|Bomber over Aizawl Village|
Abheek Barman, ET Bureau Feb 19, 2013, 05.08AM IST
One month and four days after becoming prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi was faced with a problem familiar to her father , Jawaharlal Nehru: an insurgency in the north east. On February 28, 1966, the Mizo National Army (MNA) revolted against India and fighting broke out across the region. In response, the Indian state did two unprecedented things. By March 2, the MNA had overrun the Aizawl treasury and armoury and was at the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. It had also captured several smaller towns south of Aizawl. The military tried to ferry troops and weapons by helicopter, but was driven away by MNA snipers. So, at 11:30 am on March 5, the air force attacked Aizawl with heavy machine gun fire. On March 6, the attack intensified , and incendiary bombs were dropped. This killed innocents and completely destroyed the four largest areas of the city: Republic Veng, Hmeichche Veng, Dawrpui Veng and Chhinga Veng. Locals left their homes and fled into the hills in panic. The MNA melted away into surrounding gorges, forests and hills, to camps in Burma and the then East Pakistan. The air force strafed Aizawl and other areas till March 13.
One local told a human rights committee set up by Khasi legislators GG Swell and Rev Nichols Roy that, “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.” This was the first— and only — time that the air force has been used to attack Indians in India. It cleared Aizawl and other cities of the MNA, but did not finish off the insurgency , which would last for another 20 years.
Till the 1980s, the Indian military stoutly denied the use of air attacks in Mizoram in 1966. By 1967, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was in force in the area that is now Mizoram. That year, the eastern military brass, led by the then Lt General Maneckshaw , and government decided to implement the second terrible thing it did in Mizoram . This was called ‘regrouping of villages.’ At the that time, there was one road coming south from Silchar in Assam, that traveled all the way down to where the state’s limits ended. To the east and west of this road were vast tracts of forests, hills and ravines, dotted with hundreds of villages. The military plan was to gather villagers from all over, and cluster them along the side of this road. These new, so-called Protected and Progressive Villages (PPVs), were nothing but concentration camps, minus gas chambers.
The movement was supposed to be voluntary — people in some far off hamlet were supposed to jump with joy when told to give up their land, crops and homes to trek hundreds of miles and live behind barbed wire. Actually, the military told villagers to take what they could carry on their backs, and burn everything else down. Elders signed ‘consent’ papers at gunpoint. In every case, villagers refused to move. When they were coerced to march, they would refuse to burn down their properties. Then, the military officer and his men would torch the whole place down. They would march in a column, guarded by the military , to their designated PPV.
Life here was tough: each resident was numbered and tagged, going and coming was strictly regulated and rations were meagre. In the PPVs’ confines, tribal conventions broke down. In the scramble for scarce resources, theft, murder and alcoholism became widespread. The regrouping destroyed the Mizos’ practice of jhum, or shifting cultivation. There was little land inside the PPVs and their original jhum areas had been left far behind in the interiors. Farm output fell off a cliff. Mizoram suffered from near-famine conditions, supplemented by what little the military could provide, for the next three years. Why were the villagers herded into the PPVs? The military reckoned that keeping villagers under their eyes would keep them from sheltering insurgents or joining the MNA. The original villages , crops and granaries were destroyed to deny wandering insurgents shelter and food. These ideas were picked up by our officers from the colonial British playbook. The British had regrouped villages during the Boer war in the early 20th century, in Malaya, where they interned Chinese in special camps and in Kenya where villages were uprooted to crush the Mau Mau revolt.
The British could get away with all this because they were inflicting pain on a subject population. The Indian establishment had no such fig leaf: it was giving grief to its own citizens. The scale of the Mizoram regrouping was awesome. Out of 764 villages, 516 were evacuated and squeezed into 110 PPVs. Only 138 villages were left untouched. In the Aizawl area, about 95% of the rural population was herded into PPVs. No Russian gulag or German concentration camp had hosted such a large chunk of the local population. The first PPVs were dismantled in 1971, but the last ones continued for another eight years. The MNA revolt ended in 1986. No government has expressed regret for the bombing and regrouping.