Natwarbhai of Nagaland
- In 1955, Natwar Thakkar arrived in Chuchuyimlang, a Naga village caught in the crosshairs of an insurgency
- In the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth, Lounge travels to Nagaland to learn more about the ashram he founded
A birdless, leaden October sky hangs over the green hills around Chuchuyimlang village in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district, land of the Ao tribe. Sanen Pongen, holder of the hereditary chieftainship of the village council, is at the head of a wake making its way to the amphitheatre. The coffin is carried by men draped in shawls embroidered with cowry shell motifs, suggesting the hill peoples’ distant coastal beginnings.
The heavy air is pierced by an ululating cry, perhaps of this place but not of this time. It is followed by the lament of the changzü—a trumpet of buffalo horn—and the soothing low drone of a gong called the laya. On the hilltop above, the eaves of the austere, whitewashed Baptist Church bear witness as Natwar Thakkar, founder of the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram, is honoured with a traditional final farewell in the village he made his home in the country’s far east.
Battle for the Naga nation
In 1955, 22-year-old Thakkar, who grew up in Dahanu in Maharashtra, was sent to Nagaland by the Bhartiya Adim Jati Sevak Sangh (BAJSS), a tribal welfare organization with strong links to the State —the first president of the BAJSS was the first president of India. The BAJSS’ material mandate was to engage in constructive work for the upliftment of tribal people, particularly in remote and isolated parts of the country. This objective was well-aligned with the project that preoccupied Delhi bureaucrats in the first years of the republic—the emotional integration of areas and communities that it did not have much in common with: racially, socially, politically.
Chief among these were the people of the Naga Hills, bordering the plains of Assam in the west and extending into Burma (now Myanmar) in the east. They were a motley collection of tribes whom the British had governed with the lightest of touches after an initial show of military superiority, fearful of their reputation as head-hunters and grudgingly accepting of the tribes’ well-entrenched community structures.
The different tribes—who did not even have a common language—began to develop a national “Naga" consciousness only after World War I, when Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival on the scene meant that whispers of eventual self-governance were gradually turning into strident shouts. When the Simon Commission arrived in the Naga Hills in 1929, the Nagas requested to be excluded from the constitutional reform scheme and be placed directly under the administration of the British, noting in a memorandum that they have “no social affinities with either Hindus or Muhammadans". They were “looked down upon by the one for our beef and by the other for our pork and by both for our want in education which is due to no fault of ours". If the British were to decide to “throw" them away, the Naga representatives prayed that they “should not be thrust to the mercy of people who could never have conquered us themselves and to whom we were never subjected to."
Even as an idea of the Naga nation crystallized among educated Christians who “spoke expressive English" and formed the Naga National Council (NNC), the Naga Hills remained untouched by the freedom movement led by the Indian National Congress. Historian Ramachandra Guha writes in his 2007 book India After Gandhi that “there had been no satyagraha here, no civil disobedience—in fact, not one Gandhian leader in a white cap had ever visited these hills".
Then, a month before independence, in July 1947, the NNC leaders undertook a fateful trip to meet the stalwarts of the freedom movement in Delhi. The delegation was led by Zapu Phizo, from the Angami tribe. The prime minister in waiting, Jawaharlal Nehru, articulated the state’s position—autonomy was possible but not independence. On 19 July, in the Capital’s Bhangi Colony, the Nagas met Gandhi for a short conversation that would become an enduring legend in narratives of the Naga nation. In the Naga recounting, the Mahatma is reported to have told the delegation that they “have every right to be independent". While the transcript of the “official version", from the The Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, is more subdued, it corroborates the fact that Gandhi had suggested he would personally visit the Naga Hills if military force was applied (“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"). Buoyed by this meeting with Gandhi, the NNC declared independence on 14 August 1947. Delhi took no notice—it had more pressing issues to deal with in Punjab and Bengal.
In 1951, the NNC claimed to have held a plebiscite which returned a 99% vote in favour of independence. The year after that, the Nagas boycotted the country’s first general election. When, in March 1953, Nehru visited Kohima with the Burmese prime minister, Indian officials refused to allow Naga representatives to present a memorandum to Nehru. Reportedly, when the prime minister was about to begin his address, the gathering turned its back on him and dispersed—this was not treatment he was used to.
Meanwhile, Phizo and his supporters were collecting arms and going “underground". On its part, the state had mobilized the paramilitary Assam Rifles. Troops were beginning to move in the southern part of the Naga Hills. The stage was set for the start of the longest-running insurgency in independent India. This was the cauldron of hostility and uncertainty that Thakkar stepped into in 1955.
