Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2

Mahatma Gandhi and the Gandhians in the North-East

Natwar Thakkar

Mahatma Gandhi’s visits to Assam

Gandhiji had paid four visits to Assam.  He gave great importance to the region, the people and the work amongst them. As far as work is concerned, he was also ably assisted by his lieutenants. Two names which immediately come to mind while writing this are Late Kakasaheb Kalelkar and Late Satish Chandra Dasgupta of Sodepur ashram. Dasgupta was a renowned, scientist and prominent khadi worker. Simultaneously he was also able to motivate many competent persons from within the state to involve themselves in different items of constructive work programmes. This programme was evolved by him as his blueprint for reconstruction for India. It must be said that he also succeeded in doing very valuable work through his colleagues within Assam and also those from other parts of the country.

His first visit took place in the year 1921, second visit in 1926, third in 1934 and the fourth and the last one in the year 1946. Out of these four visits, one visit was described as khadi tour as he focused all his attention on explaining to people the significance of and the need for khadi work. Another visit was described as Harijan tour during which he spoke about removal of untouchability which he used to often describe as curse on Hindu society. The visit in the year 1926 was mainly concerned with the Congress session held at Pandu in Guwahati. It was presided over by Srinivas Iyengar.

One historical aspect of this Congress session at Pandu need mention. The Congress workers of Assam set a target of collecting 10,000 yards of khadi with a view to erect the main pandal of Congress session with khadi only.  This target was achieved as few neighbouring districts of Assam were approached and the families of these districts were assigned the task of producing a specific quantity of khadi. This target was fulfilled and for the first time in the history of Congress, the entire main pandal of the session was erected with khadi only. This motivated the national Congress to see that Pandals in all the future Congress sessions were also created out of khadi only. It became a tradition with Congress.

Gandhiji’s last visit in 1946 was also a visit of historical significance. It was during this visit that Gandhiji inaugurated the Assam branch of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust and a Gram Sevikas Vidyalaya to be started under this branch. It may be mentioned that this was the only branch in the entire country which was inaugurated by Gandhiji. Gandhiji assigned the responsibility of managing this branch to Late Amalprava Das. He had stayed during this visit on a small hillock known as Sarania, owned by Dr Harekrishna Das, father of Amalprava Das, a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi. This hillock was finally donated by Dr. Das and his family for accommodating the Gram Sevika Vidyalay and other activities. This hillock was surrounded by the dwellings of poverty stricken people of Guwahati. Gandhiji had desired to stay in the midst of poor people and so a small hut was constructed specially for him. All the elderly stalwarts of Congress led by Dr Harekrishna Das, Gopinath Bordoloi, Dr Bhubaneswar Barua themselves participated in the construction of this hut prepared with bamboo posts and thatched roof and plastered with mud. This hallowed structure has been kept intact in its original structure and the Gram Sevikas Vidyalaya continues to run on this hillock till today. The daily prayers of this Vidyalaya are held in this hut. 

According to Cabinet Mission scheme published on 16th May 1946, popularly known as “grouping”. Major portion of Assam was to be apportioned to the then proposed East Pakistan. The people of Assam in general and their leaders in particular were highly disturbed to learn about the same. Unfortunately the grouping scheme suggested by Cabinet Mission was given consent by Congress Working Committee. I had heard it from Late Kakasaheb Kalelkar as Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi along with Reverend Nichols Roy, a Khasi leader from Shillong, rushed to meet Gandhiji and shared their great unhappiness over the scheme. Lokpriya Bordoloi informed Gandhiji that Congress Working Committee had given consent to this plan. He further informed him that as a Congress man he was in a dilemma about his duty in the face of Congress decision. At this Gandhiji asked Lokpriya, ‘what does your conscience say?’ Gopinathji replied that he was not in favour of that decision. Gandhiji then advised him go to working committee and protest against that decision and assured him of his firmly support to that stand and the people of Assam. It ultimately compelled the leaders and British functionaries concerned to alter the scheme. The final outcome was that Assam remained with India.

