Natwar Thakkar (1932–2018): Gandhi’s Peace Emissary in Nagaland

Natwar Thakkar was one of the last Gandhians whose constructive work has made an invaluable contribution to peace-building, reconciliation and rural development in North East India.

[Natwarbhai’s] has not only been a pioneering job, but one that needed rare courage and uncommon spirit of dedication… I salute Natwarbhai and his wife… 
— Jayaprakash Narayan

In October 1932, in a frantic effort to save her newborn baby boy Natwar, Leelawati in Dahanu, a small town in Bombay Presidency, decided to “cheat” the god. Before Natwar’s birth, her two sons had died in infancy. A local priest insisted that she was cursed. On his advice, Leelawati tried to convince the angry god that Natwar was not her biological son. Until the age of six, the boy was disguised and raised as an orphan girl—he wore a nose ring, cross-dressed and begged food from the neighbourhood. Leelawati also secretly promised to the family deities that if the boy pulled through, she will dedicate him to their service. The boy survived and later became renowned as “the Gandhi of Nagaland.”      

Ideological Grooming

Natwar Thakkar, popularly known as Natwarbhai, was born to a lower-middle-class Gujarati family. In his formative years, he was attracted to literature, and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement. At the tender age of 11, Natwarbhai participated in the freedom struggle—he removed railway tracks, dislodged telegraph wires and joined prabhat pheries, the morning peaceful processions conducted to stir support for the Quit India movement.

The partition of India, the post-partition riots and Gandhi’s assassination had a lasting effect on Natwarbhai. He vowed to become a lifelong Gandhian voluntary worker. Nobody was as receptive to this idea as his elder sister, Muktabahen, a Gandhian constructive worker.

She introduced him to a khadi and nai talim stalwart of Gujarat, Dilkhushbhai Diwanji, who gave a bunch of introductory letters to Natwarbhai that he had addressed to many prominent Gandhians. On his advice, Natwarbhai attended the Sarvodaya Sammelan at Shivarampally in 1951, where he met the veteran Gandhian, Kaka Kalelkar who agreed to accept him as a disciple. Natwarbhai’s formal ideological grooming lasted for four years, from 1951 to 1954.

In January 1953, the government appointed Kalelkar as the chairman of the First Backward Classes Commission. Natwarbhai also joined the commission as the chairman’s confidential assistant. Along with Kalelkar, he travelled across the length and breadth of the country. The former, a staunch nationalist, reasoned national and emotional integration as a prerequisite for securing and stabilising the newly independent India. In his public meetings, Kalelkar would repeatedly emphasise that the vast frontiers of the nation cannot be secured without first securing the cooperation of the local people. To emotionally connect the inhabitants of the peripheries with the rest of the country, he urged the youth to go to villages in border areas, live amidst the locals and serve them selflessly. Kalelkar’s teachings and an extensive exposure to rural India widened Natwarbhai’s horizons of thinking. He decided to serve in a border area for one year. When L M Shrikant, the first Commissioner for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the Vice President of the Bharti Adim Jati Sevak Sangh (BAJSS), learned this, he urged Kalelkar to send Natwarbhai to the Naga Hills district of the erstwhile province of Assam. 

Peacebuilding Through Constructive Work   

In 1955, Natwarbhai reached the Naga Hills district and settled down in the remote Naga village of Chuchuyimlang1. He set up the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram under the auspices of the BAJSS. A year later, he married Lentina Ao, a gram sevika, who trained as a Gandhian voluntary worker at the Kasturba Ashram in Guwahati in the early 1950s2. In the 50s, the Naga Hills district was seething with insurgency. A section of the indigenes, under the leadership of A Z Phizo was engaged in an armed conflict with the Union of India. The district was declared as a disturbed area in 1956 and put under the Indian army’s direct command. It escalated confrontations between the local unarmed Nagas and the army, most of which was an upshot of misunderstanding or misinformation.

Natwarbhai, the only non-Naga inhabitant in the region, often facilitated peace dialogues and helped defuse tense situations. The army commander of the Eastern Command, Lieutenant General S P P Thorat was so impressed with Natwarbhai’s peace-building work that during his visit to the Ashram in 1959, he commented that if the Naga Hills district could get half a dozen of Natwarbhais, it would not need an army. In 1964, Jayaprakash Narayan visited the Ashram and shared this observation:   

[Natwarbhai’s] has not only been a pioneering job, but one that needed rare courage and uncommon spirit of dedication. For ten years he has worked in the midst of suspicions and hostilities, and in the end succeeded in winning the confidence of the people, whom he had chosen to serve, and Gandhi’s message of love and his programme of service has taken its root in this inhospitable soil. His Gandhi Ashram will forever stand as a symbol of the message and as a refutation of the way of hate and violence. I salute Natwarbhai and his wife and wish their work of service and reconciliation every success.3  

Natwarbhai used the Gandhian constructive work as a tool for Naga reconciliation. He worked closely with four prime ministers— Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Manmohan Singh— to bring peace and development to the region. Back then, the tribal villages lacked the basic amenities—electricity, water supply, hospitals, schools, communication and transportation. Immediately after his arrival, Natwarbhai opened a medical clinic and started teaching Hindi at a local school. He set up a library4 in Chuchuyimlang and ran balwadis (pre-schools) in the adjacent villages. Soon, the Ashram began imparting vocational training to school dropouts and the persons with physical disabilities. Several Nagas were regularly sent to Delhi and Wardha for vocational and Hindi teachers training. In an attempt to streamline their livelihoods, the Ashram promoted vegetable cultivation, sericulture, horticulture, dairy and biogas plants in the region. Village industries were encouraged through the establishment of various cottage and small-scale industries at the Ashram—oil mills, gur-khandsari (jaggery and raw sugar) unit and mechanised carpentry workshops. With the patronage of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Natwarbhai introduced and popularised modern bee-keeping in rural areas and ran six khadi sales centres in Nagaland and Assam.