Love story in Chuchu
Travelling to Chuchuyimlang—“Chuchu" in short—from Assam’s Jorhat, one can begin to appreciate the primary dichotomy that informs the Naga view of the world: plains people and hill people. The others—insider/outsider, mainstream/fringe, Christian/Hindu-Muslim—flow from this. The hills, bluish phantasms in the distance as one coasts past the tea estates of Assam’s Amguri, are upon you as soon as the border is crossed. After the flat, wet plains—the Brahmaputra not seen but always suggested by egrets pecking through the paddy fields—the sudden climb announces a different way of life.
Already, the border town of Tuli, with its shabby, deserted coal depots, and the village of Merangkong, with its sloping cemeteries surrounded by copses of plantain and slender areca-nut trees, tell the story of Nagaland. This is the route that American Baptist missionaries took to enter the Naga Hills in the late 19th century. Now, more than an estimated 75% of the Nagaland population is Baptist (approximately 90% is Christian) but the Ao of Mokokchung were the first group to be converted. Consequently, they were also the first to be exposed to modern education, technology and, unavoidably, puritanism.
Thakkar, too, made the Jorhat to Chuchu journey countless times. On the very first one, he met the woman who would become his wife. Lentina Ao Thakkar was from Merangkong in the foothills. She had been training as a voluntary worker and midwife at Guwahati’s Kasturba Gandhi Ashram. In Guwahati, some Gandhians told Thakkar about the Naga girl who had returned home for a break. Merangkong was the point where vehicles coming up from Assam would have to halt until they were joined by a military convoy. When he reached the village, Thakkar asked some locals if he could speak to Lentina. They met at a tea stall for a few minutes—he requested her to sing one of Gandhi’s favourite Christian hymns.
There is much laughter and winking as this story is recounted by the fireplace in the kitchen of the Thakkars’ family home in Chuchu. The night is cold and starry. Their daughter Rupa Dixit, 53, says, “My father looked ekdum like (actor) Dev Anand in those days." Lentina, who is 89 now, can’t suppress a chuckle as she feeds the fire. After completing her training in Guwahati, she was sent—along with two senior voluntary workers—to establish an outpost of the Kasturba Gandhi Ashram in Chuchu. She would have to walk several miles to neighbouring villages to attend to women in labour. Thakkar would accompany her on some of these long walks.
“He would also come to eat with us sometimes. The Assamese baideos (elder sisters) used to cook sabzi (vegetables), and he would be craving it since the locals don’t make sabzi the Indian way. So, he would cook some khichdi and bring it along to eat with the sabzi." Within six months of his arrival in Nagaland, towards the end of 1955, Thakkar had asked Lentina to marry him. “My eldest brother got very upset. He said: ‘We are going to get independence soon. Why do you want to marry a foreigner?’" says Lentina.
They had planned to get married in Mokokchung town, about 25km from Chuchu, but had to settle for a court in Jorhat, since there was a fear they would be targeted by the underground. Only one of Lentina’s three brothers attended the wedding—he gifted Thakkar a dao, the traditional Naga blade. The Gandhian writer and social reformer Kaka Kalelkar—president of the Backward Classes Commission—was Thakkar’s mentor. With him, Thakkar had travelled to various parts of India as an unofficial secretary. “Kalelkar saab had gifted me a sari worth ₹400 as a wedding present. It was among the things the underground people took away when they raided our home in 1957," Lentina says.
‘Natwar Thakkar is an Indian spy!’
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the people of Chuchu were often caught in the crosshairs of the conflict between the underground and the Indian Army. Aotoshi Thakkar, Natwar and Lentina’s 56-year-old son, is an entrepreneur based in Dimapur and a popular man in the village he grew up in. He takes us to the residence of Lanumatong, 72, who served the stipulated three-decade term in the village council (putu menden), from 1981-2011. As is common in Ao houses, aged cuts of meat hang from soot-blackened rafters attached to the ceiling of the main room. On one side, the room opens into a sit-out with an expansive view of forested hills. On a hill-top across the yawning valley, made gold by the winter sun, a church spire marks the settlement of Salulamang. Lentina would often have to walk there to assist deliveries.
