Monday :: Jan 12, 2009

Developing A Framework to Understand and Develop Working Solutions to Major Conflicts: The Case of Mizoram (India) - Part 2

by eriposte

[BACKGROUND: In the Introduction to this series, I discussed its objective - namely, to develop a simplified, generic framework to discuss major conflicts - including their root causes, the conditions under which they continue and the conditions under which they could be resolved successfully in the long term. The example used to develop this framework is the secessionary conflict in the Indian state of Mizoram that lasted roughly two decades before Mizoram became the 23rd state of India in 1986. In Part 1, I highlighted the origins of the Mizo struggle - the main trigger and the additional, exacerbating factors that eventually ignited the violent conflict between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Indian Government in 1966.]

In this post, I briefly discuss the Mizo insurgency and the key factors that prolonged it. The actions of the Mizo National Front (MNF) insurgents (such as the violent attacks against Government offices, installations and workers, as well as some terrorist-style killings of civilians not supporting their violent approach) and some of the countermeasures of the Indian Government (such as aerial bombing of civilian areas in major towns, excesses against civilians by some of the military forces, wide-scale burning of homes and agricultural stocks in villages and the forcing of big chunks of the rural civilian population into barricaded areas with restricted access such that they became dependent on Government aid for survival) generally reduced the broader Mizoram civilian population to a terrible condition. The MNF, that had previously established considerable credibility with the local Mizo population in the aftermath of the famine, figured they had nothing to lose because they felt the Indian Government didn't really want to address the most pressing needs of the Mizo population. The position of the violent faction within the MNF was that peaceful negotiations did not work - hence, they resorted to violence as their solution. It wasn't until a few years into the conflict that the first signs would emerge that the leader of the MNF (Pu Laldenga) sought to come back to the negotiating table. The Indian Government felt that it had everything to lose if the insurgency gained the upper hand. Its military strategy suggests that it was operating from the premise that there was no choice but to wipe out the MNF and send a clear message to the civilian population that supporting the MNF in any manner would backfire in a major way. While the Government remained open to negotiations with non-violent moderate groups as long as complete independence for Mizoram was not on the table, for a while it refused to negotiate with the MNF guerillas as long as there was a threat of violence or terrorism. As a result, for a period of time it seemed like there was no hope to solve the conflict and build a peaceful and prosperous future for the Mizos. (NOTE: I've collected all references at the end of the post; all emphasis in this post is mine.)

A. The Start of Violent Struggle

For the various reasons discussed in Part 1, the Mizo National Front (MNF) eventually initiated violent conflict with the Indian Government in 1966, under the leadership of the Pu Laldenga. Laldenga was a former bank clerk who had built credibility among the Mizo population through his leadership of the Mizo Cultural Society which eventually became the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) that had proven to be of great help to suffering Mizos. Over time he had become radicalized [1]:

When it became very popular among the Mizos, Pu Laldenga and other leaders of the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF)21 decided to convert this organisation into a political party. As a result, the Mizo National Front came into existence on October 22, 1961, with the declared objectives of complete political independence for greater Mizoram, improving the socio-economic condition of the Mizos, and promoting/safeguarding Christianity.22 A long-term strategy was drawn up to launch a violent movement to achieve these goals, and to acquire dependable support from some foreign countries.23 In the electoral battle, the MNF gradually consolidated its position, but could not capture power alone,24 and eventually resorted to violent means in order to achieve its goals.

The MNF high command, during an Executive Committee meeting in Aizawl in July 1965, set up its underground government and termed it the ‘Mizoram Sawrkar’ with a legislature, executive and judiciary, to project an effective demand for independence.25 Its armed wing, the Mizoram National Army (MNA), was created to take the fight to the streets. It recruited young men from colleges, schools, farms and also ex-servicemen, on a voluntary basis. The MNF-led insurgency finally broke out on February 28, 1966, with acts of lawlessness, violence, killings etc. The MNF declared independence on March 1, 1966, and this was followed by an Army mobilisation.