As I see it these four visits by Gandhiji to Assam were in the nature of destiny provided new link to cement the emotional bonds between Assam and the people of rest of India.

Senior Gandhian workers of the North-East India today

The 28th of October 2010 will remain to be one of the memorable days for the Gandhian fraternity of the North East. Nonagenarian Shakuntala Choudhary of Sarania Ashram was conferred with the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Award on this day at a grand function held at Mumbai. The Award was presented at the hands of the President of India Shrimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil who is also influenced by Gandhian thought.

Sushri Shakuntala Choudhary popularly referred to as Shakuntala Baideo, is one of the few senior most Gandhian workers of Assam today. Born in 1920, she began her career of voluntary service in 1947 at the age of 27. She was already a graduate and had put in more than three years of service as a high school teacher. While she was serving as a teacher, she came under the spell of Late Amalprova Das, the legendary Gandhian of Assam and a freedom fighter who was the fountain head of inspiration for many upcoming Gandhian workers of those days. Shakuntala Baideo has remained lifelong celibate and worked throughout 63 long years at the headquarters of Assam branch of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust, popularly referred to as The Sarania Ashram. She has the reputation of being a publicity-shy but scrupulous and efficient administrator cum teacher. She is also blessed with literary talent and has edited the magazine, “Asomiya Viswanagari” for several years. She is running and editing this magazine till today. The magazine has a sizeable readership. Some features of Gandhian discipline like regular daily prayers, daily spinning and keeping surroundings clean are strictly followed by her even at this ripe old age. A write-up that I had written about her sometime back was captioned by me as, “Self effacing pilgrim of Gandhian path” !

Sushri Hema Kakoty, generally addressed as Hema Baideo, a close associate of Shakuntala Choudhary is another Gandhian activist who immediately comes to mind. She is 86 years old and has also remained a celibate throughout her life. She too was influenced by late Amalprova Das and had joined Amalprova Baideo in 1944. As such she had joined Amalprova Baideo three years prior to Shakuntala Choudhary. Hema Baideo had the good fortune of being assigned as an important volunteer to look after Gandhiji and his entourage when the entire party had stayed at Sarania Ashram for three days. Shakuntala Choudhary and Hema Kakoty were two staunch pillars of the edifice created by Amalprova Das. They continue to be so till today.

Other nonagenarian Gandhians

There are a few other well known nonagenarian Gandhians in Assam today. They are Shrimati Hema Bharali, a lifelong celibate, 91 years old, Shri Kamakhya Prasad Das, who is 92 years old and Shri Janardan Pathak, 90 years old. All the three of them participated in the freedom struggle led by Gandhiji. Shri Das has remained mainly a worker in the field of propagation of khadi. He had seen Gandhi from a distance when he was just eight years old. He vividly remembers the details of this first glimpse. It seems his young mind was greatly influenced by the aura and the mood that he witnessed on that day. That first glimpse of Gandhi won over young Kamakhya Das to the cause of national service and converted him into a lifelong Gandhian volunteer. Shri Kamakhya Prasad Das is occupying these days the prestigious chair of the president of the All India Freedom Fighters Association. It is heartening to note that a citizen of Assam is honoured with such a position as Assam had played an equally important role as any other part of India in the struggle for freedom.

Shri Janardan Pathak had also seen Gandhiji. In fact he had met Gandhiji in his Ashram at Sevagram (Wardha) in the year 1946 when Pathak was 25 years old. He discussed about his future with Gandhiji during that meeting. Gandhiji advised him to take to the service of the tribal population of Assam or the tea garden laborers. Gandhiji further directed young Pathak to meet the legendary social worker, late Thakkar Bapa.

