History Headline: When Mizoram nearly broke away
Two days from now, the spotlight will be on the verdicts from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, teasers of the mood of the nation as battle lines are firmed in the countdown to 2019. In the din and many debates over the results, not many will devote much time to the fifth verdict — from Mizoram.
Yet this also-ran frontier state, its history replete with inflection points, has been a shining example of Indian democracy ever since it emerged from the shadows of jungle warfare and two decades of insurgency. For more than 30 years now, Mizoram has been an island of peace in a region dismissed derisively as the Northeast.
The Blue Mountain state has come a long way from the time it nearly broke away from the Union. And two men in the fray these elections, Sachin Pilot who leads the Congress in Rajasthan and John V Hluna the BJP in Mizoram, though separated by a generation and ideology, share a link to that past.
The father of the first had a role in putting down an insurrection which shook the nation while the second, a history student who became a professor, has spent a lifetime chronicling India’s only use of air power against its own people. And how it remained a secret for almost a month until three lawmakers sent from Shillong, the capital of undivided Assam, situated some 400 km from Aizawl, returned with a telling account.
In March 1966, a little over a month after she was made Prime Minister following the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri at Tashkent, Indira Gandhi had to grapple with an uprising in the Mizo district of undivided Assam. It was led by Laldenga of the Mizo National Front, convinced that the governments in Shillong and faraway Delhi had no time for the Mizos or their land.
What had fuelled the resentment and sense of alienation was the government response — the lack of it — to the 1959 famine that came with the Mautam, the flowering of the bamboo every 48 years which draws rats in millions, emptying granaries and laying waste to the countryside. Laldenga’s Mizo National Famine Front stepped in to provide relief, winning hearts all around.
The time was ripe. Famine was dropped from the Front and Laldenga and the MNF decided to declare their land independent. On February 28, 1966, in the dead of night, MNF cadres launched waves of coordinated attacks on camps of the Assam Rifles and posts of the BSF, from Aizawl to Lunglei to Champhai. By next day, key government installations had fallen and district authorities took refuge in the Assam Rifles camp in Aizawl which was being repeatedly attacked.
Communication lines were snapped, road blocks came up everywhere on the road from Silchar in the Cachar plains to stop the advance of reinforcements. The stunned Assam government invoked the Disturbed Areas Act in the Mizo district and turned to the armed forces for help. The Eastern Army Commander then was Lt General Sam Manekshaw who oversaw the operations, counting on Maj General Sagat Singh, GOC of the 101 Area in Shillong. He knew Sagat was a trained paratrooper and his best bet for coordinating heliborne operations.
Mi-4 helicopters, operating from Kumbhirgram near Silchar, tried to land in Aizawl with weapons and supplies but aborted the mission when they drew fire from MNF cadres positioned at vantage points. When the situation on the ground deteriorated and all seemed lost, the IAF was asked to carry out strikes from the air to scatter the insurgents and clear the way for the troops.
Toofanis took off from Kumbhirgram and the Hunters from Jorhat to strafe MNF positions on March 5-6. Canada-made Caribou cargo haulers groaned over the hills to drop explosives that sent people on the ground fleeing. One of the Caribou pilots, the Mizos will tell you, was Rajesh Pilot, born Rajeshwar Prasad in what is now Greater Noida. He later quit the IAF to join politics, but remained Pilot. He became India’s Minister for Internal Security in the Narasimha Rao government.
The MNF cadres slipped into the jungles, many heading back to safe havens in East Pakistan. Mountain troops advanced into Aizawl and the uprising was quelled. But it sparked two decades of insurgency that ended with Laldenga signing a historic accord with Delhi in 1986 and becoming the new state’s first Chief Minister. Four years later, he was dead. Of lung cancer, on his way to a London hospital.
PS: The Toofani was the French Ouragan, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, now known for the Rafale.