Tucked away in a corner, ignored by the madding crowd that inhabits Delhi studios, is a land of astounding beauty. Mizoram.
With a literacy rate second only to Kerala and a GDP per capita twice that of Uttar Pradesh, one would’ve thought Mizoram would shame us into swinging our creaking spotlight onto its one million inhabitants and their way of life. But it is not the case. India has always considered her seven sisters as dwarfs.
This is the story of tyrannical distances, geographical and of the mind. It is a story that is not taught in our History books, a story relegated to clever crumbs in quiz shows or one that is summoned by neat rows of pencil-chewing Civil Services aspirants; a story of great famines and revolutions and much bloodshed.
This is the story of Mizoram.
In 1959, the gentle people of Lushai Hills woke up to a calamity. Worse was to follow seven years later, in 1966, but at the time the Mizos felt nothing could be more terrible than Mautam. And who could blame them? The ageless hills, luscious green, with their exotic flora and dense bamboo jungles, were overcome by the ecological onslaught that strikes every 48 years, or as the Mizo like to call it, Mautam.
Bamboo flowers only once in its lifetime, and when it did in 1959 – forests upon blooming forests – it created just the right setting for rats to multiply in enormous numbers, leading inevitably to famine. Such devastations had earlier been recorded in the Lushai Hills, in 1862 and again in 1911. The Mautam of 1959, however, was particularly violent, not only in the damage that it caused, but also because of its political repercussion. It was the last domino to topple, and it carried with it the momentum of all previous tragedies and resentments.
The Mizo District Council, as a precautionary measure to tame Mautam’s aftermath, pleaded with the government of Assam – under whose administrative and geographical control it fell – for a paltry sum of Rs 150,000. Assam turned the request down. It dismissed Mautam as a mere tribal superstition. What it got in return was a revolt, a revolt that led to an insurgency that lasted a quarter of a century.
The non-political organisation, Mizo National Famine Front, transformed into Mizo National Front, or MNF. More was to come. In 1964, the Assam Regiment disbanded its 2nd battalion, composed predominantly of the Hill people. The soldiers who lost their jobs promptly joined the MNF to form its military wing: the Mizo National Army. As the years progressed, and Assam continued to turn a blind eye to the development and welfare activities needed so urgently, separatist feelings grew rapidly. Under the command of Pu Laldenga, MNF gained a strong backing of the Mizo people, united by the party doctrine aimed to create a separate Mizo nation. And yet, what had by now turned into a mass movement was regarded as a minor Law & Order situation by the Centre. To be sure, its mind and energies were doubtless occupied with winning the 1965 Indo-Pak War.
MNF took advantage, its resolve made amply clear from memorandum that it submitted to Prime Minister Shastri in October of 1965: “Whether the Mizo nation should shed her tears in joy, to establish firm and lasting relationship with India in war and in peace or in sorrow and in anger, is up to the Government of India to decide.”
On February 28, 1966, the bottled-up anger – against Assam, against India, against perceived and real injustices; against geographical claustrophobia – found its release, in the form of Operation Jericho. At 22:30 hours, a gang nearing a thousand MNF men took control of the BSF and the Assam Rifles Camp. Soon after, they damaged the Telephone Exchange – leading to a complete disruption of government communication – before taking over the Treasury and other important government buildings in the region.
At midnight the next day, March 1, 1966, the MNF released a twelve-point declaration stating why India was unfit and unworthy of ruling the Mizo people. Then, swiftly, it brought down the Indian tricolour from the Assam Rifles Head Quarters, hoisted the MNF flag in its place, and declared independence from the Indian Union.
Three days of uneasy calm followed. Then came the incident widely regarded by those who know of it – and not many do – as one of the most shameful and tragic in India’s modern history.
On March 5, 1966, 11:30 hours, Aizawl came under air-strikes; its people bombed by the very military sworn to protect them. There was no warning, no time to hide, no time to prepare.