Pathak then met Thakkar Bapa at Nagpur in the same year. This meeting proved decisive for him as he resolved to return to Assam without delay and start his mission of service for the tribals of Assam. Initially in the year 1948 he went to Barama Ashram. It was established by the great social worker of Assam late B. K. Bhandari. Late Bhandari too was inspired by Thakkar Bapa to work in Assam. Pathak got his grooming under the guidance of late B. K. Bhandari at Barama Ashram. After spending few months at Barama Ashram, Pathak could finally organize the programme to lay foundation stone of his centre of service in Karbi Anglong at a village named Sarihajan. Karbi Anglong in those days was known as Mikir Hills, the name given by the British regime. Hence he named his centre as Mikir Hills Seva Kendra – lately renamed as Sarihajan Seva Kendra. The foundation stone of this mission was laid by late Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi; the first Chief Minister of Assam.

Pathak married a daughter of Karbi Anglong Smt. Jharna Devi. She also joined hands with Pathak mainly in managing the school. The activities that were conducted at this Seva Kendra consisted of, running schools, service to lepers, rural reconstruction and value orientation. Prof. Ram Charan Das was also among the eminent Gandhians of Assam.

Another senior Gandhian of Assam who will soon enter his 90th year is Shri Dwarika Barua, the founder and the head of Gram Loka Seva Sangh at Dham Dhama in the district of Nalbari. He had been very active in the field of Gandhian service in Assam for many years. Trained in basic education in Sevagram, he initially started his work in the field of basic education or Nai-Talim at Baska by establishing the Baska Buniyadi Siksha Niketan. Later on he shifted to Dham Dhama and founded Gram Loka Seva Sangh and concentrated his attention on production and propagation of khadi. As he is not in good health these days, the institution is now being supervised by Shri Prahlad Baishya, a lieutenant groomed by him.

Lok Yatra and Lok Yatris

Sushri Hema Bharali on the other hand had kept herself engaged in propagating village industries along with khadi. At a later stage she became associated with Bhoodan movement initiated by Vinoba Bhave which was a most important Gandhian initiative undertaken by him in post-Gandhi era in India. This mission was also instrumental in motivating number of young persons to join the Sarvodaya movement which was the name adopted for the Gandhian activities in its entirety. It is not in the scope of this article to elaborate on the significance of the Bhoodan yagna, but one is tempted to emphasize here that nothing of the kind had taken place in human history when large number of landlords voluntarily donated land for landless farmers. Vinoba Ji walked all over Assam for this mission for 18 long months. This was one of the major Gandhian initiatives in the North East India.

The reference to Bhoodan mission above has become necessary to describe an important and unique project conceived by Vinoba Ji which was focused on Assam and women activists of Assam. In this project Sushri Hema Bharali was assigned to play the leading role. He selected Sushri Hema Bharali and Sushri Laxmi Phukan (nearing 80 at present), both from Assam, to undertake 12 year long foot march all over India. This march was named by him as Lok-Yatra. He explained that the people of Assam have remained aloof from most parts of India. Secondly the women of Assam are less inhibited than women in other parts of the country. He then explained that when these two sisters from Assam will go around the country, it would lead to fulfillment of three objectives. Firstly it will promote emotional integration, secondly it will facilitate empowerment of women and finally it will also help in leading to the spiritual development of women in the country. He further said that let people of India, in towns and villages, listen to Hema Bharali speaking in Assamese language and accent and Sushri Laxmi Phukan translating it in Hindi. Although conceived originally for two Assamese sisters, two other sisters from North India, lecturers of a college, one from Punjab and another whose family originally hailed from Sindh volunteered and joined the march. They were Sushri Nirmal Vaid and Devi Rijhuwani.  Vinoba Ji also reminded that highly venerated saint of Assam; Shrimanta Shankardeva had also similarly undertaken pilgrimage of India for a period of 12 years.

The Lok-Yatra march lasted for twelve years as originally conceived and the four sisters went around the entire country. Additionally they also toured around Sri Lanka and  some parts of Nepal. The march was concluded in the year 1979 coinciding with an international conference of women held at Wardha. This march led by Sushri Hema Bharali from Assam, to my mind can rightly be described as one of the major Gandhian initiatives with involvement of North East India. 