As Guha notes [2], the MNF actually captured one of the main towns, Lungleh, and "pressed hard on the district capital, Aizawl". The Indian Government responded by unleashing the Indian army and air force on Mizoram [3]:

Simultaneous large scale disturbances broke out on 28 February 1966 government installations at Aizawl, Lunglei, Chawngte, Chhimluang and other places. The Government of India bombed the city of  Aizawl with 'Toofani' and 'Hunter' Jet fighters. This was the first time that India had used its air force to quell a movement of any kind among its citizens.“In the afternoon of March 4 1966, a flock of jet fighters hovered over Aizawl and dropped bombs leaving a number of houses in flames. The next day, a more excessive bombing took place for several hours which left most houses in Dawrpui and Chhingaveng area in ashes,” recollected 62-year-old Rothangpuia in Aizawl...The search for a political solution to the problems facing the hill regions in Assam continued. The Mizo National Front was outlawed in 1967. The demand for statehood gained fresh momentum. 

B. The Enemy's Enemy

The Indian Government embarked on a two-pronged campaign in Mizoram. On the one hand, they offered carrots - a developmental package first and then, when that didn't work, an offer to make Mizoram an autonomous Union Territory of India [1]. In parallel, they kept up the military campaign against the MNF. However, the comparatively weaker MNF was able to continue the battle for a prolonged period against a much more powerful Indian army/air force for a few key reasons.

The insurgency had undergone years of planning and preparation by the MNF leaders and was executed in Mizoram's mountainous and forested terrain. It was a guerilla campaign where insurgents could generally mingle freely with the local population. Additionally, quite apart from the moral support the MNF got from the ongoing insurgency in neighboring Nagaland, the support they got from India's then-enemies from across the border (Pakistan and China) was also important. The (usually unofficial) support from Pakistan and China was in the form of counter-intelligence, arms and ammunition, training and safehouses across the border [4]:

The Mizo insurgency is reportedly inspired by a similar rebellion in the nearby territory of Nagaland (New York Times, 06/26/86).

Bhaumik indicates that by the time of Operation Jericho -- the campaign to liberate the Mizo hills and wage insurgent warfare against Indian forces -- the MNF has a well-defined military and political structure including a senate and a house of representatives. Until the early 1970s, the organization’s political leadership is largely comprised of college graduates or drop-outs (1996, 150). Operation Jericho does reportedly limit Laldenga’s ability to simultaneously attempt a political settlement as the MNF’s military wing opposes such efforts (Bhaumik 1996, 156).

Ali reports that by this time the MNF is being supported by Pakistani and Chinese intelligence. The intensity of Indian military operations leads Laldenga to flee to the Chittagong Hills and seek shelter with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The ISI reportedly establishes camps for the MNA in the region while the Chinese provide arms that allow the MNF to continue its hit-and-run campaigns (Ali 1993, 38-39).


August 1966: Pakistani President Ayub Khan denies that his government is aiding the Mizo rebels. Reports indicate that large number of Mizo youths crossed over into East Pakistan during the summer and are allegedly being housed at training facilities (Bhaumik 1996, 158).

Indeed, MNF leader Laldenga continued to operate in exile off and on, sometimes from neighboring East Pakistan and Burma, as well as West Pakistan (Karachi). [4] That said, all of this support was not considerable by any means and not enough to keep a large-scale violent insurgency going indefinitely.

C. The Locals

As Nunthara has documented [5, pp. 141-2], the reaction of locals to the MNF campaign was mixed, based on an opinion poll at the time. Government officials in Mizoram would have benefited from statehood and about 78% therefore favored a Mizoram state that was independent from Assam. Nevertheless, they understood the futility of violent struggle against the Indian Government and only 15% of officers favored complete independence. However, when educated high-school and college teachers were sampled, a much stronger 43% favored the MNF's struggle for independence and 46% favored statehood. (Neither the Mizo government officials (7%) nor the teachers (11%) really favored the idea of Mizoram becoming a Union Territory. Needless to say, given the major disconnect between the Central (Federal) Government and the locals that led to the conflict in the first place, it is no surprise that most Mizos were not enthralled by this offer from the Indian Government, for Union Territories "are ruled directly by the federal central government [with] the President of India [appointing] an Administrator or Lieutenant-Governor for each territory" [6].)

