It is surprising that a man from Gujarat would go to a land not just far from his home but stay put to stop insurgency violence
When the hills in Nagaland were set ablaze by separatist militants demanding independence, a frail young man landed from Gujarat in 1955 to spread the message of Mahatma Gandhi. Four decades later, he came to be known “Nagaland’s Gandhi” for the selfless service he offered at a remote hamlet in Mokokchung.
Natwar Thakkar, popularly known as Natwar bhai, is a Gandhian social worker who migrated to Nagaland for social work at the age of 23. Not surprisingly, rebels belonging to Naga National Council (NNC) threatened him with dire consequences if he did not leave Chuchuyimlang where he planned to set up a Gandhi ashram. He was suspected of being a spy of the army who had been tasked to report on the activities of the militants.
The 1950s and 60s were turbulent times in Nagaland. The Naga rebels would not accept anything less than complete separation from India and foreign powers were also contacted by the rebels to assist the fledgling movement with weapons, training and bases. Thakkar had been attacked and threatened by insurgents several times to leave the state. But he found support from Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, who encouraged him to stay in the village and to continue his work. The prime minister also allotted funds to promote his initiatives. But the tide began to turn after a couple of years. On several occasions, Thakkar acted as an intermediary between the army and villagers and was successful in preventing many a gun-battle in the village between the two sides. Such incidents usually result in massive collateral damage and loss of innocent lives. Gradually, his bond with the locals was strengthened. Convinced about his dedication and commitment, the villagers appealed to the militants not to harm Thakkar. A humble beginning of the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram was made within a few months of his arrival in the village. In due course and after the threat from the militants subsided he evolved a scheme to assist residents in various development and income generating activities, including beekeeping, production of jaggery, a biogas plant, a mechanised carpentry workshop, and a Khadi sales outlet. He also launched a vocational training centre for school drop-outs and the physically-handicapped children. Encouraged by the success in these endeavours, Thakkar went ahead to set up a primary school, medical centre and library in the village.
The village where Thakkar set up his base is inhabited by the Ao, one of the most advanced and literate Naga tribes perhaps because of their centuries-old interaction with people in the plains of Assam. The Ao were among the first to give up headhunting after conversion to Christianity began in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Headhunting was a custom among the Nagas that included raids on neighbouring villages, decapitating the rivals’ heads and bringing them back home as war trophies. Thakkar overcame the initial hostility from the Nagas and decades later the village honoured him with the “Lifetime Service to Naga People” award.
Thakkar was born in 1932 to a Gujarati family in the coastal Dahanu town of the then Bombay Presidency of British India. He drew inspiration from the Gandhian social reformer Kaka Kalelkar early in his life and subsequently decided to go to Nagaland at the age of 23 to foster goodwill and emotional integration through voluntary social service using Gandhian principles.
Due to his relentless efforts, an extension centre of the government funded National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology was set up in Chuchuyimlang village in 2006. Acknowledging the efforts of Thakkar, villagers donated 232 acres (94 ha) of land to the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram for construction of the Mahatma Gandhi centre of Social Work (MGCSW). The Tata Institute of Social Sciences has shown interest in getting associated with this institute. He is also the managing trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Ishani Foundation and edits a bimonthly journal Ishani.
Thakkar has been on the board of various committees like the National Literacy Mission, Northeastern Zonal Committee of CAPART, Weaker Section Expert Committee and many others. The government and agencies have showered him with awards in recognition of his unique efforts to spread the message of the Father of the Nation at one of the most disturbed zones in the country.
In 1999 he was conferred the Padma Shri Award which was followed by the Diwaliben Mehta Award, Jamnalal Bajaj Award, Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration, Meghalaya State Mahatma Gandhi Award, as well as the highly prestigious Karmayogi Award in 2015.
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