Hema Bharali Baideo continues to remain active in Assam even at the ripe age of 91 and Sushri Laxmi Phukan in her late seventies is the head of Maitri Ashram established by Vinoba Ji near North Lakhimpur in Assam.  This ashram is one of the main active Gandhian centres of the region.

These few paragraphs above have been written mainly to acquaint the readers with the Gandhian workers who are still in our midst and are functioning in one way or the other. The list of active Gandhian workers will not be complete without adding few more names. We have mainly dealt with the workers in Assam because Assam out of all the states of North Eastern India has the majority of Gandhian activists. It is necessary to point out by way of reminder that out of the seven states of the region, a majority of them had remained secluded and they were not involved in the struggle for freedom led by Gandhiji. Most of them had no facilities of modern communications during the erstwhile British regime. They were almost cut off from the rest of the country. Things have no doubt changed fast and no state of the region is secluded any longer.

Younger Gandhians of Assam

Most of the workers described so far are elderly persons. But we also have a relatively younger group of Gandhian workers, in their 60s, in the region. Talking mainly of Assam one most prominent younger person who comes to mind is Shri Hembhai, Founder of Shanti Sadhana Ashram and writer of many books in Asomiya language on Gandhian and spiritual themes. He has translated into Assamese language Vinobaji’s famous book on “Talks On Gita” originally written in Marathi and which was later translated into Hindi, English and many other languages. The close associate of Hembhai Shri Babulal Vidrum also referred to as Swamiji, as he has taken sanyas, comes to mind. Shri Babulal Ji is inevitably associated with every aspect of the functioning of the Shanti Sadhana Ashram and all other activities run and initiated by Shri Hembhai.

In the younger group of Gandhian workers of Assam some prominent khadi workers have earned credit through their activities in propagation of khadi and village industries and also associating themselves with other Gandhian activities. They are Shri Niranjan Kalita who has founded and is running Gram Swaraj Parishad, Rangiya and the second name is Shri Umesh Medhi, Founder of Barkhetri Unnayan Samity in the district of Nalbari of Assam. The third name is that of Shri Haresh Bhatt. He is Gujarati by birth and has married a daughter of Bodo tribe. They are blessed with a son. Haresh Bhatt originally came to Assam as a volunteer in a group from Gujarat to participate in the relief work in the wake of riots in Assam in the early 80s. He was a graduate of a Gandhian rural institute, Lok Bharati. He had harbored the ambition of becoming a Gandhian voluntary social worker and seeing the conditions of underdeveloped Bodo tribe in Assam, he decided to select Assam as his area of operation. He founded Kokila Vikas Ashram and its present headquarters are at Gohpur, mainly inhabited by Bodos. Another important name is of Promode Chandra Sinha. He too runs a khadi and village industries organization at a village in the neighbourhood of Silchar District that falls under the Barak Valley of Assam. He has rendered valuable services through his khadi and village industries programme to the rural poor. He is a simple highly dedicated voluntary social worker of Gandhian stream.

Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi has also been running a centre in Assam with Shri Ravikant Handique as its chief functionary. This centre is situated in an interior village Naojan on the border of neighbouring Nagaland state. The main thrust of this centre is to generate awareness about Gandhian thought and teachings through small meetings, observation of national days, small exhibitions, etc. 

Recent entrants to Gandhian fraternity in Assam

An important recent young entrant in the Gandhian circle in Assam is an organization named as Asha Darshan. It started working in 2001 and was registered as a trust in the year 2002. Its chief functionary is Kumari Biju Borbaruah, a daughter of Assam. She is in her 30s and has been able to mobilize a team of 19 workers of the same age group. Blessed with dynamism and stamina, Sushri Biju and her team of workers have been able to establish eight lower primary schools, three middle schools and one proceeding high school which has reached up to class IX. The total number of teachers working in all the schools is 44. Besides the schools, Asha Darshan has also organized 437 self help groups and 150 mahila shanti sena groups.

