Keeping Gandhiji alive

Veteran Gandhian Natwar Thakkar has adopted Nagaland as his home and is striving to keep Gandhiji’s ideals alive. Anindita Das chats with him on the relevance of Bapuji and more….

How and when did you develop an interest in the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi?

I was born in 1932. India’s last major struggle started on the August 9, 1942 and it is known as Quit India Movement. I was then ten years old child. The movement remained active for more than two years. Entire country was surcharged with spirit of nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi was treated by people as the greatest leader of our country. Whenever he happened to pass by a particular spot people used to throng around him in large numbers to get a glimpse of the great man and derive great satisfaction of having seen the Mahatma. The influence of Gandhi in my life became evident from that stage.

You have made Nagaland your second home. Can you tell us how and why did you decide to come to Nagaland?

I would like to describe Nagaland not as my second home but as my adopted home. I arrived in the year 1955 at Chuchuyimlang, the village where the ashram is located. It was the impact of nationalism and my reverence for Mahatma Gandhi which brought me to Nagaland.

After completion of my matriculation, I decided not to pursue my academic career further but to become a full time voluntary social worker of Gandhian stream. I looked around for a mentor to guide me to such a life. Fortunately I came in contact with Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar who was one of the closest associates of Mahatma Gandhi who worked with him right from the time Gandhiji established his ashram at Ahmedabad. I met Kakasaheb in the year 1951 and he accepted my request to accept me as his student inmate. I stayed with him, worked with him, went around different parts of the country and observed his activities from close quarters.

In those days one theme about which he used to frequently speak in public meetings was about guarding our national frontiers. According to him the frontiers can best be guarded by the inhabitants of the frontier land itself. But there is a need for cultivating emotional integration between the inhabitants of our frontiers and rest of the country. According to him such an objective can best be achieved through rendering voluntary service to our brethren of our borderland selflessly with full dedication.

I was attracted to the mission of cultivating emotional integration between the inhabitants of the border land and those from rest of the country and reached Chuchuyimlang in 1955 as already mentioned above.

Can you narrate your first experiences when you landed in Nagaland?

Let me explain here that in the year 1955 there was no state of Nagaland as we know it today. It was a district of Assam and was known as Naga Hills District. It was in the year 1963 that the separate state of Nagaland came into being. A division of erstwhile NEFA (present-day Arunachal Pradesh) known as Tuensang frontier division was joined with Naga Hills District when it became a state. Our ashram is located in the Mokokchung district of present day Nagaland and Mokokchung division of erstwhile Naga Hills District. It is inhabited by one of the Naga tribes known as Ao Nagas.

The nearest railway station to Mokokchung is known as Amguri and a road connecting Amguri with the headquarters of the sub-division Mokokchung was newly excavated. It was all kuccha road. The bridges of the road were constructed out of jungle wood. There was no bus service there. Moreover not many people travelled between Mokokchung and Amguri. If I remember correctly there were a couple of new jeeps in Mokokchung, one belonging to the sub divisional officer (SDO) of Mokokchung and another belonging to Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO). There were however a few individually owned jeeps and small trucks of Dodge make which were the remnants of Second World War.

Shillong was the capital of Assam. So I first went to Shillong. From there I travelled up to Jorhat in the company of a college student on vacation, who had volunteered to help me to settle down. We had to stay at Jorhat for two days searching for any vehicle which may be going towards Chuchuyimlang. My companion fortunately met a shopkeeper of Chuchuyimlang who had come to Jorhat to collect goods for his shop. He was kind enough to provide us lift in his jeep, of course on payment. We thus travelled by this old jeep up to Chuchuyimlang. It was drizzling throughout our journey. A misty day and our jeep moved at a very slow speed because of the condition of the road. Visibility was also less than normal. One immemorable sight of that day is the existence of thick jungles on both sides of the road. Some of the trees of that jungle were unusually big and must be some hundred years old. I also recall gibbon’s howling in the thick bushes. The distance between Jorhat and Chuchuyimlang is 115 kilometers.

On reaching Chuchuyimlang we stopped near the shopkeeper’s shop cum residence. The hired accommodation which was selected for us was almost opposite to shopkeeper’s house. It was a quiet almost lonely place with hardly any movement of people around. However, when we reached, a small crowd of 8 to 10 persons assembled around our jeep out of curiosity. These were the most important settlers of this place, which was known as Chuchuyimlang compound with the headmaster and the assistant headmaster of the Government ME School. The drizzling was still continuing, mist was also present and all quiet and silent. But then the people who had assembled helped us to take our baggage to the hired house selected for us.

