
May her soul rest in peace.