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Gaddafi in Mizoram
Long before Muammar Gaddafi bombed his own people, IAF fighters in March 1966 strafed and dropped incendiary bombs on Aizawl, now Mizoram's capital, to crush the Mizo insurgency. The bombing, which marked the beginning of horrific atrocities committed by Indian armed forces, was never reported in the media and isn't acknowledged by New Delhi. But the wounds still fester and Mizos are now demanding an apology.
New Delhi's first reaction to insurgency breaking out in Mizoram on the night of February 28, 1966, was stupefying. Even as the Mizo National Front (MNF) rebels started attacking Army and para-military posts all over the Lushai Hills, which was then a district in Assam and is now the state of Mizoram, Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters were despatched to bomb civilian areas in Aizawl (the then district headquarters) and nine other major villages. On March 5 and 6, 1966, hundreds of incendiary bombs reduced houses, schools, markets, churches and even hospitals to ashes. Miraculously, just 15 people died in Aizawl, but that was because most of the 10, 000-odd residents of the hill town had fled when fighting between the rebels and Indian security forces broke out. The IAF fighters - Toofanis and Hunters - flew low over Aizawl and strafed many areas before bombing and devastating the town. The bombings continued with a greater vengeance the next day.
Forty-five years hasn't been long enough to dim the memories of those who witnessed the nation deploying fighter aircraft against its own people. "We were numbed with shock. Even in our wildest dreams we couldn't imagine that fighter aircraft would be sent to bomb Aizawl. It was a scary sight, those planes buzzing overhead and dropping bombs that would explode in huge balls of fire and devastate every cluster of houses," recalls Zosiami, who was 21 then. Zosiami left her house in Aizawl's Khaatla area with her parents, four siblings and grandparents once the Mizo rebels launched their attacks, witnessed the bombings from a forest in the nearby Lawipu hill where many had taken shelter. "We returned on March 11 to find our house and all those in our locality totally gutted," she told TOI-Crest.
"Being a Mizo was a crime in those days. We were all suspects," says JV Hluna, who teaches history at Aizawl's Pachhunga University College and has extensively researched and documented the bombings. Hluna was a high school student in Aizawl in 1966. "On the night of February 28, MNF rebels attacked the district treasury at Aizawl and camps of police and security forces at Lunglei and Champai. These two places were captured by the MNF. The rebels ambushed the Assam Rifles (a para-military force commanded by Indian Army officers) battalion headquarters at Aizawl and an Assam Rifles patrol was ambushed at Chanmari area (of Aizawl) on the night of March 3 where five jawans were killed. And then the bombings started on March 5 and 6. We fled Aizawl on March 4 and took shelter at Zokhawsang village five kilometres away. I saw the fighter planes flying in at about 10 am on March 5 and bombing Aizawl. The fighters made about eight sorties that day and many more the next day. From Zokhawsang, we heard huge explosions and saw huge plumes of smoke rising. We knew that Aizawl was being destroyed. The feeling was terrible and we were paralysed by fear and shock."
Many government installations, including the Circuit House, were destroyed in the attack. Apart from Aizawl, IAF fighters bombed Khawzawl on March 6, Hnahlan the next day, Sangau on March 8, Tlabung on March 9, Pukpui village on March 13, Bunghmun on March 23, Mualthuam and Tuipui (the native village of Laldenga) on September 6 and Hmuntlang village on January 31, 1967.
New Delhi flatly denied the bombings. "All news of the bombing was blacked out, that is why the rest of the country and the world never got to know of the atrocities, " Denghnuna, who was the government's information and public relations officer at Aizawl then, says. But word of this 'war crime' did leak out and was raised in the Assam Assembly. The Assam government deputed two MLAs, Stanley DD Nichols Roy and Hoover H Hynniewta, both from Assam's then Khasi Hills district, and Lok Sabha MP from Shillong GG Swell on a fact-finding mission to Aizawl on March 30. "This team collected a lot of evidence about the bombings and their report is part of Assam Assembly proceedings. Swell, responding to (Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi's statement that only rations were airdropped for besieged Assam Rifles soldiers in Aizawl, produced shell casings in the Lok Sabha, " says Hluna. He claims that Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi were among the IAF pilots who dropped the bombs, a claim endorsed by Denghnuna, who was nominated to the IAS and retired as a senior bureaucrat.
Apart from innumerable witness accounts of the bombings and reports submitted by the Assam Assembly team, a large body of evidence of the bombings also exists. Many families have preserved the brass and copper shell casings they recovered after their return to Aizawl.
Many wonder why New Delhi responded so harshly to the 'Mizo uprising'. "After Lunglei and Champai fell to the MNF and the Assam Rifles camp in Aizawl was attacked, the government must have panicked and wanted to nip the insurgency in the bud by deploying the Air Force. It must have wanted to inflict exemplary punishment, " says Hluna. "New Delhi had little knowledge, or sympathy, for the North East and as home minister Gulzarilal Nanda had said, India wanted to 'crush' the Mizos. Hence excessive force was applied and the civilian population punished, " says Denghnuna, who also fled Aizawl on March 4 and witnessed the bombings. He returned on March 8 to find his house, located near the Assam Rifles camp, intact but its walls pockmarked by bullets.
R Zamawia, who joined the MNF while in college in 1963 and was the commander of the MNF Volunteer Force in March 1966, says the bombings were followed by large-scale entry of Indian troops into the Lushai Hills. "They ordered evacuation of hundreds of villages which they burnt down. The villagers were resettled in new areas. Thousands were arrested arbitrarily and unspeakable atrocities were committed by them, " says Zamawia, who rose to become the 'defence minister' of the MNF. C Zama, who has penned 14 books on the Mizo insurgency, including one on the bombing of Aizawl, says the demand for an apology from New Delhi for the bombings is gaining ground in Mizoram. "I saw the bombings since I was in the 'Mizo National Army' (the MNF's fighting force) and was fighting in Aizawl. No such thing has happened anywhere in the country," he says.
