Mizoram is a model Indian state with a literacy rate only second to Kerala and GDP per capita twice that of Uttar Pradesh. It is the model of stability in a region rife with civil unrest and insurgency. But how is the state different from her fellow sisters in the Northeast? Most would point to the Mizo Peace Accord signed on June 30, 1986. It remains one of Independent India’s few enduring successes at establishing peace following an outbreak of domestic insurgency.
However, the years leading up to the peace accord presented a side of the Indian state that would put any patriot to shame. It was the Indian state at its most brutal, unforgiving and violent. Little wonder that this story is often hidden from public discourse surrounding the Northeast.
The Beginning – Mautam
The story begins in 1959 when the people inhabiting the Lushai Hills aka Mizo Hills woke up to Mautam – “bamboo death”. Unique to the Northeastern states of Mizoram and Manipur, Mautam is a cyclic ecological phenomenon that occurs every 48 years and the Lushai Hills were struck by it in both 1862 and 1911. Bamboo flowering and the subsequent invasion by rats on granaries and paddy fields in the region is a phenomenon that signals an impending catastrophe or a famine.
Typical to point, Mizoram was then under the administrative control of Assam. When the Mizo District Council pleaded with the Assam government for a paltry sum of Rs 150,000 to stave off the effects or even prevent the impending famine, the request fell on deaf ears. Ignorant officials in the State government dismissed Mautam as some sort of bizarre tribal superstition.
As Mautam continued to wreak havoc, thousands died or starved, their crops and livelihood ravaged by rats whose population rose to such alarming levels – running into millions- the state had to run a scheme that rewarded citizens for turning in dead ones—40 paisa for each dead rat.
Ethnic game play
The Lushai Hill People feared the worst. Instead of coming to their aid, the Assamese administration stamped all over them—declaring Assamese as the official state language, whose knowledge was compulsory for government jobs. Not only were they denied any real assistance during the famine, but also suffered further indignity in having their distinct cultural identity stomped upon, allied with exclusion from the mainstream. A revolt was on the cards, and it was led by Mizo leader Laldenga, a former “havaldar” in the Army and accounts clerk in the Assam government. Angered by the treatment meted out to his people, he quit his government job and founded the Mizo National Famine Front to protest the famine.
On October 28, 1961, Laldenga established the Mizo National Front (MNF) and asserted the Mizo people’s right to self-determination. Initially, the MNF adopted non-violence to meet its political objective, but the brutal circumstances of the time compelled them to take up arms and establish the Mizo National Army (MNA). Receiving arms, funding and training from China and Pakistan, the MNF launched a full-scale insurgency. The Indian government’s response was to launch a devastating operation against the MNA, driving its members across the border into East Pakistan.
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. On that night, 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. On the following morning, the MNF released a 12-point declaration stating the desire of the Mizo people for independence from the Indian Union. After three days of relative calm, however, came the brutal response of the Indian state, which not many in the mainland know about. On March 5, the Indian government ordered the deployment of four fighter jets, which bombed the living daylights out of Aizawl.
Yes, the government saw it fit to bomb unarmed civilians. This is the first and last time the Indian civilization witnessed the worst self inflicted scar on its history. It was the first— and only — time that the aircraft of Indian Air Force (IAF) were employed to attack insurgents in India. It helped in clearing Aizawl and other cities of the MNA, but did not finish off the insurgency, which would last for another 20 year. It did strike fear and further resentment against the Indian government. There is no disputing that the Aizawl bombing happened, at the end of which, air action set the town of Aizawl in flames.
Impairing the fate of Mizo
Following the air strikes, the Indian armed forces undertook a swift and ruthless operation, securing all the major borders and preventing any sort of supplies coming in from Burma and East Pakistan. In a matter of days, the MNF rebels were left scattered on either side of the border and curfew was imposed in the region. Since the insurgency had support from the people, the Government of India came up with yet another drastic plan to offset it. Envisioned by Lt General Sam Manekshaw, the strategy saw the government uproot nearly 80% of the population and resettle them in heavily guarded fenced-in protected villages or regrouping centres, with an aim to deny population support to the insurgent and provide protection to the villagers. It did enhance the security forces’ control over the population, but it alienated the locals and fuelled the insurgency.