Seated with Lanumatong on this balcony is 81-year-old Toshilepden, also a member of the putu menden till 2011. Ao is a tonal language—it brings to mind Bengali pronunciation and Japanese intonation. Thakkar kindly translates into English even as he prepares tambul paans—the vice of choice across the North-East—for our hosts and himself. Toshilepden says: “When Thakkar saab came here, we were poor and ignorant. In those days, even the sound of a chicken scurrying in the yard would put us on red alert. We used to think the underground boys have come. Indian Army convoys—with vehicles in the hundreds—would go through the village. The underground asked the villagers to drive Thakkar saab away. They said: ‘Natwar Thakkar is an Indian spy!’ He was even sent to the jungle for some time but the village elders brought him back after a few days."
The army would resort to “grouping" as a surveillance tactic. Residents of four-five villages would be gathered together in a single village, and a perimeter would be set. During the day, they would be allowed to go work their fields beyond the boundary, but only after getting stamped on their way in and out. “Not long after Thakkar saab’s arrival, in 1956, the underground told us that they had information that Chuchu would be destroyed by the army. So, we packed some of our things and hid in the forests nearby. We camped there for about six months until Thakkar saab called the village elders and assured them that the army would not harm us. He was the bridge between the army and us," Lanumatong says.
Despite challenges, Thakkar adapted quickly and began his programme of constructive work. He learnt to speak Ao in six months. “He started a medical clinic. We had never seen pills before—that was a big thing for us," Toshilepden reminisces. Thakkar showed the villagers how they could use bamboo as pipes to divert water to the village. A separate training unit was established for those with physically disabilities. For school dropouts, there were lessons in tailoring, carpentry and beekeeping.
Later that afternoon, on a bench under a flower-stuffed trellis in front of the Thakkar house, we speak to 89-year-old Takükamsang, who trained in woodwork at the ashram in 1957, and then worked there as a carpenter from 1963-85. “The ashram is a pioneer of scientific beekeeping in all of Nagaland. I was probably the first person to make a bee box in Nagaland. I have good memories of those times. Every year, all of us who worked for the ashram would go for a picnic. We would cook a nice fat pig and there would be merriment and competitions," says Takükamsang.
An ashram less ordinary
A feast of pork may seem incompatible with the idea of a traditional Gandhi ashram, but this one had to experiment with its own truths. The anthropologist Verrier Elwin seemed to recognize this when he visited it in 1960. Elwin, the deputy director of the Anthropological Survey of India, had been a staunch Gandhian in his early years, even staying at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in the early 1930s. Later in his career, after he had spent time with tribal communities in central and North-East India, he came to question Gandhi’s puritan views on diet and liquor.
In 1960, he was travelling in Nagaland at the behest of the government. Delhi was, contemporaneously with the military action that was in full swing, continuing to nudge along its “soft" project of establishing the Nagas as an integral part of India. In the book that resulted from these travels, Elwin clearly stretches himself to show that the Nagas “form part of an important branch of the great and varied Indian family". He is at pains to highlight the “points of contact" between Vedic bull sacrifices and the killing of the mithun (a bovine found in the North-East and the state animal of Nagaland), noting unconvincingly that in each case, the animal is killed by a “sharp stake of wood which pierces its heart" and the wife of a man performing these sacrifices is given “an important place".
Guha, in his biography of Elwin (Savaging The Civilized), suggests that the Nagaland book presented Elwin “with a dilemma of almost unsurpassed painfulness" for he, “as an employee of the government, had to bend, slightly". In a private letter to an Indian administrator, Elwin remarked that he was delighted and surprised to be served pork and rice beer at a new Gandhi ashram in Mokokchung. Guha refers to this ashram visit as “perhaps (Elwin’s) happiest moment in the whole assignment".
I ask Aotoshi about this—about the pork and the rice beer. We are walking to the Inspection Bungalow where Thakkar and Lentina were forced to hide in 1957, after they were tipped off that underground fighters had decided to corner Thakkar in his house and shoot him. “Pitaji was sensitive enough to adapt to an acceptable level. Of course, conversion was out of question. But he was great friends with the reverend, they would discuss matters of religion often. Yes, he ate meat, but I don’t think he relished it, "Aotoshi says.
And what about the rice beer? Aotoshi lets out a full-bellied chuckle. “He would chat with the village elders on Sundays, and they would all have rice beer. On Sundays when he couldn’t make it, they would come home and say, ‘Come on Thakkar saab, we have some freshly distilled stuff!’ When he was given a lifetime achievement award by the putu menden in 2009, he spoke about his different categories of companions—there were governance friends, evening walk friends and mejemtsu tembartem (rice beer friends)!"
