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Natwar Thakkar: The Living Legend

NeW Bureau

The Impulse and Pledge
Born to Gujarati parents on 9th October 1932 at Dahanu, a small town on the western coast of Maharashtra, Late Natwar Thakkar lovingly called as Natwarbhai was one of those individuals who followed the call of the heart and dedicated his entire life to the task of ’emotional bridge building’ for national integration. Inspired by the upsurge of nationalism in his younger days he volunteered to go to Nagaland with a mission of service and made Nagaland his home. His era and reaching is rejuvenating and special.

Natwar Thakkar grew up in a turbulent environment when the Indian freedom struggle was at its peak. He was ten years old when India’s last major struggle known as Quit India Movement was started on 9th August, 1942 that remained active for more than two years. The atmosphere of nationalism and Gandhiji’s ‘Do or Die’ slogan all around was so profound to inspire many young minds at that time. Entire country was surcharged with spirit of nationalism and Mahatma Gandhi was treated by people as the greatest leader of the country. As a keen follower of day-to-day developments of Quit India movement, the influence of Gandhi in Thakkar’s life began from that stage. However he did not had the slightest of ideas of what was in store for him.

Natwarbhai’s life was already being powered by the ambition to serve his country. Gandhiji’s emotional appeal to the youth to boycott schools and colleges and to engage in social service had a deep impact on him. He considered that schooling and education under British system was of no use. Then again from 1945 onwards, India passed through a very difficult time. When it was finally decided that India and Pakistan will be partitioned, it was followed by an unimaginable cruel violence. There was Hindu and Muslim riots and people on both sides were slaughtered. This made him question on why people should fight or why should this happen. When he gradually came to learn more about Gandhiji and his teachings, he realized that violence is futile, violence is wrong and one should strive to work for non-violence. This kind of awareness grew within him. Another incident that greatly disturbed him was Gandhiji’s assassination. He could not eat for several days. The episode made him realize that he should work for unity, brotherhood and harmony and this realization made him resolve to work in accordance with Gandhian principles. He was hardly fifteen when the freedom came but even at that young age Natwarbhai had developed the ambition to devote his life to social service on Gandhian lines.
Despite being a young boy, Natwarbhai had a deep desire to do something for the nation. Gandhian education focusing on self reliance and accordingly “education through life for life” touched him a lot. Thus after completion of his matriculation, he decided not to pursue his academic career further but to become a full time voluntary social worker on Gandhian stream. However he was about how to go pursue his mission. His search for a guide in his mission led him to come in contact with the Gandhian stalwart Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar, one of the closest associates of Mahatma Gandhi who worked with him right from the time Gandhiji established his ashram at Ahmedabad. Kakasaheb accepted Thakkar’s request as his student inmate in the year 1951.

Though initially Natwarbhai’s parents were hesitant, however seeing his zealthey allowed him to join Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar for two years. His association with Kakasaheb was in the nature of his informal higher education. Seeing his passion for national service and spirit of adventure, Acharya Kakasaheb motivated him to tour the entire country. He had much to learn from day to day life of the great man. In those days voluntary work meant no remuneration and so he persuaded his father to give him a pocket allowances of Rupees thirty five every month. It was during this time that Thakkar got an opportunity to travel to Europe after being nominated as a volunteer for the project planned by the Service Civil International, a worldwide body of social workers in Europe. At first, Thakkar was excited at the prospects of traveling to Europe. However he realized that there was little for him to tell about India in Europe as he had not really seen much of India, his own country.

In the midst of series of happenings, in those early years after independence, the Government constituted the first ever Backward Classes Commission where Kakasaheb was appointed the Chairperson of the Commission. Natwar Thakkar stayed and worked with Kakasaheb and also toured practically all over the country with him and observed his activities from close quarters. The tours proved highly educative as he had the unique opportunity to learn more about his motherland.

During the tours Kaksaheb Kalelkar frequently referred to the need and importance of rendering service on Gandhian lines to fellow countrymen inhabiting the border regions and also highlighted on the importance of emotional integration as India is so diverse. These discourses had tremendous impact on Natwar Thakkar and eventually volunteered to go to any part of the country that might be chosen for him.It was at that time that Kakasaheb was approached by many for ’emotional bridge building’ in the Northeast (erstwhile undivided Assam) and was looking for a volunteer. L.M Shrikant, the then Vice President of
the Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh (BAJSS) and the Commissioner for Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes asked Natwarbhai to work in Naga Hills of Assam, as being one of the most backward parts of India and offered support of the BAJSS to sustain the work. Being attracted to the mission of cultivating emotional integration between the inhabitants of the border land and those from rest of the country and on the advice of the eminent Gandhian Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Natwarbhai accepted the offer and set out for distant Nagaland and reached Chuchuyimlang in the early part of 1955.

