Natwar Thakkar, popularly known as Natwar Bhai, remains one of the most fascinating personalities of post-Independence India.
Inspired by Kaka Kalekar, the Gandhian social reformer, this social worker from the coastal town of Dahanu in present-day Maharashtra migrated to Nagaland in the early 1950s.
There, he set up a Gandhian ashram at Chuchuyimlang village in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district, and assisted its residents in “various development and income generating activities.”
The Padma Shri award winner also helped build bridges with Naga tribes at a time when they were at war with the Indian armed forces at great risk to his own life.
Journey to Nagaland
Natwar Bhai was just 23 when he was sent to Nagaland, by the Bhartiya Adim Jati Sevak Sangh (BAJSS), a tribal welfare organisation.
At the time, Nagaland was called the Naga Hills district of the former Assam Province of British India along the border of Indian and Myanmar (Burma). It only achieved statehood in 1963.
The task of BAJSS workers was essentially two-fold—they would assist with the socio-economic upliftment of tribal communities living in the remotest corners of India and provide support for the process of integrating this region with the Indian mainland.
Among the first regions they sought to make a mark in, were the Naga Hills, comprising of a plethora of once warring tribes ruled remotely by the British that had by the 1950s developed a ‘Naga National’ consciousness, seeking secession from the Indian mainland.
The seekers of an Independent Naga nation had demanded before the Simon Commission in 1929 that they “should not be thrust to the mercy of people (mainland India) who could never have conquered us themselves and to whom we were never subjected to,” and were more or less cut off from the freedom movement as well.
Historian Ramachandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi:
“There had been no satyagraha here, no civil disobedience—in fact, not one Gandhian leader in a white cap had ever visited these hills.”
In fact, a month before Independence, a delegation of Naga National Council (NNC) leaders led by Zapu Phizo from the Angami tribe, met with senior leaders of the Indian National Congress including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, making their case for Independence.
Nehru agreed to provincial autonomy but no Independence, while Gandhi urged them to join the new Indian nation, but promised they wouldn’t be compelled by force.
“I will come to Kohima and ask them to shoot me before they shoot one Naga…. Personally, I believe you all belong to me, to India. But if you say you don’t, no one can force you,” Gandhi reportedly said.
By the mid-1950s, the likes of Phizo and his supporters had begun collecting arms leading up to what would be probably the most protracted and longest running domestic insurgency in Independent India.
A region he called home
On his very first trip from Jorhat in Assam to Chuchu village, he met his future wife Lentina Ao, who hailed from the Merangkong, a village inhabited by the Ao tribe.
She was then working as a social worker and midwife at the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram in Guwahati but had come home for her holidays.
Merely six months after his arrival to Nagaland, Natwar Bhai proposed to Lentina. At a time when the Indian state and Nagas were at war with each other, this was a union that many in Lentina’s own family didn’t accept.
The couple had to settle on a court marriage in Jorhat instead of town nearby for fear of an attack by underground militants.
Constantly accused as an ‘Indian spy’ by the insurgents, Natwar Bhai’s life was always under threat. He was repeatedly told to leave Nagaland with insurgents warning villagers not to shelter or aid him. However, none of those warnings truly deterred him from his social work, starting with the construction of the Nagaland Gandhi ashram in 1955.
“The ashram instinctively took upon itself to the peacemaking in surrounding villages in a quiet, informal manner. Thakkar had started his mission with running a daily medical aid clinic. The first aid training received by him as a Boy Scout during his school days proved helpful. His second activity was taking Hindi classes for two hours daily at the middle school. This, in brief, was the beginning of ashram’s work. He became a suspect in those initial days in the eyes of Naga Christian Missionaries as well as militants,” says this profile.
Besides the ashram, he also engaged in some remarkable developmental and income-generating work in the region, which included among other things, beekeeping, a mechanised carpentry workshop, oil ghanis, gur production, setting up a biogas plant and opening Khadi sale outlets all through his time there till passing away on October 7, 2018.
Eventually, Natwar Bhai completely immersed himself into the local way of life by even partaking in pork and rice beer while performing his duties as a Gandhian social worker.
All this work helped him forge an unbreakable bond with the residents of the village. His efforts also resulted in the opening of an extension centre of National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology in the Chuchu village in 2006.
Having said that, it wasn’t all stoic poise when it came to dealing with both underground insurgents and the Indian state as well.
By the mid-1970s, factionalism had reared its ugly head within the Naga movement for independence. One of the landmark splits was within the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), which had itself broken away from the NNC in 1975, into two NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (Khaplang).
In the words of Visier Sanyu, a historian who wrote ‘A Naga Odyssey,’ this factionalism gave away ground to multiple splinter militant groups and more violence.
“The cycle of violence was inflamed by the presence of the Indian Army and often orchestrated by the Indian Intelligence Service…. The situation was a confusing mix of tribalism, politics, ideology, nationalism and corruption.”
This is when the dangerous extortion rackets really began to take hold, and Natwar Bhai and his ashram weren’t spared the demand for ‘protection money’ either.
There was also the mighty arm of the Indian state to contend with particularly during the Indira Gandhi government in the early 1980s, which was settling scores with another Gandhian leader JP Narayan, who had in the past publicly praised the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram and Natwar Bhai’s work.
Matters came to a head in 1994, when a militant group threatened that they would cut his head off if he didn’t pay up. Unwilling to compromise what his ashram stood for, he refused but had to leave for Guwahati. He permanently returned to Chuchu only in 2014 and lived there for the rest of his days.
Despite all these obstacles, he is remembered fondly by those who worked closely with him, building bridges between tribes, regions, political and military opponents, while also serving a community tirelessly without discrimination. In fact, many refer to him as ‘Nagaland’s Gandhi.’
It’s a shame that school or college students aren’t taught about his remarkable work in the civil war-torn region.
Politicians looking to establish total peace and harmony in the Northeast could do a lot worse than follow Natwar Bhai’s example.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)