Nunthara discussed the local dynamics that were in play at least in the 1960s and 1970s:

...the relative hold of the MNF over Mizoram politics and the people in general during 1970s could be seen from the way officials restrained themselves from any act which may offend the undergrounds [MNF guerillas] and the pretence of almost all Mizos to secretly identify themselves as supporters of the MNF. Even political leaders whose political inclinations were overtly opposed to the MNF ideology claimed to have an understanding with the MNF. It became an accepted pattern to brand 'traitor' to the Mizo ethnic group and group solidarity to anyone with a strong dislike for the MNF.

In the killing of Lalhleia, Captain of the MNF Army, in a street shooting at Aizawl suburb on March 6, 1975, the sympathy shown to the deceased, [reflected] the MNF cause....the volume of [mourners and their contribution] reveals the general level of support given to the MNF cause and [the] inclination to separatism. (page 144)

Thus, for a period of time, at least, the MNF was able to sustain its campaign partly due to local support and partly due to a fear factor. This was to a large extent because of the credibility the MNF had built in helping the local population, especially after the famine.

D. Terrorism

A moderate wing actually started to emerge within the MNF soon after the break-out of large scale violence. As Satapathy observed [1]:

The inner circle of the MNF was divided into two ideological groups – one group who were hardliners and mostly ex-servicemen, wanted to continue their fight for independence, while the other, consisting of the younger and educated lot, wanted to have peace negotiations with the Government of India and accept Statehood within the Indian Union. Vice President Lalnunmawia, Lalkhawliana (brother-in-law of Rev. Zairema), Lalhmingthanga, Thangkima and Zamawia belong to the latter group. Among insurgents, some had the feeling that while they are leading a miserable and difficult life in the jungle, their leaders were enjoying a comfortable life in foreign countries. This schism continued till the end of the insurgency movement.

The moderate wing continued to work with other local parties and the Churches to peacefully negotiate statehood for Mizoram with the Indian Government [4]:

Later in [1967] , the MNF reorganizes and starts to launch symbolic violent attacks against government targets. They are supplied with food and safe sanctuaries from Mizos in Manipur and Tripura (Ibid., 160). Divisions between the civil and military wings of the MNF also openly erupt with the civil faction favoring negotiations while the military arm remains committed to fighting for independence (Ibid., 164).

1966-68: The Presbyterian and Baptist churches attempt to peacefully resolve the conflict. In a 1966 letter to MNF leader Laldenga, Reverend Zairema asserts that India will not give up the territory and that the continuing violence is taking a harsh toll on the civilian population. Zairema meets with Laldenga later that year and strongly repudiates the use of violence. In February, 1968, the two leaders gather again; however, Laldenga rejects Zairema's plea to open negotiations with New Delhi (Bhaumik 1996, 165).

The MNF factional split took an ugly turn later on, with the violent faction embarking on a campaign of assassination of former MNF members who left the party [4]:

In 1972, the hardline faction of the MNF changes its tactics to concentrate on urban terrorism. A number of former MNF personnel (the intellectual cadre, the Blue Group) are assassinated.

Later, MNF guerillas would also target migrants from Bengal, Government officials and other non-Mizo civilians [4]. This led to the MNF being completely sidelined for a while by the Indian Government.

E. Government Response

The Indian Government made some meaningful attempts to placate the Mizo population and continued negotiations with Mizo moderates of all stripes. However, some serious mistakes were also made that further weakened the image of the Government in the eyes of the locals. Following the bombing campaign from the air, the Government also took some extreme steps at the local level leading to accusations of human rights violations. As Nunthara pointed out [5]:

The suffering cry of the people had also forced the MNF, to some extent, to reduce ambush and arms combat with the security forces, because whenever there was arms encounter between the MNF and the security forces, the latter burnt the village or villages nearest to the scene. (page 201) 

 The Government's approach had the impact of instilling disgust and fear among the general population, even among those that did not support the violent hardliners in the MNF [4]:

January 1967: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launches a large-scale reorganization of villages in the Mizo Hills. Following the practices of the British in Malay, villagers are ordered into newly barricaded areas, their houses and grain stocks burnt, and their ability to earn a livelihood from agriculture markedly reduced. The villagers become reliant on government handouts. The Indian reorganization is referred to as “internal colonialism” by Bhaumik (1996, 159).