“…There were two types of planes which flew over Aizawl – good planes and angry planes. The good planes were those which flew comparatively slowly and did not spit out fire or smoke; the angry planes were those which escaped to a distance before the sound of their coming could be heard and who spat out smoke and fire” – An eyewitness account.
A detailed portrayal of the Aizawl Bombing can be found in the seminal book: The Mizo Uprising: Assam Assembly Debates on the Mizo Movement, 1966-1971, by JV Hluna and Rini Tochhawng. The horrors that the air-strikes entailed may have been forgotten by the rest of India but they remain etched indelibly in the minds of those who suffered. When asked about the use of Indian Air force over Aizawl, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi responded: “It was deployed to drop men and supplies.”
Two members of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Stanley Nichols-Roy and Hoover Hynniewta, who had visited the Mizo Hills in the aftermath of the bombing, were incensed by the Prime Minister’s remark. Perhaps some of the unexploded bombs should be sent to Delhi, to find out how does one cook these supplies, they asked sarcastically on the floor of the House. The late B Raman, former head of Research & Analysis Wing, was of the opinion the air strikes only managed to drive more people to join the ranks of the insurgents. None other than a former Chief Minister of Mizoram, Mr Zoramthanga, testified to this assessment, by stating that he had “joined the MNF party and participated in the rebellion due to the relentless bombing of Aizawl in 1966”.
Republic Veng, Hmeichche Veng, Dawrpuii Veng, and other localities of Aizawl were completely destroyed.
Writing in The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta named the two pilots who took part in the Aizawl bombing: Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi.
The raids were as indiscriminate as they were devastating. Recalled Mathew Thomas, commanding officer of 2 PARA, involved in the operations: “…Assam Rifles were still holding out, but the Mizos were all around. We had to bring the Air Force. It strafed them and it was only after that we were able to push in and get into Aizawl…the situation was very volatile. Heliborne reinforcements were attempted but the sniping was too close to the camp and too heavy for choppers to come down. Therefore, at last at 1130 hours came the air strikes, IAF fighters strafing hostile positions all around the Battalion area. The strafing was repeated in the afternoon and it soon became apparent that the hostiles were beginning to scatter. At the end of air action, Aizawl town caught fire.”
In preparation for this unprecedented assault, the Mizo district had been declared a disturbed area (under the Assam Disturbed Area Act 1955) and MNF an unlawful organization (Extra-ordinary Gazette Notification published on March 6, 1966). Law and order became the responsibility of the army (under the Armed Forces Special Act, 1958 and by Rule 38 of the Defence of India Rules, 1962). Article 352 was invoked, and applied. The army moved in from Silchar into the Hills (March 3, 1966), commissioned air-strikes on Aizawl and other villages (March 5 and 6, 1966), and air-dropped leaflets discouraging people from participating with the rebels. It secured Lungleh, Champhai, and the East Pakistan border by March 17, thereby snapping any possibility of help or reinforcements from Burma and Pakistan. In a matter of 10 days, the Mizo district had been sanitised, a curfew imposed, and MNF volunteers forced to scatter.
Never before had the Indian army been mobilised so ruthlessly to tackle insurgency. Nehru’s approach to the 1947-52 Naga crisis, it should be recalled, was to empower Nagaland, to protect their customs and traditions, and to provide an opportunity to the Naga people to develop at the same rate as the rest of the nation. Even when military action was resorted to, Nehru had proposed to “win the hearts of the people, not to terrify or frighten them…There can be no doubt that an armed revolt has to be met by force and suppressed. There are no two opinions about that and we shall set about it as efficiently and effectively as possible. But our whole past and present outlook is based on force by itself being no remedy. We have prepared this in regard to the greater problems of the world. Much more must we remember this when dealing with our countrymen who have to be won over and not merely suppressed.”
But this was Indira, and she held no such scruples.
