Empowering the rural poor is the right way to progress, Gandhian activist K.M.Natarajan tells SOMA BASU

Hearing him talk is like shuffling through the pages of history books. For some one like K.M.Natarajan totally inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and blessed with the opportunity to move along with associates of Gandhiji, including Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Dr.J.C.Kumarappa, Dr.G.Ramachandran, Dharmadhikari, Vimala Takkar, P.C.Ghosh, Dr.Soundaram, Kripalani, Krishnammal Jagannathan and her husband Sankaralingam and a host of other Sarvodaya leaders, he is one of those rare committed individuals in today’s consumerist world who continues his journey on the path of Gandhi.

Natarajan is 78 now and you may not want to differ with him and his ideologies. But dare ask him about “young followers” of Gandhi. Without blinking, he asserts: “There are thousands of young people working with Gandhiji’s ideas around the world. Gandhian thought is interpreted differently by each individual. Chic people have started calling it Gandhigiri. For me, it is Gandhism with a dash of spirituality.”

As I dig in more for the Weekend chat in his spartan office room at the Gandhi Museum boasting of a wooden table, two wooden chairs and a big portrait of the Mahatma in the backdrop, I gather he is definitely not the “once bitten twice shy” types.

While pursuing Intermediate at Madura College, he chose not to continue the Graduation course because the Sarvodaya movement beckoned him too strong. “The euphoria and enthusiasm created on the eve of independence had a great impact on ordinary people like me,” he flashes his toothless smile.

“I completed SSLC from a school run by the then Raja of Sivaganga because my father was particular that I study in the same school where the first-ever Graduate from our native village Pannaimoondradaipu near Aruppukkottai (in present Virudhunagar district) also studied,” he shares.

The poor agriculture-based parents from this remote village did nurture big dreams for their six sons and a daughter. Yet, they knew that the “third child born to them was different.”

At the age of eight, he surprised them by not only turning vegetarian himself but even successfully motivating his schoolmates and many villagers in the Thevar-dominated community to take to vegetarian food.

When he got a Government job in the National Highways Department after SSLC, his family may have looked forward to some financial relief. But it did not take young Natarajan a second thought to chuck it up for the Bhoodan movement.

For him, the joy and pride of joining a padayatra from Rameswaram to Palakkad under the clarion call of Congress stalwart from Maharashtra Shankara Rao Deo, was an “indescribable feeling that was impossible to escape.”

The year was 1952, when Natarajan also resolved to take up Gandhi’s call to boycott English cloth and chose to clothe himself in handspun khadi ever after.

During his SSLC days, Natarajan volunteered to attend summer camps at Gandhigram where all big leaders used to come and train constructive workers. It was here that he began to understand Gandhiji’s basic education at provincial and national level, the pain and passion of putting precepts into practice and the host of Constructive programmes envisioned by the Father of the Nation for empowering the rural poor.

Listening to fiery speeches by Jai Prakash Narayan and Aruna Asaf Ali who called for making a society based on truth and non-violence and later when Vinoba Bhave came calling to Tamil Nadu for ‘Bhoodan’, Natarajan followed his inner voice.

“I had an innate desire to serve the deprived and the downtrodden in rural India,” he says and in the true mould of Gandhiji, along with Vinoba Bhave, he took to long padyatras for 11 months at a stretch across the State in 1956-57 going from one village to village, making personal appeal to landowners to voluntarily give up part of their surplus lands to the landless rural poor as an act of social justice.

“It was my first direct social experience of a Gandhian idea in action. It was simply fascinating as we reached 100 people daily urging them to donate land. I was totally mesmerized by Vinobaji who would only be drinking curd during his strenuous foot-marches. As days rolled by, I only yearned for more involvement in social work.”

It was during these years that Natarajan also came to be recognized for his organizational abilities. “I knew a little bit of English and also came in as a handy translator for translating the speeches of big leaders from English to Tamil. We used to invite lot of leaders from the North for the Bhoodan yatra which was in full swing under a renewed name of Gramdan signifying involvement of entire villages. I used to actively campaign for the movement.”

His involvement did not escape JP’s attention and Natarajan was handpicked as one of the 36 members of a team that was sent to Israel for six months training in functioning of village communities. On return, he engaged himself in the task of developing gramdan villages and was instrumental in digging more than 1,000 wells on bhoodan land and settling over 15,000 landless peasants on the gifted land.

Natarajan, who is the Chairman of Tamil Nadu Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Madurai, for the past seven years, had also helped in restoring the rights of soil tillers in Vilampatti and Valivalam under the guidance of doyen of Sarvodaya movement in South India, Sankaralingam Jagannathan.

Natarajan’s six decades of dedication to the sarvodaya movement has earned him a name in the field of rural reconstruction programmes.

“As I travel, I get to see and understand more the global connectivity in Gandhian ideas and my interest and energy get recharged. I have experienced only a piecemeal of the Sarvodaya movement, which represents a holistic approach to life. I feel thrilled when I meet Gandhian activists across the world eager to practice Gandhian ideolgies in totality.”

For a person who has only heard and seen Gandhi from a distance, how the mahatma touched his mind is amazing. The powerful symbols of self-reliance that Gandhiji espoused, Natarajan tries to practice with his contacts with the grassroot people.

The excitement and enthusiasm he nurtured six decades ago in attending sarvodaya meetings has not waned. He was there at the All India Sarvodaya Sammelan at Guwahati this February as one of the 5,000 members who felt and realized the increasing need for violence-free society.

He simultaneously educates himself in every piece of Gandhian literature available and goes about addressing students on the strength of peoples’ power and good value education. From the community water pump, the road under construction, the repairs in the village school building, development that causes human displacement, medical nemesis and de-schooling of society to organic farming, naturopathy, education as a powerful tool for change and the sarvodaya (welfare of all) way of life continue to tug his heart now.

“Only when people involve themselves whole-heartedly in any issue, can we think of a truly civilized living,” he says, refusing to believe that mass movements are a thing of the past.

“I strongly believe the world will return to small scale industries and people will be happily back on a self-reliant mode,” he says, going back to his latest read, “Inraya Gandhi” by Nagercoil-based Jay Mohan.

FACTFILE

  • K.M.Natarajan is also the Secretary of Tamil Nadu Sarvodaya Mandal, Madurai, for a quarter Century now.
  • Is Member of Executive Council, All India Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, New Delhi, since 2008
  • Member, Trustee Mandal of the Sarva Seva Sangh, Sevagram, since 2009
  • Previously Senate member and Academic Council member of Gandhi Gram Rural University and Madurai Kamaraj University.
  • He is the Editor of ‘Sarvodaya Talisman’ , a Gandhian bi-monthly magazine and also edits articles for a 63 years old Tamil weekly “Grama Rajyam”.
  • Has been awarded the Best Gandhian Constructive Worker by the Gandhigram rural University in 2009
  • Awarded the Swami Pranavananda Award for significant contribution to the promotion of peace and Gandhian Literature in 2000
  • Has received the Award for social service from Keithahn Satya Trust, Gandhigram, 2004
  • Has received Desh Snehi Award from India Development Foundation, Bangalore