Why Indira Gandhi ordered Aizawl Bombing?

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By Philip Mudartha
Bellevision Media Network

14 Aug 2023:


Speaking in the Parliament on 10th August 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit out at the governance and policies of the Congress in the North-East. He recalled an episode from 1966 when the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out an attack in Aizawl on the orders of Indira Gandhi. Thank you, Mr. Narendra Modi, M.A (All Political Science) for the history lesson based on your politics. You have stirred a hornet’s nest. Your statement will rekindle debate on “territorial integrity and sovereignty” of Mother India.


Operation Jericho and IAF bombing:


On 28th February 1966, around midnight, the fighters the Mizo National Front (MNF) launched Operation Jericho to throw out Indian forces stationed in Mizoram. The Assam Rifles and Border Security Forces garrisons in Aizawl and Lunglei were overrun. In the morning of 1st March 1966, the MNF declared independence from India.



The MNF insurgents swiftly captured strategic government installations including the district treasury in Aizawl, armoury, telephone exchange and other strategic installations in the Mizo Hill districts.


The central government led by Indira Gandhi was taken aback. It was her 37th day in office as Prime Minister. The 48 year old and inexperienced PM, taunted as “goongi gudia” by her senior colleagues and political opponents, was presented with a challenge that would test her resolve.


The Indian Army sought her approval to use air power to regain control of Aizawl and the hilly districts from the renegade armed MNF soldiers. China and Pakistan had armed the MNF and trained them to fight using citizens as human shields.



It was the Abraham Lincoln moment for Indira Gandhi:


The declaration of independence by the MNF is start of an Indian Civil War. There are no two words to describe it. Mizo nation was a de facto reality. It was no longer Indian Territory when Operation Jericho was launched. It was similar to the historical situation in the American Civil War during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in the 1860’s.


South Carolina, a southern state, declared independence from the US federation, on 20th December 1960. On 11th April 1961, the US military garrison at Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, was attacked by the armed forces of the Confederate States of America. These were six secessionist southern states with Charleston as their Capital.


Abraham Lincoln was president for only 38 days. His response to the attack on Fort Sumter was swift and decisive. As commander of chief, he conducted an aggressive war against the Confederate States. The Civil War was won by the Union forces and the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the USA was restored.



Like Lincoln, Indira Gandhi’s actions were swift and decisive:


Under her orders, on 5th March 1966, four fighter jets of IAF were deployed to bomb the positions of the MNF in Aizawl and in the hilly forests. The IAF dropped pamphlets to warn them to leave the town and other areas under the control of MNF. The civilians panicked and fled to the hills.


The strafing of armed MNF positions in Aizawl and in its neighbourhoods continued till March 13. The rebels were forced to retreat into the jungles of Myanmar and East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh). The MNF commander in chief, Pu Laldenga, escaped to East Pakistan, from where he controlled his secessionist militants until the fall of Dhaka in 1971 in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Later he lived in exile in Karachi and London but soon realized that the state of Mizoram within India is in the best interests of Mizo tribes.


There were two reasons for his change of heart. 1) Under the political direction of Indira Gandhi, the Indian Army had beaten back the invading Chinese at Nathu La and Cho La in the Chumbi valley near Sikkim in September-October 1967. The Indian Army was no longer a pushover. Such a turn-around within five years of our ignominious defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War is a commendable achievement of the Congress governments led by both Shastri and Indira Gandhi.  2) The Indian victory in 1971 over Pakistan, fall of Dhaka, surrender of 97,000 Pakistani POWs and the birth of Bangladesh. As we are aware, Indira Gandhi had deftly engineered the vivisection of Pakistan and mid-wifed the birth of Bangladesh.



The nationalist legacy of Indira Gandhi:


Indira Gandhi is no doubt the Iron Lady of India. Below is a list of her nationalist achievements:

1. Victory over MNF Army in 1966. 

2. Victory over 1967 Border Clashes with China. The border with China remained peaceful without any clashes as long as she was alive. 

3. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and Shimla Peace Agreement with Pakistan in 1972.

4. Formation of Arunachal as Union Territory in 1972.

5. The integration of Sikkim as a state in India in July 1975 and abolition of Sikkim monarchy. (According to China, it was “annexation of Sikkim by India”). 

6. Granting tribal autonomy to hill districts in Assam, Mizoram, Manipur, and Tripura. Mizoram was created as a Union Territory in 1972. 

7. Punjab Reorganization into new states of Punjab, Haryana and Union Territory of Chandigarh.   

8. Reorganization of North-East and Creation of Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura as independent states in 1972. 

9. Occupying Siachen Glacier Heights in 1984 beyond the Line of Control (LoC) under Operation Meghdoot.  

10. Finally, the Operation Blue Star to dislodge Khalistani Separatist Militia holed up inside Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. She paid with her life for this.



What did the army say on Aizawl bombing in 1966?