This is my first experience after landing at Chuchuyimlang. If I narrate more experiences of my initial days, it will require much longer space. Let me confine myself to this first experience.

Have you discovered something new in Nagaland? Where do the ideals of non-violence fit into Nagaland, a state which has witnessed one of the oldest insurgencies of the world?

One thing which I discovered within a few days of my stay at Chuchuyimlang in Nagaland was that, the village was completely self reliant on its primary requirements of food, clothing and shelter. The staple food of Nagas was rice and the entire requirement of rice was grown by the villagers in their own village. As far as clothing was concern, the Nagas dressed scantily and the entire requirement of cloth was woven by Naga women within their own village. In fact, every woman learnt weaving from their childhood. As cooking was done in every house, the weaving was also conducted in every house. The loom they use is called loin looms and the weaving in loin loom is still prevalent in almost all villages. The weaving these days has remained confined more or less to traditional shawls and skirts mainly used by women. As far as the shelters are concerned, the Nagas build their houses out of the locally available material within the outskirts of their village, which consists of bamboo, thatched or palm leaves for roofing and jungle posts for the framework of the house. I do remember that in 1955 not a single grain of rice was procured from outside the village. This self sufficiency of the village was no doubt, a new experience for me because I came to Nagaland from urban area where people procured their requirements through payments from shops. Things have changed fast due to various reasons and the self sufficiency of the Naga villages is a thing of the past.

As far as the question of non-violence in Nagaland, let us remember that the use of non-violence by masses was first conducted in the entire world by India under the leadership by Mahatma Gandhi. Non violence as an essential qualification for personal salvation was preached by Buddha and Mahaveer. Even Hindu saints promoted non-violence but practicing non-violence on mass scale to fulfill a socio-political objective had never been tried on mass scale in the past. Hence, the practice and acceptance of non-violence by society as a whole is a new phenomenon for the entire mankind. The Nagas have lived through centuries in the midst of violence. The system of head hunting of Nagas is centuries old. Hence, the validity of non-violence will become intelligible to the Nagas in course of time. This is bound to happen as the entire world is accepting non-violence as a higher stage in human progress or civilization. This awareness is demonstrated by humanity by accepting Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday as the universal day of non-violence. I may just add here, for information, that the village of Chuchuyimlang and Nagaland Gandhi Ashram jointly observed the first universal day of non-violence at Chu-chuyimlang village on a grand scale. The students of computer institute next door presented an impressive skit on Gandhi’ teachings which was highly admired by the audience. Later on the same skit was repeated at district headquarters in Mokokchung on Independence Day and also at an important meeting attended by the Chief Minister of Nagaland.

The insurgency in Nagaland is the oldest as you have rightly mentioned in your question. However, in this case also futility of the practice of violence is gradually being realized by common men mainly. It will not be a matter of surprise, if we find the some sections of the militants also coming to realize the futility of continuous violence in Nagaland.

Your wife is also a keen Gandhian. Can you please tell us about her life and work?

My wife, Lentina, was the first Naga girl from her village, Merangkong, to have passed class sixth exam and to have joined the High school at Mokokchung at a distance of sixty kilometers from her village. Since there was no public transport system on those days, this distance used to be covered on foot. As she was studying in high school, her elder brother who was a teacher of Assamese language, came in contact with one of the first functionaries of Assam branch of Kasturba Gandhi memorial trust and he was instrumental in sending his sister to Sarania Ashram at Gauhati. She underwent the training at Sarania Ashram as a gram sevika as well as got herself qualified as trained midwife. Thus, she is also the first Naga person to be trained as a Gandhian social worker. On completion of her training, she was posted at Chu-chuyimlang. A few months after, I had reached there. We met there for the first time and decided to become partners for life. Unknowingly more than five decades have passed since our first meeting.

My wife has been most important support in carrying on in the midst of difficult circumstances. She has been a very good advisor to me in understanding regarding local traditions, customs and social culture. She has also been a most valuable colleague in various activities as well as in the general management of the Ashram.

What kind of work does the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram do? What kind of hurdles did you face in the beginning?