The bombing of Aizawl did little to calm the region. The unrest continued and for the Mizo people it resulted in deep psychological scars; scars that took two decades to heal.
No rebellion can succeed without the support of the civilian population for food, shelter, and information. The army, through Lt General Sam Manekshaw, proposed a spatialisation of villages. This so-called Village Grouping Plan, that was earlier rejected by the union cabinet, was now approved swiftly. The sociologist, C Nunthara, noted: “The Planning Commission recommended the implementation and funding of the grouping scheme”. The idea behind this plan was that it would accelerate development and improve security. What it resulted in was the exact opposite.
Mizoram turned into a land of isolated ghettos – emotional, economic, psychological, and spiritual. 236,162 Mizos out of a total population of 318,970 (1970 census) were subjected to the regrouping. The mass migration of villagers and their resettlement was planned around the Silchar-Aizawl-Lungleh road. Villagers were given a week’s notice before being forced to move. Once the villages were emptied out they were burnt to the ground and all food-grain destroyed. The plan was to leave nothing behind that could sustain the rebels. As a legal safeguard, villagers were made to sign documents indicating that they were leaving of their own free will.
Life in the new settlements was a life of constant surveillance, humiliation, want and suffering. Every villager was issued an identification number which was to be displayed prominently. The day would begin and end with a roll-call. Men took the role of farmers, unpaid labourers, construction workers, and porters. If modern history has taught us a lesson, it is that humiliation of a civilian population works at a deeper psychological level – the physical labour is forgotten, the scars of the mind remain.
Meanwhile, the local economy lay in ruins. The Jhum method of farming, possible only in a scattered settlement, was rendered useless. Access to cultivable land was severely constrained. The farmers had to return from the field for a roll-call in the evening. Local customs could not be carried out under constant surveillance and in living conditions no different from those experienced by convicts.
The songs and poetry of the time are only about lament and suffering. They came to be known as Curfew Songs. Around 75 per cent of the population of Mizoram was uprooted. As many as 516 out of a total of 764 villages were regrouped. 120 villages were burnt down. This was India’s Year Zero and it dealt a mortal blow to the Mizo spirit.
The regrouping was completed by 1970; the MNF rebels routed, insurgency controlled. But the Armed Forces remained stationed in Mizoram. The next decade and a half bore witness to an edgy calm, marked routinely with street protests, blockades, and curfews. Then, in 1986, against all expectations, the stakeholders rose above conflict, egos, and bitterness. A Peace Accord was signed between the MNF and the government of India. The Memorandum of Settlement began, ironically, with the mention of the person who had ordered the bombing of Aizawl:
“Toward this end, initiative was taken by the late Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi on the acceptance by Shri Laldenga on behalf of the Mizo National Front (MNF) of the two conditions, namely, cessation of violence by MNF and to hold talks within the framework of the Constitution. A series of discussions were held with Shri Laldenga. Settlement on various issues reached during the course of talks is incorporated in the following paragraphs…”
But the wise know the real meaning of War and of Peace; they know both require sacrifices and restrain. The translated lines of a Mizo folk song capture it best:
“Pity of pities our villages are grouped
Everywhere in Zoram life has lost its beauty
Women, men, children gathered from every hill
Feel homeless and stranded like the Riakmaw bird
In the new place where friends and loved ones gathered
I still pine for our old Motherland
Where the gentle prince who love us also dwelt”
That same Mizoram, that has seen so much pain and suffering and bloodshed, is now well-integrated with the rest of India, so much so that, barely two decades since the signing of the Mizo Accord, it is now called an “island of peace” in a disturbed region. Wars don’t end that easily, and peace doesn’t last that long. Mizoram is an exception. It deserves our attention, and so does its history.
The author’s book, For Love and Honour (Bloomsbury), that has as its backdrop the 1966 Aizawl bombing and the resulting insurgency in the Northeast, releases on August 15, 2015.