Admiration is one thing, and acceptance quite another. Is there something about the Ao disposition that made Chuchu the ideal place to host a Gandhi ashram? To answer this, Aotoshi introduces me to 84-year-old Akang Longchar, his old middle-school history teacher. Over cups of tea, he explains in a booming voice: “The missionary influence meant that education came to us earlier than the other tribes—we became less simple, more mature. We came to understand that people will suffer a lot if there is no mutual understanding. If you look at the moderate leaders of the movement, those who advocated non-violence and dialogue with India, you will see many of them are Ao."
A prominent moderate leader who advocated a separate state for the Nagas within the Indian union, Imkongliba Ao, had been assassinated by the underground in Mokokchung town in August 1960. “That was our awakening—when the doctor was murdered, we realized that sovereignty is an unfeasible dream," adds Longchar, who himself joined a rebel group in 1956 and quit, disillusioned, after a year. Statehood was finally achieved in 1963.
Commissions, factions, extortions
The ashram had always struggled to cobble together finances for its activities, but the situation become especially difficult from the mid-1980s owing to the Kudal Commission. The commission was set up by the Congress government in 1982 to probe the working of four charitable Gandhian institutions—the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Association of Voluntary Agencies of Rural Development (Avard).
It was alleged that these institutions were receiving funding from questionable foreign sources and had participated in political activities. News reports from the time indicate that the commission was part of the Congress’ vendetta against the Gandhian activist Jayaprakash Narayan, who had led a movement against Indira Gandhi before the Emergency. In the 1960s, Narayan, popularly known as JP, had travelled around the Naga Hills as a member of the Nagaland Peace Mission. Though he urged the Nagas to wholeheartedly accept their place in India, he earned their respect by acknowledging the unique history and identity of the tribes.
JP had visited the ashram and publicly appreciated the Thakkars’ work. In 1985, the ashram received a notice from the commission alleging it to be in breach of the Official Secrets Act for publishing, “under the garb of rural development work", large-scale maps of “restricted border-areas without obtaining permission from the Ministry of Defence and the Survey of India". A news report from October 1986 says that “a notice from the commission can turn the bureaucracy against (an agency)…. After the notice, the ashram stopped getting government funds."
Coincidentally, there was also a troubling development in the Naga separatist movement in the late 1980s. The inter-factional violence took a turn for the worse when the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN)—then the strongest faction, which had broken away from the NNC after it had signed the Shillong Accord with the Centre in 1975—split into two factions. One, the NSCN-IM, was led by T. Muivah (a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur) and Isak Swu (from the Sema tribe). The other—NSCN-K—was led by S.S. Khaplang, an Eastern Naga who came from the Burmese side of the border.
In his memoir A Naga Odyssey, the historian and activist Visier Sanyü writes that this “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 also when the extortions began. Each faction went around Nagaland collecting tax or “protection money" from ordinary citizens and businesses. It is a menace that continues in some towns of Nagaland to this day.
The ashram was not spared. In 1994, a demand was made. Prafulla Sarma, who worked as Thakkar’s personal assistant from 1971 till Thakkar’s death, recalls those days of fear: “Thakkar saab was called to the house of one of the council members. There were three people there and there were arms kept on one of the chairs. Thakkar saab said that he couldn’t use the ashram’s money like this and he didn’t have any personal money to give. Later, someone delivered a note to the house. It said, pay within seven days or your head will be taken."
It was too dangerous to remain in Chuchu. This wave of violence in the early 1990s was somehow more sinister than that of the 1950s and 1960s. With the rise in factional divisions, often along tribal lines, and increasingly complex political equations, there was a total breakdown of any semblance of an honour code. Thakkar moved to Guwahati and set up a camp office there. He also opened a library in Jorhat. But, in Chuchu, there was a sense of something having passed—a way of life had been laid to rest. Though Thakkar remained involved with activities in Chuchu (he was instrumental in the establishment of a government-run IT training centre in 2006), he returned to Chuchu permanently only in 2014.
A dream unfulfilled
After his return, the project that occupied him was the Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development (MGAHD)—a joint initiative of the ashram and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss). Last summer, the programme started with a group of 12 students taking classes for a master’s in social work.