The MNF leadership actively seeks international political recognition of its movement. However, no state is willing to publicly support the Mizo campaign. While Westerners expressed sympathy, they are committed to backing India, in light of its loss in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The Mizos do however form ties with two other rebel groups -- the Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) and the Arakan National Liberation Front (ANLF). The two organizations supply the Mizos with sanctuaries and logistical aid (Bhaumik 1996, 163).

As Nunthara observed, the MNF wasn't exactly clean either, but the Government's drastic counter-measures poisoned Mizo public opinion against it for a good period of time [5]:

In the initial was found that the MNF volunteers, in many instances, used their power at hand to take personal revenge against some innocent people which had degraded the MNF to the mass of the people. But the Mizos [had] deep sentimental attachment to the MNF movement and any anti-MNF movement or attitude, particularly those causing harm to the MNF members, became an unpardonable crime. The initial mistakes committed by the MNF had been reciprocated by the widespread atrocity committed by the [Indian] security forces, and on the balance, the MNF stood a better chance of winning back the people's confidence and support. Cases of rape, looting of properties, burning of houses, forcible arrest of innocent persons and other deplorable activities of the security forces personnel had been channelizing and strengthening the Mizos' distrust of the plains people and a mixture of fear and hatred was the result. (page 202)

Needless to say, the Indian Government at the time wasn't following the COIN Field Manual. Much later in 1973, a Human Rights Committee would be formed by the former highest ranking Mizo officer in the Indian army, seeking judicial review of allegations of rape, torture, group executions and other human rights violations by Indian Government security forces [4]. However, the damage caused would remain an unfortunate legacy of the Mizoram struggle and it poisoned the well of Mizo opinion against the Indian Government for a period of time, even though public opinion was not uniformly in favor of the violent MNF faction.

F. Political Factors

As it turns out, the final resolution of the conflict was prolonged by almost a decade because of political realities.

Faced with immense turmoil in parts of India, a countrywide emergency had been declared in June 1975 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. During the emergency, Indira Gandhi had usurped dictatorial powers - the first and only time (to date) when India was under that type of rule post-independence. When the emergency was ended and new elections were called for by Gandhi in Jan 1977, her party (the Indian National Congress - INC) was defeated at the polls and power at the national level transferred away from the INC for the first time since India's independence, to a weak and unstable coalition of opposing parties led by the Janata Dal. Earlier during that tumultuous decade, MNF leader Pu Laldenga had been sending signals to Gandhi, through intermediaries, expressing his interest in ending the conflict as long as Mizoram obtained statehood and he could emerge as the leader of the new Mizoram government. However, this was easier said than done [4]:

May 1977 - March 1978: Talks continue between the MNF and the newly-elected Janata Dal government led by Moraji Desai. As Laldenga is close to ensuring the surrender of all rebel arms, the government decides to call an election in Mizoram. Laldenga allegedly attempts to ensure himself a high position in an interim government as an election would likely lead to a victory by Sailo's Peoples’ Conference. On March 20, the federal government breaks off talks (Bhaumik 1996, 182-83).

As it turned out Sailo's party won the Mizoram elections [7]:

However, it took much effort and time before the entire MNF outfit could be brought around to agree to cease fire. Settlement could perhaps have come earlier, but for the fact that the political situation within Mizoram from 1979 to 1984 was such that no arrangement could be made for Laldenga to become the Chief Minister without election, the minimum prize that he would have wished for, for giving up arms. During this period, the People’s Conference Party, a regional political party, was in power and the Chief Minister, Brigadier (Rtd) Thenphunga Sailo would not give up his office unless he was defeated in an election. (page 168)

In the next part of this series, I will synthesize the major issues that were integral to the conflict into a generic framework to analyze the conflict and how it was ultimately resolved.


1. R. K. Satapathy, Mediating Peace: The Role of Insider-Partials in Conflict Resolution in Mizoram, South Asia Terrorism Portal, Vol 15, 2005.

2. R. Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, Picador/PanMacmillan 2008.

3. Mizoram - Wikipedia.

4. Author unknown, The Mizos, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

5. C. Nunthara, Mizoram, Society and Polity, Indus 1996.

6. Union Territory - Wikipedia.

7. L. Pudaite, Mizoram.

eriposte :: 7:16 AM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!