"The wounds suffered by the Mizos are yet to heal. They're festering even though Mizoram is the most peaceful state in the North East today. The government of India has done nothing for the emotional rehabilitation of the Mizos. This bothers me a lot. The process of reconciliation has to start with an acknowledgement of the atrocities that were committed, " says Denghnuna. Hluna points out that while PM Manmohan Singh has apologised for Operation Bluestar, that magnanimity has been lacking when it comes to the Mizos.
Since 2007, March 5 is observed as 'Zoram ni' (or Zoram Day) by the powerful Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a civil society group. Prayers are held all over the state and the people are urged to forgive the perpetrators of the crimes committed on them during the two decades of Mizo insurgency from 1966. The Mizos are willing to forgive, but India has to ask for it first.
Aterrible famine in the Mizo Hills was the immediate trigger for the insurgency that wracked Mizo Hills for two decades. In 1959, bamboo started flowering in Mizoram (it does so every 40 to 50 years). The flowers draw rodents, who feed on it and multiply in huge numbers. The rats then started feeding on standing crops, causing acute food shortages and a famine. The Assam government's handling of the famine (called 'Mautam' in Mizo) and providing relief was extremely poor and hundreds died of starvation. The Mizo Cultural Society, formed with Pu Laldenga as its secretary in 1955, converted itself into 'Mautam Front' to provide relief to the starving rural population in March 1960 and renamed itself Mizo National Famine Front in September that year. A year later, it became the MNF when, capitalising on the immense goodwill it had earned for its relief works, it started taking up political issues like integrating Mizo-inhabited areas of Manipur, Tripura and the Cachar Hills of Assam contiguous with the Mizo Hills into one administrative unit. A series of ill-advised moves, like making Assamese the official language in the Mizo Hills and the Assam government's consistent refusal to grant more autonomy to the Mizo Hills Autonomous District Council or grant statehood to the Mizo Hills district led to the outbreak of insurgency. Laldenga established contact with East Pakistan sometime in 1961 and was promised material and moral support. The MNF started raising the Mizo National Army (MNA) and sending recruits to East Pakistan for training. When the MNA's strength rose to eight battalions, a secret plan codemaned 'Operation Jericho' was launched to take control of the Mizo Hills. The plan involved surprise attacks on treasuries, fuel stations, communications facilities, neutralising the police force, taking all senior non-Mizo government officials captive and overpowering camps and bases of Indian security forces all over the Mizo Hills. After gaining control, the flag of independent Mizoram was to be raised in Aizawl on March 1 and if the flag could be kept flying for 48 hours, Pakistan and other countries would grant diplomatic recognition to Mizoram and get the UN to grant recognition to the new country. The plan was put into operation from the night of February 28, 1966 and many important places in the Mizo Hills fell to the rebels. Aizawl was also nearly captured by the rebels, but the 1st Assam Rifles battalion held out and foiled the MNF's plans.
'BOMBINGS PROVED DELHI'S COLONIAL MINDSET'
Pu Zoramthanga, a close lieutenant of MNF founder Pu Laldenga and the latter's successor as president of the MNF, feels the bombing of Aizawl and other places in the Mizo Hills was nothing compared to the sufferings inflicted on Mizos by Indian security forces from 1966 to 1986. "Villages were burnt and their residents shifted to colonies guarded by Indian forces along the highways. Hundreds of women were raped, more than 2, 000 Mizos were killed arbitrarily, properties were looted and the entire community reduced to the stature of slaves, " says Zoramthanga, who was chief minister of Mizoram for two terms from 1998.
Zoramthanga says the MNF was forced to launch preemptive attacks on security forces' camps in the Mizo Hills in March 1966 after the Assam government went back on a 1965 verbal agreement between Laldenga, Assam CM BP Chaliha and Union home minister Gulzarilal Nanda. "We were promised that no more troops would be sent to the Mizo Hills and that we too shouldn't indulge in violence. We kept our side of the agreement, but the government started moving in troops in early 1966. Pu Laldenga and the entire MNF leadership would have been arrested and in order to preempt that, we attacked the security forces. But the Indian government's response was shocking and shameful. Bombing the civilian populace and committing so many unspeakable crimes showed what little regard India had for Mizo lives and honour, " he says.
Zoramthanga says that the two decades of insurgency had left ordinary Mizos, who suffered terribly at the hands of Indian security forces, yearning for peace. "Prominent NGOs, the Church and many others appealed to us to sit for peace talks and end insurgency. We honoured their sentiments and settled for peace. We haven't achieved our goal, but then compromises for the greater good and welfare of the people need to be made, " he says in reaction to criticism that the 1986 Mizo peace accord amounted to an abject surrender.
R Zamawia, who was the Mizo National Army's chief and the MNF 'defence minister' from 1965 to 1971, terms the accord a sellout. "The accord only upgraded Mizoram's status from a Union territory to a full state. Other points (in the accord) were minor and not worth the sacrifices of so many nationalist fighters, " he says. "In 1947, the Mizos were given the option of joining the Indian Union or becoming a British dominion. Mizo Union, the only political party of the Mizo Hills, took the first option with the precondition that Mizo entry into the Indian Union would be reviewed after 10 years and Mizos would then have the freedom to opt out if they weren't satisfied with their experience of being part of India. But India never allowed Mizos to review the merger."
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