The main objectives of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram are as follows—

  • To promote National and emotional integration through voluntary service on Gandhian lines
  • To conduct activities and programmes for the welfare and all round development of the people of Nagaland and the North East India.

The kind of activities that Ashram has conducted so far can be explained as follows-

  • To conduct trials in different socio-economic development activities and programmes.
  • To aim at cultivating harmonious and healthy human relationships.
  • Attempt at generating a climate of peace, harmony, and goodwill for all.

In order to fulfill above aims, following activities were tried by the Ashram-

  • Deputing youth for training as Hindi teachers and as electrical wiremen at Wardha and Delhi respectively.
  • Vocational training for school drop outs and physically challenged.
  • Khadi and village Industries.
  • Running a small dairy on an experimental basis.
  • Trials of introducing nontraditional agricultural crops.
  • Sericulture activities related to Eri and Muga farming.
  • Medical aid: conducting outpatient clinic and holding occasional medical relief camps.
  • Developing a small library with books on Gandhiana, Indian history and culture, land and people of North East India, cottage industries etc.
  • Promotion of goodwill, harmony and understanding between Nagas and the rest of the country through personal contacts, observing national days, and organizing meetings, conferences etc.
  • Holding seminars to cultivate better understanding about special features of the North East and the problems peculiar to the region.

All the Khadi and Village Industries programmes were undertaken with the support from Khadi and Village Industries Commission. This work was pioneering in nature. The programmes attempted were:

  • Running of seven Khadi and village Industries sales outlet.
  • Bee-keeping centers in different parts of Nagaland.
  • Power driven oil Ghanis at Chu-chuyimlang.
  • Experimental unit to produce Gur and Kanndsari at Chu-chuyimlang.
  • Carpentry and black smithy unit.

Out of all the activities mentioned above, the propagation of modern bee keeping was most rewarding as it is now practiced in all parts of Nagaland. The Ashram is the pioneer in this field.

Would it be proper to call you a bridge between the Naga people and the rest of India?

I run a bi-monthly journal named as ISHANI. In my introduction of the journal, the concluding sentence is, “Ishani is aimed at rendering service to the North-East and the rest of the country by being a communication bridge between the two regions. We seek goodwill, support, co-operation from our well wishers,”. My personal aspiration is also the same as mentioned in the concluding sentence of my introduction in Ishani mentioned above.

What do you think is the cause of the feeling of alienation and isolation among the people of the region? Do you think the Gandhian ideals can mitigate many of these misgiving?

To put it in one word, the main cause of alienation is the ignorance. I mean the ignorance about the complex nature of the North Eastern region. Another reason is the encouraging militancy by the neighbors with hostile feeling towards India. Persons with clear understanding of Gandhian ideals can certainly help in mitigating the misgivings.

Have you managed to develop a new generation of Gandhians in Nagaland who can take over the mantle after you?

I cannot say that I have succeeded in developing a new generation of Gandhians in Nagaland, but I can say in all humility that I and my work have been able to scatter seeds of goodwill in the hearts of few at least.

Do you consider yourself successful?

I did not work with the target of achieving success. My effort has been to silently serve the people with the best of my ability. However, the answer to this question can only be given by the future generation of the Nagas.

Do you think the Internet is a new avataar of the spinning wheel? Do you think online forums like Gandhitopia can help take Gandhiji’s ideals to the youth?

The comparison between internet and the spinning wheel is incorrect. However, I do believe that the internet has the potential of spreading good messages and good work in a major way. You have given an example of one online forum ‘gandhitopia’. It is no doubt a very good forum. Similar other sites can also be created.

Do you think Gandhiji’s ideals in today’s world are impractical and utopian? Do you think Gandhiji’s ideals and teachings are relevant in today’s world? Has Mahatma Gandhi been reduced to a mere poster boy?

Is love (which also means non-violence), selfless service, compassion for fellow human beings, refusal to surrender before injustice and wishing well being of all, in other words, wishing good of all is relevant then Gandhi and Gandhian ideals are also relevant.

Gandhian ideals are relevant not only in today’s world but they are relevant for all times to come.

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Anindita Das

Anindita Das

Anindita Das is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of English, Gauhati University. She contentedly follows her heart by being a content writer and dabbles at poetry which is her passion. While music soothes her soul, she travels and reads to unwind herself. Another favourite pastime she indulges in is cooking her way into anybody’s heart.