Natwarbhai lobbied with the governmental apparatus and developed essential infrastructure in Chuchuyimlang—medical facilities, piped water supply system, telephone exchange, a post office and a branch of the State Bank of India, to name a few. His contribution to the field of education is particularly exceptional. He facilitated the establishment of a high school, the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT) Extension Centre and the Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development (MGAHD) in Chuchuyimlang.5   

Specter of Insurgents and Kudal 

When Natwarbhai settled in Chuchuyimlang, the region was going through its most violent phase. The insurgents carried a series of executions, of which the public servants and government sympathisers were the primary targets. Initially, the villagers looked at Natwarbhai with suspicion, seeing him either as a Hindu missionary or a government spy. Soon, his constructive work cleared their doubts. But the militants were wary of the Gandhian and warned the villagers against supplying rations to him. On 9 October 1957, Natwarbhai survived the first attempt on his life, the experience of which he narrated:    

A rumor of militant attack on the Ashram was making the rounds in the villages. Every night, Lentina and I would sleep at a different location in Chuchuyimlang. One night, a Naga trainee at the Ashram, who was fired upon by the militants, hysterically knocked on our door and broke the news. The militants retreated as soon as the army reached the spot. They had bundled all our belongings. Next morning, a large number of Nagas visited the Ashram with rice, cloth, vegetables and blankets, and reaffirmed their support.6    

During a function in 1961, the militants opened fire at the chief executive councillor of the interim Government of Nagaland, P Shilu Ao, and killed two students in front of the Ashram. The village councils of the region condemned the act and remonstrated with the militants, who gave in to their pressure and agreed not to carry further attacks on the Ashram. 

Throughout, and especially after the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru (1964) and Kalelkar (1981), the Ashram struggled for funds.7  But the 1980s proved to be the most challenging decade. In February 1982, the Congress government set up the Kudal Commission8 to investigate four major organisations— the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development, which had supported the pre-Emergency movement of Jayaprakash Narayan against Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. These organisations were accused of compromising the national interest by receiving foreign funds and participating in political activities despite being charitable institutions.9  

Natwarbhai’s close association with Jayaprakash Narayan brought the Ashram on the radar of the Kudal Commission, which, on 15 April 1985 maligned its activities as "anti-national"10—“affect the sovereignty and integrity of India as well as the security of the state.”11  The government stopped providing funds to the Ashram even before the Commission could prove the allegations. It precipitated a crisis that the Gandhian activist Lakshmi Chand Jain described:   

The Nagaland Gandhi Ashram is dying but the Commission is swallowing large chunks of public funds. The Ashram is held out as [a] public enemy and starved of aid. The Commission is held out as a protector of public interest and given unfettered access to public revenues… If the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram die—something precious to India, a symbol of national integration— will die with it (sic). 12     

The Kudal Commission, a political vendetta, attracted sharp criticism from all quarters and was later wound up. The Ashram was given a clean chit, but most of its activities had already come to a grinding halt in want of monetary support. 

In 1994, the Ashram nearly closed when the militants imposed an annual tax of ₹25,000 on it, which Natwarbhai refused to pay. He was issued a death threat and forced to leave Nagaland. Natwarbhai moved to Guwahati and Lentina took charge of the Ashram. Eventually, the militants caved in to the pressure of Chuchuyimlang village council and withdrew the threat. But Natwarbhai had already set up a camp office of the Ashram in Guwahati and expanded work in the north-east region. He set up another library in Jorhat and founded Ishani, a bi-monthly journal covering northeast India, which he edited from 2004 to 2013. Natwarbhai also served on the boards of three apex Gandhian organisations— the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and the Gandhi Hindustani Sahitya Sabha. In recognition of his selfless service, numerous prestigious awards, including Padma Shri, were conferred on him.  

The Final Return 
In 2014, due to old age and illness, Natwarbhai shut down the Ashram’s camp office and permanently returned to Chuchuyimlang where he continued serving until his demise on 7 October 2018. Natwarbhai’s lifelong Gandhian constructive work has made an invaluable contribution to peace-building, reconciliation and rural development in North East India. He was one of the last Gandhians, who, as Sunderlal Bahuguna argued in 1983, “followed to the letter the last wish of Bapuji (Gandhi) when he appealed for one life worker for one village.”13  With Natwarbhai’s death, an era has ended— the Nagas have lost their Gandhi and the Gandhians have lost their peace emissary in Nagaland. 

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