There remains a deep reservoir of communal solidarity within Naga society

Natwar Thakkar's life’s work was to forge an honourable compact between the Nagas and the Indian Union.

Source: Nagaland Gandhi Ashram

Nagaland is one of only three states of the Indian Union that I have not visited. I had planned to go there next February, at the invitation of Natwar Thakkar, a social worker whom I had corresponded with but never met. Born in western India in 1932, Natwarbhai came under the influence of the Gandhian and patriot, Kaka Kalelkar, and as a young man chose to devote his life to social service. He went to Nagaland in 1955 and established an ashram in a village called Chuchuyimlang, about 30 miles from the town of Mokokchung.

The year after Natwar Thakkar moved to Nagaland, the insurgency led by A.Z. Phizo intensified and the Indian army moved in to suppress it. Natwarbhai married a Naga lady, Lentina Ao, and with her lived through 40 years of brutal conflict, raising a family, seeking and serving. The couple focused on establishing cottage industries and on vocational training among Naga youths. They started a dairy, and encouraged sericulture and beekeeping.

The Nagaland Gandhi Ashram was visited by Morarji Desai in November 1978, when Thakkar’s fellow Gujarati-speaking Gandhian was prime minister. Four years later, a future prime minister came visiting. This was Manmohan Singh, at the time a member of the Planning Commission, an economist with policy interests and absolutely no political ambition. After spending a day with Natwar Thakkar and his colleagues, Singh wrote: “This Ashram is doing excellent work which is of tremendous significance in making programmes of decentralized development a success. Humanising development, improving productivity of work while retaining identity and self-respect of human beings is the most challenging task. The Gandhian approach to these vital issues provides exciting opportunities. In this Ashram I saw a harmonious blend of machine and human labour.”

I first heard of Natwar Thakkar in the 1980s, while working on a biography of the British-born Indian anthropologist, Verrier Elwin. Elwin had lived for extended periods in the Sabarmati Ashram, attracted by Gandhi’s interfaith credo and his personal charm. However, in later years, and as a result of living with the adivasis in central India, he came to distance himself from the Mahatma’s puritan attitudes towards food and alcohol. In Elwin’s papers I found a letter written in 1959, describing with delight the pork he had eaten and the rice beer he had drunk on a visit to a professedly ‘Gandhian’ ashram in Nagaland.

Sadly, Natwar Thakkar died this past October, and so I will not get to meet a man I exchanged many mails with. However, my resolve to visit the state he made his own has been renewed by reading Rupa Chinai’s recent book, Understanding India’s Northeast — A Reporter’s Journal. The longest chapter of this book is on Nagaland; it draws on many visits to the state over the years. Chinai writes with sensitivity and feeling about the costs of the conflict between the rebels and the Indian army, a conflict that has “extracted a huge toll on the civilian population in terms of lives lost, stagnant development, psychological and physical stress and fratricide within Naga society”.

Chinai justly criticizes the policies of successive Central governments, which have imposed a standardized form of ‘Indian’ education which takes no account of the specificities of Naga life, and which, in the name of development and aid, has promoted a nexus of corruption between businessmen, bureaucrats, and politicians. As she writes: “The sub-standard public roads, drains and buildings; the palatial private bungalows and over-stuffed wallets of their children — bear testimony to how ‘development aid’ has been converted to ‘easy money’ that nurtures the luxuriant lifestyles of the creamy layer of urban Naga society. It has seen the creation of an elite class in Naga society’s egalitarian ethos, which thrives because of the insurgency conditions and the inflow of ‘easy money’. All this has been at the expense of Naga villagers who have not received a share in prosperity. They provide the bulk of the cadres for the insurgency movement.”

