NATWAR THAKKAR AND NAGALAND GANDHI ASHRAM A BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Shri Natwar Thakkar is a person who has dedicated his life to the cause of national integration. He was born to Gujarati parents at Dahanu, a small town on the western coast of Maharashtra. Inspired by the upsurge of nationalism in his younger days he volunteered to go to Nagaland with a mission of service and has made Nagaland his home. The entire population of Nagaland consists of 14 major Naga Tribes, and is listed as the Scheduled Tribes.
Shunning publicity, he has silently worked for four and a half decades in the complex and inhospitable socio political climate of Nagaland. He is supported in is work by his Naga wife Lentina who herself is the first ever Naga person to be trained as a Gandhian worker at Sarania Ashram in Guwahati. Shrimati Amalprova Das established this Sarania Ashram at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi. It is one of the rare and privileged establishments in our country, as it was started with the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi and was inaugurated by him. Lentina was the first girl from her village, Merangkong to rise up to high school stage. The school was located at the administrative Head quarters of Mokokchung. Thakkars have four children: two sons and two daughters.
With a single-minded devotion and at great risk to his life, Natwar Thakkar has stayed put at his post and continues his mission of service till date. The main objective of his mission is to promote goodwill and emotional integration through voluntary social service on Gandhian lines.
Seeing his passion for national service and his spirit of adventure, late Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar motivated young Natwar to work for national integration by starting a social service center in a border region. In pursuance of this goal, Thakkar went to Nagaland in early 1955 and established the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram under the auspices of Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangha. It was located at Chuchuyimlang, a village on a hilltop inhabited by the AO Nagas. The atmosphere of Nagaland (known as Naga Hills then) was charged in those days with high tension due to the secessionist movement launched by a section of the Nagas. The newly excavated motorable road was kutcha. There was no bus service, no arrangements for water supply, no medical facilities, no market and no electricity. All these limitations meant difficulties. But that did not discourage him. It is noteworthy that Natwar was only 23 year old when he reached Chuchuyimlang in Naga Hills of those days.
Much before Thakkar established his Gandhi Ashram, the Nagas had known about Gandhi and they respected him. But they were not intimately involved in the freedom struggle. Social service centers of Gandhian stream with secular background were an unknown phenomenon. The American Baptist Christian missions conducted all the social service activities till then in Nagaland.
There were no foreign missionaries in Nagaland when Natwar reached Nagaland. The entire mission centers were run entirely by the Nagas. Thakkar became a suspect in their eyes. They feared that this Ashram might have the secret agenda of opposing Christianity and spreading Hinduism. Hence a sense of hostility developed against the Ashram in that circle. On the other hand the militants suspected him to be a Government plant to report and work against them. He faced resistance from both of them. It was no doubt a highly a delicate situation.
The political unrest took a violent turn within a few months of Thakkar’s arrival at Chuchuyimlang. A reign of terror was let loose by the militants all over Nagaland. Many citizens with integrationist leanings lost their lives. The people lived in fear and a sense of insecurity pervaded every village.
In the face of ongoing violence the army had to move in. Clashes between the underground rebels and army followed. Nagaland got converted into a battlefield. Thakkar’s life was exposed to serious threats. But true to his idealism he went round the neighboring villages and exhorted the village folks to strive in favor of peace. He was instrumental in removing misunderstandings between the ordinary villagers and the guardians of law and order, which averted many ugly situations. Such a work of reconciliation earned him goodwill from both sides and his services were appreciated by both of them. But at the same time his role was misunderstood in the militant camp.
The army authorities generally appreciated his service to Naga people and the then G.O.C., Eastern Command; Lt. General S.P.P. Thorat highly appreciated his mission conducted with a sense of dedication.
The extremists, however, felt uncomfortable over Thakkar’s growing popularity. His name was included in their hit list and an organized raid was conducted on his thatched hut in late 1957. Thakkar and his family had a providential escape. The surrounding villages expressed their strong resentment to the extremists over the incident and lodged protest. Though no such attempt on his life was repeated, Thakkar did have brushes with death in the battlefield like situation that prevailed in Nagaland.
Thakkar was sent to Nagaland with the knowledge and blessings of the Central Government and the Government of Assam, as Naga Hills was a part of Assam then. His sprit of sacrifices and patriotic service also attracted personal attention from the then Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and the President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the Chief Minister and the Governor of Assam. Besides the important position they held in the Government, they were also eminent participants in India’s freedom struggle. They extended sympathy and affectionate attention to the young Gandhian Volunteer working in a dangerous situation at a great risk to his life.
