When Natwarbhai was in Bombay Presidency in October 1932, his mother was certain he would not survive. She had already lost two infant sons, and the village priest insisted she was cursed.

Not only did the child survive, he grew up to be an exceptional Gandhian. Natwarbhai, as he is popularly known in the Naga village where he serves, is now 85-years-old. Environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna said in 1983 that Natwar has “followed to the letter the last wish of Bapuji when he appealed for one life-worker for each village”.

Natwarbhai explaining Gandhi’s views on khadi to students in Chuchuyimlang. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

A unique Gandhi ashram

Born to a lower-middle class Gujarati family, Natwarbhai was exposed to the freedom struggle and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi in his formative years. Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 deeply affected him. He vowed to work as a social worker for the rest of his life.

In 1951, he came in contact with a veteran Gandhian, Kaka Kalelkar. Natwarbhai was groomed as a Gandhian voluntary worker between 1951 to 1954. In January 1953, when Kalelkar was appointed as the Chairman of the First Backward Classes Commission, Natwarbhai also joined the commission as his confidential assistant and traveled through the country.

Kalelkar, a staunch nationalist, reasoned that national and emotional integration was the foremost agenda for securing and stabilising the newly independent India. He argued that the emotional integration of the remote border areas with the rest of India could only be possible if the youth of the nation stayed in their midst, and served them selflessly.

Kalelkar’s new mission for the youth appealed to Natwarbhai, who expressed his inclination to serve in a border area. When LM Shrikant, the first Commissioner for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the Vice President of the Bharatiya Adim Jati Sevak Sangh learnt of this, he immediately requested Kalelkar to send Natwarbhai to the Naga-Hills district of the erstwhile province of Assam.

Natwarbhai launching the academic programme of the Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development in July 2016. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

Natwarbhai gladly accepted. In 1955, he settled in Chuchuyimlang – a remote Ao Naga village in the Mokokchung district of Nagaland and established a unique Gandhi ashram under the auspices of BAJSS. In 1956, he married Lentina – the first Naga woman to be trained as a Gandhian voluntary worker, at the Kasturba ashram in Guwahati in the early 1950s.

Natwarbhai with Chuchuyimlang village council members and other leaders. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

Peacebuilding and constructive work

“When I reached the Naga-Hills district in 1955, the region was reeling with violence,” said Natwarbhai. “The Phizo-led Naga National Council had triggered a violent secessionist movement that brought a section of the Naga society in direct armed conflict with the Union of India. In 1956, the district was declared as a disturbed area and put under the command of the Indian Army.”

Confrontations between local, unarmed Nagas and the army were common. As the only non-Naga inhabitant in the region, Natwarbhai played a key role in settling confrontations and defusing tense situations.

Immediately after his arrival, Natwarbhai undertook two activities – he opened a medical clinic in the village and started teaching Hindi in a local school. Soon, the ashram began to impart vocational training to school dropouts and indigenes with physical disabilities. It also promoted village industries in the region by establishing various cottage and small scale industries at the ashram – oil mills, a gur-khandsari or jaggery and raw sugar unit, as well as mechanised carpentry workshops.

Natwarbhai recalling stories about visitors to the ashram – J P Narayan, Kaka Kalelkar and Morarji Desai are seen in the pictures. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

The ashram set up a library at Chuchuyimlang and ran balwadis or pre-schools in adjacent villages. It introduced and popularised modern bee-keeping in Nagaland and ran six khadi sales centres in Assam and Nagaland. It promoted sericulture, vegetable cultivation, horticulture, dairy and bio gas plants in the region.

It also helped build public infrastructure in Chuchuyimlang by facilitating a telephone exchange, medical facilities, piped water supply, a post office and a branch of the State Bank of India. The ashram facilitated a high school, the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology Extension Centre and the regional centre of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in Chuchuyimlang.

Natwarbhai with a young Naga man. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

Threats, attacks and witch-hunts

Many Nagas viewed Natwarbhai either as a Hindu missionary or a government spy. He had barely settled in the village when the militants began a series of executions in the region, targeting public servants and government sympathisers.

The militants warned villagers against supplying rations to Natwarbhai and threatened his local helper. He survived the first attempt on his life on October 9, 1957.

“The rumour of a militant attack on the ashram was making the rounds in the villages,” Natwarbhai recalled. “Every night, Lentina and I would sleep at a different location in Chuchuyimlang. One night, a Naga trainee at the ashram, who had been fired upon by the militants, broke the news to us. The militants had bundled all our belongings. Next morning, a large number of Nagas visited the ashram with rice, clothes, vegetables and blankets and reaffirmed their support.”

The most unexpected blow to the ashram came from the government. In February 1982, the Kudal Commission, headed by Purushottam Das Kudal was set up by the Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi to investigate four major organisations – the Gandhi Peace Foundation, the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, the Sarva Seva Sangh and the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development. It inquired into charges that they had compromised national interest by receiving foreign funds and participating in political activities despite being charitable institutions.

Natwarbhai being felicitated by the Nagas during the Gandhi Jayanti celebration of 2016 at Chuchuyimlang. Photo credit: Ajay Saini

Since Natwarbhai was closely associated with Jayaprakash Narayan, who had backed the pre-Emergency stir against Indira Gandhi, the Commission trained its guns on the ashram and maligned its activities as “anti-national” – claiming they “affected the sovereignty and integrity of India as well as the security of the state.”

Even before the commission could prove its allegations, the government strictly advised various ministries against providing funds to the ashram. Amidst much criticism, the Kudal Commission was unceremoniously wound up.

“Though the allegations against the ashram were withdrawn and the court gave us a clean chit, we paid a heavy price as most of our activities had come to a grinding halt for want of financial support,” said Natwarbhai.

Large shoes to fill

Natwarbhai with Prime Minister Morarji Desai during his visit to the ashram. Photo courtesy: Ajay Saini

Natwarbhai relocated to Guwahati, where he set up the ashram’s camp office and worked in the North Eastern states for two decades. In 2014, old age and illness compelled him to shut down the camp office and he permanently returned to Chuchuyimlang, where he continues to serve today.

He has worked closely with four prime ministers and won numerous prestigious awards including the Padma Shri. Natwarbhai is popularly called “the Gandhi of Nagaland.”

“My feet are too small to step in his giant shoes,” he said. “Even at my best, I could be but a footprint of Gandhi in Nagaland… which is far too great an honour for me.”

Naga dancers welcome Prime Minister Morarji Desai to Chuchuyimlang. Photo courtesy: Ajay Saini

Ajay Saini is an Assistant Professor at the Tata institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and Chairperson of the Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development, Nagaland, India.