Given a week’s notice, locals were forced out of their villages, which were subsequently burned down to the ground along with all the food grain they stocked. The aim was to ensure that the rebels did not have the necessary resources to sustain themselves. At these new fenced-in villages, locals were issued ID numbers, and were compelled to attend a roll call at the start and end of the day. There is a word for this in the English language—ghettoization. The following 15 years saw an uneasy calm between locals and the armed forces stationed there marked by regular street protests, while the local economy fell apart.
Behind the scenes, however, Laldenga, who had fled was seeking a way back into India. In the early ‘80s with his family based in London, Laldenga reached out to Indian intelligence personnel stationed in Europe for talks. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, however, placed two conditions from Laldenga—cessation of armed violence and a settlement along the contours of the Indian Constitution. Ironically, the same prime minister that had ordered the bombing of Aizawl in 1966 was talking of a settlement within the contours of the Indian Constitution. Laldenga was scheduled to meet Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. Tragically, that was the same day when she was assassinated by her own bodyguards. With Rajiv Gandhi taking over from his mother after a major landslide electoral victory, there was a change in guard with Parthasarathy being replaced by RD Pradhan in September 1985.
Mizo Peace Accord
In the following month, news came of 750 MNF rebels giving up their weapons and undergoing rehabilitation at a centre in Luangmual on the outskirts of Aizawl, allowing them back into the mainstream. Finally, on June 30, 1986, the MNF and the Government of India signed the famous Mizoram Peace Accord. With the surrender of arms by the Mizo National Front guerrillas, after 20 years of strife, the Indian government conferred statehood on the territory of Mizoram on August 7, 1986. Elections for the first Mizoram Legislative Assembly was held on I6th February, 1987 and Mizoram became a full-fledged State from 20th February, 1987. Taking cognisance of the mistakes made in the past, the Government of India agreed to among other things—full statehood to Mizoram, constitutional protection for the Mizo customary law, religion and social practices, recognition of Mizo as an official Indian language and ownership of land. The MNF, meanwhile, agreed to cease all contact with other insurgent groups in the Northeast. The deal also saw Laldenga becoming interim Chief Minister of Mizoram. Nearly a year later in 1987, he contested the state’s first Assembly election and won.
Troubled Peace making
The enduring legacy of the Mizo Peace Accord remains alive. Among all the peace accords the Rajiv Gandhi government signed—Punjab, Assam, Sri Lanka—it’s the Mizo Peace Accord that has stood the test of time. Meanwhile, the State has since gone on from strength to strength. The Mizo insurgency finally came to a close with the signing of the Accord on June 30, 1986 and Mizoram was granted statehood. Lesser known is the confidential agreement signed by the Congress party with the Mizo National Front which led to the signing of the Mizo Accord. This agreement signed on June 25, 1986, exactly five days prior to the signing of the Mizo Accord, took care of Laldenga’s demand of installing him as Chief Minister of Mizoram.
In the end, a lament. Peace accords have been signed in other parts of the northeast too; most of them are in tatters, confirming that it is not an accord that brings peace but the process it is a part of. Mizoram got that process right. Thirty years after the Mizo accord was signed, the state remains an oasis of peace in the north-east. The fact that peace has been sustained for three decades is no mean achievement and has only happened because of the determination shown by a highly knowledgeable and educated public, the church, the governments of different parties and civil society. While we often remember the dates with great regret — and justifiable outrage — when the Indian state failed its people, whether in Punjab, Kashmir, Delhi or Gujarat, we fail to acknowledge and recount one of the great success stories of independent India. There are enough lessons to be drawn from perhaps the only known episode in the world where a festering insurgency ended with a stroke of pen.