The successive Prime Ministers right up to the second tenure of Mrs. Indira Gandhi continued this tradition of personal interest in Thakkar's work. Shri Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister made it a point to personally visit the Ashram at Chuchuyimlang to bless its founder. Other dignitaries who blessed the Ashram through their personal visits were Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Jaiprakash Narayan, General S. M. Srinagesh, Sri L.P. Singh, Dr. M.M. Thomas, late Dr. Umashanker Joshi, Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Member Secretary Planning Commission, successive Chief Ministers of Nagaland, eminent Nagas belonging to political and religious fields and others. But for such encouragement and the constant guidance of Kakasaheb Kalelkar, it would not have been possible for Thakkar to sustain himself in the then prevailing inhospitable socio-political climate of Nagaland.
While the work of strengthening the bonds of goodwill and brotherhood continued, Shri Thakkar also gave concrete expression of his spirit of service by undertaking various socio-economic development programmes. He sent batches of young Naga men and women to Wardha to learn Hlndi. He also started vocational training center for school dropouts and physically handicapped to teach the trades of carpentry and tailoring. The medical aid center of the Ashram organized highly popular medical relief camps on three different occasions attended by more than 2000 patients on each occasion. He had also set up a small Library and started the tradition of observing national days like Gandhi Jayanti, Republic Day etc., experimented with running a small dairy etc. etc. All these programmes were undertaken on a modest scale with limited resources of manpower and funds. But they were pioneering efforts and path finding exercises. Many of these were started for the first time in Nagaland. In due course, the State Government also included some of them in their development program.
Another pioneering work of Shri Thakkar through his Gandhi Ashram has been the experimenting and demonstrating Khadi & Village Industries such as, Bee-keeping, Gur making, Oil ghanis, Biogas Plant, Mechanised carpentry workshop, Khadi sales centres etc. All these experiments were initially viewed with ridicule. But Thakkar's persistence and patience finally motivated even the State Government to organise a State Khadi & Village Industries Board to cover the entire State with these programmes. The Gandhi Ashram's most significant achievement in this field has been the popularisation of modern Bee-keeping throughout the State. It has found acceptance in all parts of Nagaland.
Yet another area of Thakkar’s contribution is his efforts to modernise Chuchuyimlang and surroundings by motivating Government authorities and the local community to establish essential amenities. The one time unknown mountain village of Chuchuyimlang now has a telephone exchange, full-fledged post office, small Government hospital, piped water supply, a branch of the State Bank of India and a Government High School. Thakkar's contribution in these efforts was whole hearted and of major proportions. In fact he was the initiator of these efforts.
Though small, Nagaland is a complex State governed by a set of values different from most part of the country. It continues to be a trouble spot causing anxiety. Emotional integration is a continuous process and we have many more miles to go. And yet independent India has succeeded in bringing the Nagas closer to the mainstream of national life. Thanks to our humanistic Gandhian heritage and the Statesman-like political approach evolved by late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and followed by his successors.
Thakkar’s silent efforts may appear quantitatively modest to a casual observer. Natwar Thakkar is one of the few non-Nagas whose name is known in many parts of Nagaland and generally admired. In a conservative, close society of Nagaland it is an important gain, His very survival for such a long time, raising the banner of Gandhi and national integration is in itself a major achievement. Indifferent to routine worldly gains, he has worked in unfamiliar and complex surroundings in the midst of heavy odds and constant resistance.
Many eminent visitors to the Gandhi Ashram have paid rich and touching tributes to Thakkar’s missions. Most of our Gandhian institutions are established by their founders in familiar surroundings. A majority of them have operated in predominantly Hindu localities. Thakkar is working in a tribal society which is predominantly Christian and which still possesses remnants and value system of the early stages of civilisation.
The toughest challenge to any sensitive individual in such circumstances is to attempt psychological adjustments. It is a trying and painful experience. There are not many comparable examples in our country today. This has been a unique mission. He has survived because of his deep love for India and her culture, his devotion to Gandhi and his selfless service to the Nagas. He has also shown by personal example the great potential of voluntary service in generating goodwill through selfless service.
It is heartening to note that the nation has duly expressed its recognition of Thakkar’s services in various ways. He has been conferred with a few prestigious awards, chief amongst them are Jamnalal Bajaj Award-1987, Indira Gandhi Award – 1994, Meghalaya State Mahatma Gandhi Award –1996. He has also been honoured on 1999 Republic day with Padmashri Award. The latest major award in the series, which was presented in January 2001, is the Diwaliben Mehta Award for pioneering work in tribal welfare and promoting national integration.
-----------------------------------*This note is prepared by compilation of different write-ups on Thakkar and Nagaland Gandhi Ashram.