In 1964-5, when the insurgency was less than a decade old, Jayaprakash Narayan went to Nagaland to seek to bring about reconciliation between the Indian State and the rebels. He travelled through the hills and valleys, profoundly impressed by the egalitarian ethos of those who lived and laboured there. After he returned to Patna, JP gave a public lecture entitled “Nagaland mein shanti ka prayas” (The Search for Peace in Nagaland). Here he remarked:

“People here [in the Indian heartland] think of Nagas as uncivilized. But if one travels there one sees how advanced they are... Let me give you an example. Near the town of Mokokchung is a village named Ugma, which is perhaps the largest village in Nagaland. About four thousand people are resident here. There is a very big church there. This is bigger than any church found in Assam or elsewhere in this region. It has a seating capacity of five thousand. You will be astonished to learn that the church was built entirely by the voluntary labour of villagers. They used no material nor any expertise from outside. You may not believe this, but they did not even need an engineer from outside to help them construct this church. The people of the village built it themselves. And the church is so beautiful! Not just this church, even high schools were built by the villagers themselves. And these schools are very pretty too. Wood and bamboo are freely available here… But the most remarkable thing is their spirit of service. A Naga even if he has a B.A. or M.A. degree, does not consider physical labour to be beneath his dignity. The deficiencies that one finds in educated people elsewhere in India are absent here. If a boy comes home on holiday, he would happily help his parents in the fields or in housework. What we [Gandhians] try to teach under the rubric of ‘basic education’ is already part of the teaching here… The greatest quality of the Nagas is the dignity of labour in daily life, which we can learn from” (my translation).

Rupa Chinai’s book appears more than 50 years after JP said these words. Yet is heartening to see that for all the insecurities caused by decades of bloody violence, and the moral corrosion caused by years of State-aided corruption, there remains a deep reservoir of communal solidarity within Naga society. Chinai describes the workings of the intricate system of irrigation management in Naga villages, the taking of water to each field through stones and pipes that divert and regulate its flow. She also provides a vivid account of the building of a new house of a friend, in which every adult male in the family participated, a living example of that great Naga quality, “the dignity of labour in daily life, which we can learn from”.

Natwar Thakkar’s life’s work was to forge an honourable compact between the Nagas and the Indian Union. He sought reconciliation, based on respect for the culture and ethos of the Nagas; not assimilation based on the submergence of proud traditions of community living into some homogenized way of life prescribed by ideologues. He is gone, but I hope still to visit the state he made his own, and his ashram too. I trust it still serves pork and rice beer.

e.mail : [email protected]


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Words unheard


A broad-brush history of the last thousand years for the subcontinent that we now recognize A as India, whatever else it may or may not choose to recall, will look deficient if it does not mention the emergence of the modern Indian languages, the bhashas. Such a history is bound to talk of our transition from the feudal economy and political order to industrial economy and democracy. It will no doubt devote space to narrating the colonial experience, the clash between tradition and modernity and the shift from conventional rural forms of sense and sentiment to semi-urban order of civics and ethics. But no history of India over the last millennia can be conceived or completed without pointing to the birth and the pervasive spread of the bhashas.


The dates of their origin vary quite substantially. If the history of Marathi can be traced back to the seventh century AD, that of Odia can go back to the 11th century. Tamil may have a good two-and-ahalf millennia of existence to claim while Malayalam may have but a third of that span to its claim. However, in spite of having different dates of the first known use of these languages, what is common for all of them is that they had more or less replaced the previously used prakrits and apabhramshas and started acquiring a new energy at the beginning of the second millennium.

These were many languages: Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Tulu and Malayalam in the south; Assamiya, Boro, Manipuri, Bangla, Odia in the northeast and the east; Kashmiri, Dogri and Punjabi in the northwest; Gujarati, Marathi and Konkani in the west and Hindi, Magahi, Maithili, Urdu and Bhojpuri in central India. This is not the complete list of languages that sprung up during the first half of the last millennium. There were, additionally, Santali, Gondi and Bhilli, the languages that we now call `tribal languages'. There were also languages of nomadic communities such as the Bhantu of the Sansis and Gormati of the Banjaras, and many more.

