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With Myanmar’s war at Northeast borders, India must side with Mizos against the junta

Like with ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka or Bengali Hindus in Bangaldesh, violence against Chins has unleashed anger in Mizoram. New Delhi's time for cogitation is running out.

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Frolicking in the gentle spring breeze, the fire skipped through the English Middle School and Saturday Market before heading to the neighbourhoods of Hmeichhe Veng and Chhinga Veng. The carpet of fire spread south as the savage two-decade war Mizos have come to call buai lai—‘The Disturbance’—gathered momentum. The terror remains only in the minds of the victims: Few in India have ever heard of the incineration of Pukpui, the threat to bombard Lunglei with artillery, and the mass rape at Kolasib, Mizoram.

For decades, the government dismissed testimony from eyewitnesses who had seen Indian Air Force combat jets sweep low on 5 March 1966, dropping the bombs that incinerated Aizawl.

“The good planes were those that flew comparatively slowly and did not spit out fire or smoke,” an Aizawl resident told a committee led by Meghalaya MP G.G. Swell. “The angry planes were those that escaped to a distance before the sound of their coming could be heard.”

Fifty-seven years after the Aizawl strikes—the first and last time India used air power against its own citizens—combat jets have again been targeting Mizoram. This time, Myanmar Air Force jets have been targeting ethnic Chin insurgent camps along the Taui river, which runs along the border with India.

Ethnic Chin insurgents fighting Myanmar’s junta, ThePrint’s Karishma Hasnat revealed this week, are using Mizoram as a logistical base. Last year, the National Investigation Agency discovered networks trafficking tonnes of explosives for insurgents. Some Mizoram residents are fighting alongside insurgents they regard as kin.

A peace agreement ended the Mizoram insurgency in 1986, but the brutal conflict in the borderlands shows the complex historical trauma that underpinned it is far from spent. The renewed flow of arms into the region, and the rising tide of Zo ethnic-nationalism fuelled by atrocities in Myanmar, are blowing the fallout from the war into India.

Also read: Why white elephant democracy will fuel civil war in Myanmar, instability in India’s Northeast

Learning bad lessons

“Lord Jesus Christ is the supreme head of Mizoram,” a constitution prepared by the Mizo National Front (MNF) in 1965 proclaimed, “The Holy Scriptures will be the Cornerstone of Law.” Following a famine in 1958-1959, utopian ethnic-nationalist currents swept Mizo society. The Indian State, ethnic-nationalists argued, had shown itself to be an unreliable guardian of Mizo interests. A new nation State was necessary to protect Mizos against the loss of their lands and identity to the Assam plains.

Equipped and trained in East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—MNF insurgents overran Aizawl to establish a nation State that would include all branches of the Zo hnahthlak or family tree.  This meant Kuki, Mizo, and Chin peoples cutting across Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, East Pakistan, and Myanmar.

The Indian State was determined not to turn the other cheek.  Failing to push past the insurgents who held Aizawl, former Army officer and historian Vivek Chadha has recorded, Indian troops called in air support. “At the end of air action, Aizawl town caught fire,” one Indian officer involved in the operation recalled. Later, more air strikes were called in as the Army pushed on past Lunglei onto Demagiri.

Learning from British colonial counter-insurgencies in Kenya and Malaya, the Army forced some four-fifths of the rural population off their land into garrison villages ringed by barbed wire and guard posts. The strategy was intended to deny insurgents food and logistical support—but also to make self-sustaining peasant communities dependent on the State.

Although the government promised the relocation policy would involve “no tinge of force,” political scientist Sajal Nag has recorded that the reality was very different. Forces would cordon off entire villages before dawn and compel them to move with what they could carry to new barricaded locations. Families would be photographed to control movement into the new villages. Torture and mass beatings were commonplace.

The elders of the village of Darzo, bureaucrat Vijendra Jafa has written, were ordered to destroy their grain supplies and homes and then forced, at gunpoint, to issue a certificate that they had burned down their own village.

Gerald Templer, the general credited with providing the intellectual foundations for British doctrine in Malaya, famously wrote that the key to successful counter-insurgency “lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people”. The reality of Imperial Britain’s colonial wars, historian Karl Hack records, involved the use of large-scale shootings of prisoners, hangings, mass rape, the burning of villages and the incarceration of a 10th of the population in security enclaves.