Lessons take place in a small building next to the Thakkars’ residence. “But his real dream was the campus," Dixit says. From the single window in the kitchen, she points to a clearing atop a hillock in the distance. We can make out a flag and bamboo watch tower. In recognition of the ashram’s contribution, the village council has donated 232 acres of land, free of cost or condition, to it for the establishment of an institute that Thakkar envisioned as a hub for centres of excellence in social work, agricultural development, teacher training, vocational studies and tribal studies. He hoped it would attract students from across the North-East and even the ASEAN countries. In October, Thakkar died in Guwahati after a month’s illness. The campus project has stalled—development has not yet begun for lack of funds.
The ashram’s original building is down the road from the residence. The pale yellow wood has chipped in many places and the weathered window bolts have gathered the slow rust of the years. Yet, the overall impression is one of quiet grace. Inside, there are shelves with a collection of books that look like they have gone unread for months. There is a full set of The Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, rare first editions of ethnographic studies of the Naga tribes and more recent titles about the turbulence in the North-East. The walls are lined with letters of appreciation from accomplished visitors (JP and former prime ministers Morarji Desai and Manmohan Singh among them). There are old photographs, too—youth, vigour and hope frozen for a moment in time. In one corner of the room, there is a scale model of an ashram. It is from 1969—the Mahatma Gandhi birth centenary year. Aotoshi recalls that it came with toy models of the charkha (spinning wheel), chashma (spectacles) and chappal (wooden slippers), but these have disappeared over the years.
The man whom they symbolize has himself become a symbol over time, free to be bestowed meaning on by whoever chooses to do so. For some, he is the friendly ghost haunting the Naga homeland. “The leaders who met him in July 1947 for a few minutes came back to Nagaland and said it was the first time they felt their concerns had been understood, immediately and completely," says Niketu Iralu over the phone. Iralu, Phizo’s nephew, is a prominent peace activist who has been working tirelessly to reconcile the Naga factions. “I think if Gandhi had been alive when the military action began, he would have travelled to Nagaland to appeal for peace, like he did in Noakhali a few months before Indian independence," says Iralu. For four months, from November 1946 to February 1947, Gandhi had toured the district of Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), which was heavily affected by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.
When the NSCN-IM signed a Framework Agreement—ostensibly a full and final settlement of the Naga independence issue—with the Bharatiya Janata Party government amidst much fanfare in August 2015, Muivah opened his address at the signing ceremony in Delhi with the words: “I thank God for this momentous occasion. On behalf of the Chairman Mr Isak Chishi Swu and the Naga people kindly allow me to begin by saying that Naga people have great respect for Mahatma Gandhi because he understood and respected the Nagas when the Naga delegation met him for the first time in 1947." Three and a half years on, the details of the Framework Agreement have not yet been made public. Other factions involved in the Naga national movement—such as the NSCN-K—are not party to it.
Leading up to the 150th year of Gandhi’s birth in 2019, in March last year, Thakkar was appointed to a committee, chaired by the prime minister, to consider policies and lay down guidelines for commemoration-related activities. It was work he was excited about. In a letter to the prime minister’s office, he suggested that each of the seven states of the North-East be provided with a Gandhi museum. He also mentioned the MGAHD campus project. The ashram had lost a bit of its spark, and he hoped Year 150 would rekindle the fire.
His family, and the people of Chuchu, are still picking up the pieces after his passing. His old friend Toshilepden says, “When Thakkar saab used to screen soundless video clips about Gandhi, we used to wonder why this bald, old man is going through so much trouble. Later, we realized, it needs to be done for society. Outside those clips and our currency notes, I have not seen Gandhi. But I have seen Natwar Thakkar. Thakkar saab is gone now and we can’t even go down to the forest to bring him back."
Last month, this paper had published an essay on Ahmedabad and the Sabarmati Ashram—the “mother ashram", so to speak—by the Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud (“Inconvenient Truth: How Gujarat Forgot Gandhi", 7 February). In it, Suhrud wrote that “Gandhi’s ashram was a microcosm of the public sphere he desired.... Yet, the ashram and related institutions had a calling that was different from that of the city, and this autonomy was crucial to fulfilling its purpose without being mired in the everydayness of the industrial city."
The Nagaland Gandhi Ashram is, in this sense, different from Sabarmati. It has allowed itself to be shaped by the varying scales of its host village’s rhythms—prosaic, unique, imaginative. It has carried the people of Chuchuyimlang on its current without discarding their particular, lived histories. And its calling is not separate from, but forever fused with, the mists that settle gently on this hilly corner of a vast, vast nation.