Of course, it was war. The raids were indiscriminate and devastating. According to Mathew Thomas, commanding officer of 2 PARA, involved in the operations: “Assam Rifles were still holding out, but the Mizos were all around. We had to bring the Air Force. It strafed them and it was only after that we were able to push in and get into Aizawl. The situation was very volatile. Helicopter borne reinforcements were attempted but the sniping was too close to the camp and too heavy for choppers to come down. Therefore, at last at 1130 hours came the air strikes, IAF fighters strafing hostile positions all around the Battalion area. The strafing was repeated in the afternoon and it soon became apparent that the hostiles were beginning to scatter. At the end of air action, Aizawl town caught fire.”


What is Modi trying to imply in his scathing attack on the person dead long ago and unable to defend her bold decision which gave a free hand to her army? The army wanted IAF to strafe and neutralize enemy firepower. Should Indira Gandhi disallow her army the means it required to defend itself and subdue the enemy? Is Modi not giving a free hand to our army as it battles the terrorist insurgents in Kashmir valley?


No minister, let alone a long-serving Prime Minister like Modi, should be politicising a nationalist and patriotic act of a former Prime Minister for her acts of defending the territorial integrity of India. She was discharging her constitutional duties. Only a man overcome by extreme hatred of Congress and Gandhi family can make such an irresponsible remark.


The “Nehru Doctrine” on domestic insurgencies:


Nehru had immense experience in dealing with secessionists in Kashmir Valley in J&K state, the Naga Hills in Assam state, and Tamil Nadu. Some have cited his pacifist approach towards the Nagas as his opposition to use of military to supress the secessionist movements. The oft-quoted “Nehru Doctrine” is his advice to Assam CM to “win the hearts of the Nagas and not frighten them”.


Indira Gandhi’s opponents say that she had no scruples like her father. If she followed Nehru Doctrine, she wouldn’t have ordered IAF to bomb Aizawl. If she chose to win Mizo hearts instead, could she do that? Weren’t the Mizos holding a gun to her head?


It has to be pointed out that Nehru was categorical in his instructions to Assam CM during the Naga Insurgency: “any demand for independence should be rejected categorically and that violence would not be tolerated under any circumstances. There can be no doubt that an armed revolt has to be met by force and suppressed. There are no two opinions about that and we shall set about it as efficiently and effectively as possible”.


Indira Gandhi’s bold decision to approve her military commander’s proposal to call in the IAF to strafe the MNF fighters and subdue them should not be questioned for the purpose of scoring brownie points with todays’ political opponents.


It is because of a strong leader like Indira Gandhi that The Mizo rebels led by Pu Laldenga came to the negotiation table. If she had lived to negotiate with Pu Laldenga in 1984, the bitterness of the acrimonious past of secession by MNF -due to the neglect of Mizos by the Congress-led Assam state government- and the subduing by military force would have been forgotten.


The laying down of arms by MNF and return of peace:


On 31st October 1984, self-exiled MNF leader Pu Laldenga had an appointment with Indira Gandhi. The agenda was ending Mizo insurgency and establishing peace in Mizoram. Indira Gandhi was categorical that her two conditions must be met: 1) Cessation of armed violence and 2) A settlement within the Indian Constitution.



Unfortunately, she was assassinated before the meeting took place. Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, a dynamic youthful leader who brokered several peace accords with secessionists during his tenure of only five years, signed the Mizoram Peace Accord. Full statehood was granted to Mizoram with Aizawl as its capital. Mizoram became the 23rd state of India on 20th February 1987. Pu Laldenga was sworn in as Interim CM. MNF won the first assembly election held under the interim government in 1987. Pu Laldenga was sworn in as CM.


However, Mizos voted in Congress governments for two consecutive terms in 1989 and 1993. And again for two consecutive terms in 2008 and 2013. The Mizos and Congress had consigned their past enmity to the dustbin of history.


The Mizos voted in MNF governments for two consecutive terms in 1998 and 2003. The MNF won the 2018 assembly election. The next election is due in December 2023.


Once, the Mizos chose peaceful co-existence within the Indian Union, they have prospered. Today, Mizoram is a model state. Its literacy rate is second only to that of Kerala. Its GDP per person is twice that of UP.


Instead of slandering the memory of Indira Gandhi to spite Gandhi family, Modi should focus his energies to the current crisis in Manipur. The Kukis of Manipur are kin of Zo people of Mizoram. The Kuki, Zo and Chin are closely knit tribals scattered in Mizoram, Manipur, and Myanmar. The chins are targeted by the Burmese military rulers and are seeking refuge in Mizoram. The Kukis are running away from Manipur and seeking refuge in Mizoram.


The Zoram Peoples’ Movement (ZPM) has already replaced Congress as the main opposition party in Mizoram. The ZPM has an agenda to unite all Kuki-Zo-Chin sub-tribes and stage a movement for a United Zoram Land.



If the Kukis are slaughtered in Manipur, the Zoram Peoples’ Movement will protest against the MNF-BJP alliance in Mizoram. This may not turn into an armed violent struggle for an independent Zoram nation but the final word is not yet written.



Comments on this Article
Imran, Qatar Sun, August-20-2023, 8:32
Extensively researched paper.
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