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The Unique Ashram: It’s Enduring Services

NeW Bureau

Located at a distance of 80 kilometers from the nearest railway station, Amguri in Assam and at a distance of 30 kilometers from the district H.Q of Mokokchung,Late Natwar Thakkar initiated Nagaland Gandhi Ashram at a PWD shed in the year 1955 at the hilltop of Chuchuyimlang, an Ao Naga Village.The newly excavated motorable road was kutcha and there was no bus service, no arrangement for water supply, no medical facilities, no marker and no electricity. However Natwar Thakkar is one of those individuals whose entire life was dedicated to the cause of national integration. He bestowed concrete expression of his spirit of service by undertaking various socio-economic developments programmes, as they were completely missing in the area at that time.
With not much delay after his arrival and responding to the needs of the community, Natwar Thakkar undertook two activities. He started his first mission by running a daily medical aid clinic. Secondly he started teaching Hindi for two hours daily at a local middle school. Teaching Hindi was in a way a Blessing in Disguise for him because it benefitted him in learning Ao dialect within six months. Thereafter, a number of development initiatives were pioneered by Gandhi Ashram. Some activities flourished while others did not. The Ashram also instinctively took upon itself to the peace making in surrounding villages in a quiet, informal manner. The unseen work of strengthening the bonds of goodwill and brotherhood through personal contacts, talks, discussion and mixing with the people also continued.
Nagas knew about Gandhi and they respected him. However social service centers on Gandhian lines with secular background was an unknown phenomenon. All social services till then were conducted in Nagaland by the American Baptist Christian missions (There were no foreign missionaries in Nagaland when Natwar went to Nagaland). All the mission centers were run entirely by the Nagas in the fifties. Natwar Thakkar was a suspect in their eyes. They feared that this Ashram might have the secret design of opposing Christianity and spread Hinduism. Hence a sense of hostility prevailed 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 opposition from both of them and a flimsy situation arose. Nevertheless he kept on and stayed like a true Gandhian. His work expanded and found acceptance amongst the community and became a part of the local community.

Demonstrating personal hygiene- Natwar Thakkar giving a bath to a Chuchuyimlang boy in 1955
Demonstrating personal hygiene- Natwar Thakkar giving a bath to a Chuchuyimlang boy in 1955

When Natwar Thakkar arrived Chuchuyimlang, there was absolutely no sign of any developmental activities in the area. Therefore bit by bit, responding to the needs of the community, a number of development program were pioneered by the Gandhi Ashram and made an impact in the lives of the local people. The medical aid center of the Ashram organised highly popular medical relief camps on different occasions and it was attended by thousands of patients on each occasion. After initiating the activity of medical aid, he approached the Government for greater facility to the people in this direction, thus in course of time Chuchuyimlang was provided with a dispensary with qualified doctor.
Ashram also worked to get other amenities such as Post Office and piped water supply at Chuchuyimlang. Prior to pipe water supply, Natwarbhai initially made arrangements to install a bamboo pipeline. With the help of the village people and Assam Rifles he installed a bamboo pipeline from Mangmiyim water source near Mongsenyimti village to Chuchuyimlang. Bamboo pipeline is nothing new for the Nagas, however to get it done for such a long distance was a new thing. Then later on, he persuaded the authorities to see that they get a regular pipeline. It was in fact an achievement because Chuchuyimlang got water supply even before Kohima, the capital city of Nagaland had piped water supply.
Realising the need to be in permanent activity, the Ashram in the year 1957 started vocational training center for school dropouts and physically handicapped (other than blind) to teach trades of carpentry and tailoring. The trainees were provided boarding and lodging facilities free of cost. It is inspiring to note that a good number of young men trained at this school are earning their livelihood through the trades in which they were trained.
Nagaland Gandhi Ashram sent batches of young Naga men and women to Wardha to learn Hindi. Many of these trained persons were employed as Hindi teachers at different government school in Nagaland. Correspondingly when Natwarbhai learnt about the plan of installation of electricity in Nagaland – as there was no electricity during that time, the Ashram deputed young men for training as electrical wiremen to an I.T.I at Delhi. It is worth mentioning that the first Naga Hindi teacher and electrical wireman to be appointed by the Government were those sent from Nagaland Gandhi Ashram that got trained in Wardha and Delhi.

