Natwarbhai Thakkar and the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram established by him in Chuchuyimlang village of Mokokchung district have worked unceasingly to integrate Naga society with the national mainstream.
By Ajit Kanitkar*, Mokokchung, Nagaland
The northeastern states of the country and its people are usually in the limelight for the wrong reasons. Be it news of violence, floods, insurgency and road blocks, the collective imagery of this part of our country in the national consciousness is still of a region that is not just geographically remote but mentally alien.
At first, there was not a single educated person in Chuchuyimlang village. Now we can count a few IAS officers, teachers, government servants and lawyers. Natwarbhai Thakkar
The story of Natwarbhai Thakkar of Nagaland is refreshingly different. Thakkar came to Nagaland in 1955 to promote national and emotional integration through voluntary service on Gandhian principles and to conduct activities for the all-round development of the people of Nagaland and Northeast India. A Gujarati by birth, he chose to move from his hometown in Maharashtra in western India to Nagaland in the east, inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and by mentor Kaka Kalelkar, freedom fighter and social reformer. Since then, he, along with his wife Lentina, an Ao Naga, and many volunteers and staff of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram have continued their peace-building efforts against all odds.
When he arrived in 1955, the road from Amguri in the Assam foothills into the mountains of Nagaland was just about 80 km but it took many hours to reach Chuchuyimlang village due to the difficult terrain. Chuchuyimlang then had houses with thatched roofs. Over the years, these made way to houses with tinned sheets and later into concrete structures. Communication facilities were a distant dream as not even a post office existed then nor a telephone link with the outside world. Electricity was a luxury.
In his first week in the village, he saved a child who needed medical attention and care. Slowly and steadily, responding to the needs of the community, a number of development initiatives were pioneered by the Gandhi Ashram established by him. These included weaving, vocational education, primary education, a library, youth activities, livelihood training and so on. Some activities flourished while others did not. The government, taking a cue from the Ashram, started a number of initiatives serving the very purpose of pilot efforts undertaken by the Ashram.
However, the journey was treacherous and Natwarbhai had to face many challenges. Those who did not believe in national integration did not see Ashram activities sympathetically. In early years of his coming to Nagaland, his house was attacked at night by forces hostile to his efforts in peace building. He and his family had a narrow escape. The government often found his work irksome as he took a principled stand against any injustice and unfair practices causing harm to the Naga community.
But Natwarbhai persisted and remained steadfast like a true karmayogi. As his work expanded and found acceptance amongst the community, Natwarbhai became a part of the local community. Visitors and dignitaries blessed his work and stood behind his efforts in solidarity. Awards, recognitions and fame came his way, but it did not affect him personally. He remains the same humble person with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
After 1990, when the computer education movement began to roll out all over the country, Nagaland Gandhi Ashram was the probably the first NGO to establish a centre in Chuchuyimlang village with the help of Ministry of Communications of the Government of India. The Ashram recently tied up with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and is offering a postgraduate program in Human Development. The government has allocated land in the village and hopefully, a fully residential campus will come up in the coming years. As he says, "That will be a farewell gift to me."
Natwarbhai is a living encyclopaedia of the Northeast, especially Nagaland—the 16th state that was born in December 1963. I first met him in his Ashram in August 1987 when I was working as a volunteer with Jnana Prabodhini, a Pune-based NGO working in the field of education and national integration. I then lost contact with him, meeting him almost 30 years later in November 2016. When I had first met him, he had mentioned the importance of cultivating a sense of healthy curiosity. Those words had stayed with me. Natwarbhai had continued on this journey of nurturing a healthy curiosity amidst changes that sometimes overpower the village life in remote regions. Natwarbhai at his young age of 85 is an active Facebook user. In fact it's thanks to Facebook that I could reconnect with him.
There was neither a post office nor a telephone facility. Now the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram runs a computer centre with over 60 computers offering several courses for Naga youths. Natwarbhai Thakkar
During my visit, we talked about many things. I wanted to hear from him in particular on what has changed and not changed in Nagaland in these 50 years. His observations are poignant. "At first, there was not a single educated person in Chuchuyimlang village. Now we can count a few IAS officers, teachers, government servants and lawyers. There was neither a post office nor a telephone facility. Now the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram runs a computer centre with over 60 computers offering several short and long duration courses for Naga youths. I see several other positive things happening. We have now three local newspapers published from the state. There is a lot of debate on issues affecting Naga society. I see a small beginning of the emergence of civil society. In our neighbourhood, someone recently started an orphanage." He does, however, note that he observes a worrisome trend of moral erosion in society.
On his long innings to build bridges between Naga society and rest of the country, Natwarbhai is more circumspect in his reply. "For me, it has been a long and sometimes tiring and frustrating effort. I think that this connect [between Nagas and mainland India] is still very weak. It will take a long time to build strong linkages. But I am ever optimistic. In my village Chuchuyimlang, the village council decided to honour me with an award for lifetime achievement for community service. I am the only non-Naga to have received this honour."
Power of prayer
What is that energy that continues to motivate him against all odds? He shares, "When I left for Nagaland, my mentor Kaka Kalelkar had advised me that you might believe or you might not believe. But try to continue to offer prayer every day as you get immersed in work. Thankfully, I have not missed my prayers all these years, with only a few exceptions. It's the universal prayer that is sung in every Gandhi Ashram. Om tat sat sri narayan to purushottam guru tu."
As I returned to my workplace after my weeklong visit to the northeastern state, I continued to hum the universal prayer of peace that Natwarbhai and his fellow workers in the Ashram sang year after year, every single day, to promote peace and wellbeing, literally at the frontier.
Ajit Kanitkar is a Consultant for Tata Education and Development Trust and a Member of the research team at Centre for Development and Research in Pune. Prior to this, he was Program Officer at Ford Foundation, India office, and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, both in New Delhi. He taught at Institute of Rural Management, Anand, during 1992-1995.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.