With the urge to dedicate himself to the cause of services to the downtrodden that the Mahatma preached and practiced, Natwar Thakkar volunteered to go to Nagaland with a mission of service to countrymen and thus settled down at Chuchuyimlang village, in Mokokchung district and made Nagaland his home. He married to an equally committed Naga wife Lentina from Merangkong village who herself is the first ever Naga person to be trained as a Gandhian social worker at Sarania Ashram Guwahati established by Shrimati Amalprova Das and inaugurated in 1946 by Mahatma Gandhi himself. She underwent the training at Sarania Ashram as a gram sevika as well as got herself qualified as trained midwife. On completion of her training, she was posted at Chuchuyimlang. Natwar and Lentina met there and decided to become life partners. Lentina has been the most important support in carrying on in the midst of difficult circumstances. She has been a good advisor to him in understanding local traditions, customs and social culture and was a valuable colleague in various activities as well as in the general management of the Ashram.

With a distinct understanding of dedication and at great risk to his life, Natwarbhai stayed put at his position and continued his mission of service to the border State of Nagaland with the main aim of promoting goodwill and emotional integration through social and constructive service on Gandhian lines till his last breath. Working with the Nagas for more than six decades, Natwar Thakkar understood the very elusive issue: the mind of the Nagas. He was aware of the fact that Naga society has a very rich culture, which must be preserved even while the Nagas themselves embraced modernity and one cannot just introduce modern civilization into a pre-established social order and expect everything to change overnight.
Natwar Thakkar never worked with the intention of achieving success, but his effort was to silently serve the people with the best of his ability. He regarded Nagaland not just as his second home but as his adopted home. Natwar Thakkar passed away last year on 7th October leaving behind his wife, two daughters, a son and seven grandchildren. His undying spirit of voluntary work and community service will always be remembered among the people of Nagaland.

The Journey to the Naga Hills
In the year 1955, the hills inhabited by the Nagas were known as the Naga Hills district of the erstwhile province of Assam. There was no state of Nagaland as we know today. Shillong was the capital of Assam. With the blessing and armed with an open consent from his mentor Kalelkar who merely told him to do whatever he thought fit, Late Natwar Thakkar proceeded from Western India to Nagaland in the far East in April 1955, a state which was completely new for him, to promote national and emotional integration through voluntary service on Gandhian principles and to conduct activities for all round development of the people of Nagaland and Northeast India. Initially he went to Shillong and stayed with his guardian and guide Mr Sashimeren Aier, the then Regional Assistant Commissioner of SC and ST for few days, who suggested him to work in Nagaland. During the stay, fine points about Nagaland were made clear to him so as to make him understand about the people Nagaland. Mr Sashimeren also advised him to teach Hindi to the people so as to keep himself occupied. Eventually Chuchuyimlang village was identified as the place of work of Natwar Thakkar.

For a strict vegetarian, it involved a lot of adjustment to be made in an absolutely different environment both geographically as well as culturally. Value adjustment was the most difficult part for him. Many warned him that to work in Nagaland and to get accepted he should learn to eat non-vegeterian food. He tasted a piece of pork for the first time in his life at Shillong. Quite understadably he had a tough time unable to swallow and spat the meat out. A college student by the name Aosanen (who served as Government servant and got retired as Secretary) from Akhoya Village, who was on vacation, was sent along with Thakkar to help him out.
In April 1955, at the age of 23 years, Natwabhai arrived in Chuchuyimlang village. At that point in time, the newly excavated motorable road was kutcha (not metalled) with no bus service, no arrangement for water supply, no medical facilities and no electricity. In fact there was absolutely no sign of any developmental activities in the area. The road from Amguri in Assam foothills into the mountains of Nagaland was just 80km but it took the whole day to reach the village due to the difficult terrain.
One thing which Natwar Thakkar discovered within a few days of his arrival at Chuchuyimlang was that, the village was completely self reliant on its primary requirements of food, clothing and shelter. Rice being the staple food of the Nagas, the entire requirements of rice was grown by the villagers in their own village and not a single grain of rice was procured from outside the village. As much as clothing was concerned, the Nagas dressed scantily and the entire requirement of cloth was woven by Naga women in every house within their own village. As far as the shelters were concerned, the Nagas built their houses out of the locally available materials within the outskirts of their village. That self sufficiency of the village was no doubt, a new experience for him because of coming from an urban area where people procured their requirements through payments from shop. However, things have changed fast due to various reasons and the self sufficiency of the Naga villages is a thing of past.
When he reached the Naga- Hills district in 1955, the region was reeling with violence and he had to face many challenges. The Phizo- led Naga National Council had triggered a violent secessionist movement that brought a section of the Naga society in direct armed conflict with the Union of India. Many Nagas viewed Natwar Thakkar either as a Hindu missionary or a government spy. Thakkar had barely settled in the village when the militants began a series of executions in the region, targeting public servants and government sympathizers. Many nationalist citizens were murdered, people lived under fear and a sense of insecurity pervaded every village. The army had to move in. Clashes between the underground rebels and army followed. Nagaland was converted into a battlefield. Confrontation between local, unarmed Nagas and the army were common. In 1956, the district was declared as a disturbed area and put under the command of the Indian Army.