The area of operation of Asha Darshan is spread over two districts of Assam, namely Dhemaji and Baksa. The majority population of Baksa district consists of the Bodos, a major tribal group of Assam.

Gandhian organizations and workers in Tripura

Turning our eyes to other states of the region, one name of a senior Gandhian worker from Tripura is Shri Chittaranjan Dev. He is no doubt an elderly person with indifferent health but is still active and is running two organizations in Tripura: The Tripura Adimjati Sevak Sangh and The Harijan Sevak Sangh, Tripura. A recent recruit in Tripura to Gandhian fraternity is Shrimati Fulan Bhattacharjee. She was a close associate of Late Shrimati Anurupa Mukherjee who had founded the well known Tripura Adimjati Mahila Samity. Ms Fulan now is the head of the Tripura state Kasturba Memorial Trust. In response to appeal by late Rabindranath Upadhyay, she also actively works for organizing Mahila Shanti Sena in Tripura.

Gandhian work in Manipur

As far as Manipur is concerned, the three Gandhian stalwarts from that state, namely, L. Achow Singh, Professor Neelkant Singh and Dr. Binod Kumar Singh were the prominent names. But they are no longer in our midst. Fortunately, there are a few young Gandhian activists in Manipur today who continue to work against heavy odds in the midst of ongoing violence in the state. Shri Devidas Sharma at present is assigned to be the representative of Gandhi Peace Foundation and is also the Founder Secretary of Gram Seva Sangh. Devidas has implemented various small projects of rural development and he has a good coterie of young associates who joins him in various public functions on Gandhian themes which he organizes from time to time. There is also a Kasturba Gandhi Seva Ashram, situated at a place named Khongman Mayai Leikei in East Imphal. The person in charge is Kumari Medhawati Devi, ably assisted by her devoted colleague Podmomala. Two young women workers who have started working during relatively recent times (since 1995) are Gurumayum Latadevi and Gurumayum Radha Pyari Devi. They are the leading functionaries in the organization known as Silk Weaver’s Cooperative Society situated at a place called Koirangi in Imphal. The main Gandhian activity which they are conducting is organizing mahila shanti sena (women’s peace brigade) groups. Simultaneously they also undertake spinning and weaving programmes, bee- keeping, organization of self help groups, etc.

Gandhian service centres in Arunachal

The states of Mizoram and Meghalaya today do not have any Gandhian centres in their midst. But Arunachal and Nagaland have a few centres. Arunachal Pradesh Sewa Sangh is situated at Doimukh near Itanagar. It was originally established by a group including late Rabindranath Upadhyay. The main worker is Shri Vishalnath Rai who is also its secretary. The organization is chaired at present by a prominent citizen of Arunachal, Shri Rakhi Tana Tara.

In the recent past Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi has also started a centre at Itanagar in Arunachal. The name of the worker in charge is Hari K Biswas. Additionally the well known youth camp organizer Shri Subba Rao has also been holding youth camps in Arunachal from time to time.

Gandhian work in Nagaland

Nagaland has the Nagaland Gandhi Ashram (NGA) at Chuchuyimlang founded in the year 1955 under the auspices of Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh by the author of this article, Natwar Thakkar. He has been ably assisted in his work by his Naga wife Shrimati Lentina Ao Thakkar. Incidentally Shrimati Lentina happens to be the first Naga person to be trained as Gandhian worker. She was trained at the Assam branch of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust under the care and guidance of Late Amalprova Das Baideo. She was trained at Sarania Ashram as midwife and was working as one of the workers of Kasturba Gram Seva Kendra at Chuchuyimlang. After her marriage with Shri Thakkar, she has also become an active associate of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram. The couple is in their late seventies.