The rise of the bhashas in India is historically comparable with the rise of the modern European languages. As Latin declined, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish sprung up; and, more or less in the same period, English, German, Russian, Czech, Polish and Swiss gained currency. One may almost read the rise of the modern languages all over the world as a necessary historical prelude to the rise of the modern world. Of course, establishing causality be- tween the rise of a given language and the condition of the society that uses it is not easy. Yet, the status of a given language can safely be taken as a necessary condition for the rise or the fall of the society using it.

Linguists describe the languages such as the European French or Indian Kannada in terms of a chronology made of the ancient, the middle and the modern. Though mindful of this scholarly convention, let me use the term `modern languages' for all of these millennial languages. These modern languages received the benefits of the technologies contributing to their growth more or less at the same time. Thus, the use of paper for writing spread in Asia and Europe between the 12th century and the 14th century. China was an exception in that it had hit upon the idea much earlier. The use of printing for multiple copies of what was written came to be known to the modern languages beginning with the 15th century to the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, to speak metaphorically, `the world was in print'. Given the command over paper-making and printing, the modern languages began production of written and printed literature all over the world. The Indian bhashas made big strides in that direction during the 19th century.

The modern languages, combined with the paper and print technology, created knowledge institutions for their perpetuation. Although the histories of the struggle for creation of language-related institutions have dissimilar chronologies in different modern languages, they all had entered the phase of localized knowledge production by the end of the 19th century. This was true of the bhashas as well. The range of new subjects and disciplines they explored during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century is truly impressive, even unprecedented. Beginning with history, the social sciences, linguistics and philosophy up to physics, mathematics, cosmology, environment-study and medicine, the pre-Independence writers and scholars contributed to the bhashas. The number of books produced in them, theatre, music and cinema activity in them and their widespread use for speaking, reading and writing by a decidedly large number of persons created for the bhashas a promise of gaining stature as languages of knowledge.

Today, that promise lies broken. As India became ready to experience independence, the constituent assembly proposed a list of 14 Indian languages as the languages of modern India. It is true that the list had Sanskrit included in it for complicated historical and emotional reasons and Sindhi got included in response to the trauma of Partition. But, the 12 other languages had indeed been thought of as the potential languages of not only governance but also of knowledge.

It is sad that the bhashas spoken by a larger part of India's 130 crore are nowhere in the reckoning of the world. Not one of them is seen even by its speakers as a language of knowledge. Not one is considered the language of opportunities, not one as the language of India's future. The bhashas survive today merely because they have not been officially replaced by a modern language like English. Of course, there has been no shortage of linguistic chauvinism in our country. There have been some memorable language movements; and there have been numerous other, not so memorable, initiatives twining identity and language. They all deserved the political space. Yet, where is at least one notable institution of learning in any of the bhashas that has truly made a global mark? Where is the Indian writer, leaving aside Ghalib of the 19th century, Tagore and Premchand of the 20th century, who writes in a bhasha and is read or respected all over the world? After Tagore, not one of them was ever found worthy of a Nobel. Where are the science journals in the bhashas that the scientific community outside may want to consult? Of course, we have great cinema and greater music in Indian languages. But, cinema and music alone do not make a language a great language.

It is really time for us to think as to why in the century described as the knowledge century India is a `failed' nation. The ability of intellectual classes to use the English language as the language of our lived knowledge is no compensation for what we lose when the bhashas are severely eclipsed. Enriching bhashas does not mean learning to hate English. Forced replacement of English with Hindi is no solution either. That would be the case of a medicine deadlier than the disease. It is both civilized and prudent to love the bhashas as well as the modern languages of knowledge. But it will be visionary to start thinking of how to empower the bhashas, how to bring to them contemporary knowledge in every possible discipline, how to revitalize them. Governments and formal patronage cannot accomplish this. All that formal patronage can do is to multiply mediocrity. Revitalization of the partially paralyzed bhashas will be possible when we understand that the bhashas laid the foundation of Indian modernity, and that `progress' in another language-ecology is an intellectual mirage. One wonders if we ever will, or if it is already too late in the day.

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courtesy : “The Telegraph”, 02 November 2018


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features