As the only non- Naga inhabitant in the region, Natwar Thakkar played a key role in settling confrontations and defusing tense situations.When the army moved into Nagaland by the end of 1955, there used to be a lot of misunderstanding between members of the armed forces and the common villagers. Thakkar took over the role of intermediary to help dispel the misunderstanding. The work of reconciliation earned him goodwill from both and his services were appreciated.
However, these created a lot of suspicion in the minds of the militants. Trouble from militants flared up and there were occasions when his role was misunderstood. They started suspecting his activities and a series of incidents were carried out to scare him away. But true to his idealism he visited neighbouring villages and exhorted villagers in favour of peace and harmony. He also approached villagers and Government authorities and became instrumental in removing misunderstanding between the ordinary villagers and the guardians of law and order. Many ugly situations were prevented. Conversely his name was included in the hit list of the militants and an organised raid was conducted on his house on 9th October 1957. Thakkar and his family had a providential escape. The surrounding villagers however expressed their resentment and lodged protest before the extremists over the incident.
Even the government often found his work frustrating as he took a principled stand against any injustice and unfair practices causing harm to the Naga community. Nevertheless he carried on and remained committed like a true Gandhian. He continued on this journey of nurturing a healthy curiosity amidst changes that sometimes overpowered the village life.

An additional unexpected blow for Natwar Thakkar was that in February 1982, the Kudal Commission, headed by Purushottam Das Kudal was set up by Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi to investigate four major organizations – the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development. It inquired into charges that they had compromised national interest by receiving foreign funds and participating in political activities depite being charitable institutions. Since Natwar Thakkar was closely associated with Jayaprakash Narayan, who had backed the Pre-Emergency stir against Indira Gandhi, the Commission trained its guns on the Ashram and criticized its activities as ‘anti-national’- claiming they “affected the sovereignty and integrity of India as well as the security of the state.” Even before the Commission could prove its allegations, the Government strictly advised various ministries against providing funds to the Ashram. Amidst much criticism, the Kudal Commission was abruptly revoked. Though the allegations against the Ashram were withdrawn and the court gave a clean chit, it was a serious blow for the Ashram because most of the activities came to a grinding halt for want of financial support.

In August 1994, Natwar Thakkar was issued a notice by the militants demanding payment of heavy annual tax from the Ashram. On expressing his inability to meet their demand, a serious threat was delivered to him personally and to the existence of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram. However he was saved with the tremendous support from the villagers of Chuchuyimlang and the matter was eventually resolved through the village elders of Chuchuyimlang. They even negotiated with the extremist representatives for his safety.
Late Natwar Thakkar worked in unfamiliar and complex surroundings in the midst of heavy odds and constant resistance. He never paid attention to the routine of worldly gain. Most of the Gandhian institutions are established by their founders in familiar surroundings and majority of them have operated in generally Hindu localities. But Natwar Thakkar worked in a tribal society which is predominantly Christian and which still hold diversity and value system of the early stages of civilization. It was a difficult and painful experience. However he survived because of his deep love for India and her culture, his devotion to Gandhi and selfless service to the Nagaland and it is in itself is a major achievement.

Many visitors and dignitaries blessed his work and stood behind his efforts in solidarity. Awards, recognitions and fame came his way, but it never affected him personally and he remained to be the same humble person. He proved by personal example, the great potential of voluntary service in generating goodwill through selfless service.

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