The NGA, in course of its long tenure, undertook different kinds of activities. As the spell of violence began soon after NGA came into existence, a natural responsibility of attempting peace building emerged. NGA did play an important role in reducing avoidable tension and friction between law enforcing functionaries and people in the villages. In their service rendering programme, it began with vocational training centre for school drop-outs. Later on  the Ashram implemented khadi marketing and village industries programme like bee keeping, experimenting with edible oil extraction, organizing medical relief camps, running of Balwadis in villages. It also indulged in undertaking trials of non-traditional agriculture crops.

On completion of 50 years of its service in Nagaland, the NGA has been able to secure cooperation from Central government to start a computer training institute with effect from 2007. Similarly an ambitious plan in collaboration with Indira Gandhi National Open University is being formulated recently. The permanent full fledged complex will be raised on 232 acres plot of land donated by Chuchuyimlang village community. The complex is named as IGNOU-NGA complex and its first activity of starting Master of Social Work (MSW) programme began on August 20, 2010.

There is also a khadi village industries institution in Nagaland named as Khadi and Village Industries Sangh, founded in the year 1981-82 by Shri Sukhdev Sharma. The institution is being run by Shri Dinesh Choudhury at present and is presently chaired by a prominent Angami citizen, Mr Thepfutuzhalia Angami. The main activity of this organization consists of running one khadi bhawan each at Dimapur and Kohima and also running a training centre in readymade garment making.

Important Gandhian initiatives

Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Assam in itself is the most important initiative. The second major initiative was the propagation of Rashtra Bhasha (national language) which was started prior to independence. It started with a tour undertaken by Acharya Kakasaheb Kalelkar. He was instrumental during his tour to motivate the leading personalities of Assam to establish “Rashtrabhasha Prachar  Samity” . This organization was able to generate great enthusiasm amongst the young and the old to learn Hindi. The Samity gradually developed into a big organization and it earned government patronage after   India became free. Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi and his other senior colleagues in the state took keen interest in the growth of this organization. It is functioning till today but it has lost its original fervour as it is more or less a full fledged government body now.

The third major initiative that comes to mind is the Bhoodan yatra conducted by Acharya Vinoba Bhave for 18 months. It was successfully conducted with the stewardship of senior workers like Amalprava Das, Sushri Shakuntala Choudhary and various other senior personalities. A major fall out of this yatra was the compilation of a book by Vinoba Ji consisting of the summarised version of the collection of lyrical composition by the venerable saint of Assam Shrimanta Madhav Dev, the chief disciple of the founder of ek saran naam dharma.  This was a highly valuable contribution by Vinobaji as it acquainted the rest of the country with the rich spiritual treasure of Assam, no doubt nurtured by the Indian spiritual heritage. Yet another Gandhian initiative was the deputation of Shanti sainiks in Arunachal Pradesh soon after Chinese aggression. The call for Shanti sainiks was given by Late Jai Prakash Narayan in a Sarvodaya sanmilan and many came forward in response to his appeal. One of the Shanti Sainiks who had agreed to work in Assam was Late Rabindra Upadhyaay, popularly known as Late Rabin Bhai. Rabin Bhai was successful in developing a major centre of service which was very well planned and well administered.

The fifth initiative is the formation of Nagaland Peace Mission. Two of the members of the Peace Mission – J.P. and Chaliha – were followers of Gandhi. Chaliha was sent by Gandhiji to Madhubani in Bihar to learn about the technique of kniting and weaving. He is said to have discovered a new kind of Charkha. Dr. M. Aram, an eminent Gandhian scholar, devotedly served as the Director of the Nagaland Peace Centre established by J.P. His contributions, as a member of the ceasefire observers team, is well-known. He wrote Peace in Nagaland.   

          Although the action could not be carried up to its conclusion, a novel plan was evolved under the leadership of Late Gandhian stalwart Shankar Rao Deo. It was named as Delhi-Peking friendship march. The stipulation was that a group of Indian citizens would travel from Delhi to Peking. The group did reach up to Assam. But the Chinese authorities declined to permit the group to proceed. It was therefore dropped. It, however, needs mention that the planned action was motivated by Gandhian ideals.  


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