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In 1960, Natwar Thakkar conducted another pioneering work in economic development. With the help of Khadi & Village Industries Commission, the Ashram started experimenting and demonstrating Bee-keeping, Gur and Khandsari making, Black smithy unit, Power driven oil Ghanis, Biogas Plant, Mechanised carpentry workshop, Weaving, Cane and Bamboo works, Khadi sales centers, promoted sericulture, vegetable cultivation, horticulture and dairy in the region. Many of these were started for the first time in Nagaland and also it undertook on a modest scale with limited resources of manpower and funds. However they were pioneering efforts and path finding exercises.
Gandhi Ashram’s most significant achievement in this field has been the papularisation of the skill of modern Bee-keeping throughout the state. In the beginning, Natwar Thakkar sent two persons for training as fieldsman who did a very good work after returning. In fact, Bee-keeping became such a lucrative occupation that the practice spread throughout Nagaland. Fieldsmen were sent to Wokha, Tuensang, Kohima, Zunheboto and it delivered an immense fulfillment. The entire credit for the honey movement in Nagaland must go to Nagaland Gandhi Ashram.
Another trial on an experimental basis was of Gur & Khandsari making or Jaggery out of sugarcane. The outcome was very good because it produced an excellent quality. This experiment created considerable interest and became a popular activity for few years. Similarly a power Ghani was set-up to produce edible oil locally and also to provide incentive to the farmers for cultivation of oil seeds.

AIIMS and Army Medical Corp conducting Medical relief camp at NGA
AIIMS and Army Medical Corp conducting Medical relief camp at NGA

Natwar Thakkar faced many ups and downs, many obstacles and many challenges because all these experiments were viewed with ridicule initially. Still his persistent and patient efforts finally motivated the State Government to organize a State Khadi & Village Industries Board to cover wider areas of the State with these programmes. Another significant moment in the Ashram was of ’70s, when the first ever rural telephone exchange in Nagaland was set up at Chuchuyimlang. Since 1974, the Ashram is also involved itself in conducting non-traditional cash crops like bamboo, organic production of banana, turmeric and ginger.
In the field of education the Ashram also ran few Balwadies or pre-schools in and around the neighbouring villages that went even upto Mongtikang at Phom tribe area and also set up a library where books of Indian culture and history, Gandhian teachings, tribes of North-East India etc. are kept at Chuchuyimlang. The Ashram facilitated a high school, a computer training institute and an academy of human development.
In the year June 2005, the village elders (Kosasanger Putu) of Chuchuyimlang village approached Natwar Thakkar to celebrate the 50th year’s achievement of the Ashram in the village. To commemorate the event they also requested him to bring some development activities that could be named after Mahatma Gandhi. As a consequence, a Rural Extension Centre of National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT) was started in 2006 at Chuchuyimlang as a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India and Nagaland Gandhi Ashram. The centre has so far produced more than 3000 computer professionals who are comfortably placed in Government as well as non-governmental agencies and organizations. It is noteworthy that after 1990, when the computer movement began to rollout all over the country, Nagaland Gandhi Ashram was probably the first NGO to initiate a centre in Chuchuyimlang village with the help of the Ministry of Communications, Government of India.
In 2015, Nagaland Ashram in partnership with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai established Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development (MGAHD), as conceived by Late Natwar Thakkar to develop as a unique Centre of Learning with number of institutes. Financially supported by The Hans Foundation, New Delhi, the Academy was formally inaugurated on 2nd October 2015 with the then Minister HRD, Government of India, Smti. Smriti Irani as the Chief Guest. The Centre conducts a Diploma Programme in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship and M.A. Social Work with specialization in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship. There is a proposal to develop a fully residential campus for the Academy on the land measuring 232 acres that has been donated by the Village Council of Chuchuyimlang at a prime location without any charge or condition“That will be a farewell gift to me”- Late Natwar Thakkar. True to his words, a sudden illness took away Natwar Thakkar’s life on 7th October 2018 and it is painful to mention that he passed away without being able to accomplish his vision of developing the permanent campus.

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Those who did not believe in national integration did not see Ashram activities sympathetically. Nevertheless, Nagaland Gandhi Ashram is, no doubt an Ashram with a difference. The silent efforts of Late Natwar Thakkar may appear variably modest to a casual observer. In its external appearance it differs from many other Gandhian centers of service elsewhere. It has however consistently remained to the Gandhian direction of cultivating a spirit of committed selfless service for the well-being of society. The activities initiated by Gandhi Ashram aimed at achieving a basic ideal in Gandhi’s book: self-sufficiency of each village. In this the Ashram was supported by the very nature of Naga tribal society.

Smriti Irani, then HRD Minister inaugurating MGAHD on October 2, 2015. The then CM, T.R. Zeliang and Natwar Thakkar seen in the picture.
Smriti Irani, then HRD Minister inaugurating MGAHD on October 2, 2015. The then CM, T.R. Zeliang and Natwar Thakkar seen in the picture.

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