“The Indian Army imitated the British slavishly,” the economist Amritha Rangasami tartly observed in 1978 after having completed extended field research in Mizoram. Like the British, they failed—but the insurgents India was fighting were encountering defeat too.

Also read: India is ignoring the escalating war in Myanmar that could reignite conflicts in Northeast

The limits of coercion

Led by the insurgent commander Demokhsiek Gangte—relying on a compass set to 10º North, since they possessed no map—MNF guerrillas made the dangerous journey across the Arakan mountains in 1972, hoping for help from China. The group received some weapons and cash from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) but was so disappointed with the assistance on offer that it remained in Myanmar. Twenty-seven of the 47-member group would surrender three years later to the Indian Army.

Five years after the fighting in Aizawl, the MNF lost its sanctuaries in East Pakistan. The PLA correctly assessed the deeply-Christian commanders of the MNF to be unsympathetic to revolutionary communism and held back support. From 1976 onwards, the MNF was locked into a negotiation process, which led to coercive force being pulled back. The two sides had both realised that coercion had limits.

Even though sceptics wondered if New Delhi hadn’t just bribed a tiring insurgent leadership into sharing power, things did improve. “The Army has stopped harassing us,” a village leader wryly told Rangasami, “It seems to be the turn of the police now.”

From the magisterial visual anthropology of the Mizo by Joy Pachuau and William Van Schendel, it is clear the community succeeded in shaping its own unique modernity—one that melded the Taj Mahal and the miniskirt, the cowboy hat, and the Korean band into a distinct identity. Fears that New Delhi would impose a predatory colonial order were stilled by the political agreement of 1986.

Ethnicity and rebellion

Facing ethnic rebellions across Myanmar, the Tatmadaw — the country’s armed forces — failed to understand the limits of coercion. Instead of seeking political and cultural accommodation with ethnic insurgents, political scientist Lionel Beehner points out, it resorted to ever-escalating force. The military’s vision of itself as the Leviathan upholding Burmese identity undermined multiple efforts to build a genuinely federal relationship, giving the ethnicities self-governance rights. The result has been the world’s longest-running civil war.

The uprising of 1966 had seen tens of thousands of refugees leave Mizoram to live with their kin in Chin. Following the coup of 1988, and now again in 2021, the refugees have been coming the other way. Fleeing air strikes and massive military operations, refugees have also been arriving in Thailand and Bangladesh.

Leaders in Mizoram believe New Delhi should be doing more to pressure the Tatmadaw to end the civil war and restore democracy. Living along the border with Myanmar, ordinary Mizos have also been calling for a more muscular Indian military posture, which would deter the Tatmadaw from striking Chin villages. The Tatmadaw, though, has been a reliable partner for India, working with it to crush Naga and Manipuri insurgents.

Facing a dilemma, New Delhi has been silently mulling its option—but the rising tempo of war in the borderlands means the time for cogitation is running out.

The relationship between the refugees arriving from Myanmar and the Mizo has been less than perfect. The influence of the Church ensured prohibition remained in force across Mizoram until 2015. Ethnic Chin migrants were blamed, rightly or wrongly, for running the small-scale distilleries that proliferated across several Aizawl neighbourhoods. Trafficking of heroin, and later methamphetamine, trafficked from Myanmar, ravaged Mizo communities.

Through the last decade, organisations like the Young Mizo Association (YMA)—a powerful network that some have linked to a parallel government—have repeatedly called for the eviction of some refugee groups like the Bru and Chakma.

“We say nothing good comes from the East but the sun,” one Aizawl resident told law scholar Kirsten McConnachie. “Every single time there is drug haul and arrests, it always will be Myanmarese.”

For all these frictions, though, Zo nationalism has emerged as a genuine force among young Mizos—a means to assert their identity both in the Northeast and in an India that, for the most part, fails to acknowledge their existence. In 2015, when landslides destroyed hundreds of homes in Chin, YMA volunteers sent truckloads of aid. Local churches organised aid drives, while Mizo celebrities staged fundraisers at Aizawl malls.

Like with ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka or Bengali Hindus in Bangladesh, the violence against the Chin has unleashed growing anger across Mizoram. The participation of young Indian nationals in the Chin insurgency, though small in number, illustrates the rage. India will have to be able to show it is on the side of its own people.

Praveen Swami is National Security Editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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