The rebel who chose peace

His years as an armed insurgent are two decades in the past. Since then, Zoramthanga has helped Mizoram emerge as NE’s most peaceful state. When it comes to land though, the 77-yr-old Chief Minister won’t back down.

In the year 2000, weighed down by liabilities, and with few avenues for revenue, Mizoram had managed to extract Rs 182.45 crore as “bonus” from the Centre. First of its kind, the package, extended by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, came to be known as a “peace bonus” — awarded to Mizoram for being “the most peaceful state in the Northeast”.

Back then, if one were to ask the man who made it happen and who was just two years into his chief ministership, Zoramthanga would possibly have smiled and said, “Peace pays”, a catchphrase the rebel-turned-politician is fond of using.

Because, ever since it emerged from a two-decade-long insurgency in the mid-1980s, peace is what the hill state has prided itself on — even its tourism pitch is based on that. Since the militant outfits laid down arms in 1986, few if any insurgents are recorded as having gone underground. The Mizo Accord of June 30, 1986, between the Mizo National Front (MNF) and the Government of India is perhaps the most successful of its kind in the country. Security experts often call it the “only insurgency in the world that ended with the stroke of a pen”.

The last fortnight though has been far from peaceful for Mizoram. First, in what was possibly the bloodiest standoff in its old border dispute with Assam, six policemen from Assam were killed. Assam issued an unusual travel advisory against travelling to Mizoram; Mizoram instituted an FIR against Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, among others; Assam responded with counter-FIRs — with the diminutive Zoramthanga going toe-to-toe with Sarma, arguably Northeast’s most influential political leader.

Those who know him saw shades of Zoramthanga of old — the college graduate-turned-MNF rebel, who joined the armed insurgency, rose to second only in stature to the legendary Laldenga, and survived in the bush for 20 years. He penned down an autobiography in Mizo recording all this, and is currently writing his memoirs in English.

The insurgency was the result of the Mizos feeling neglected at the hands of the larger Assam state it was a part of then, and New Delhi. In a culmination of the anger, on February 28, 1966, the bank clerk-turned-rebel Laldenga led Operation Jericho to capture Aizawl. For the first and only time in the history of independent India, the government, led by Indira Gandhi, ordered air raids on its own territory. The violence raged on for two decades, before the MNF declared peace and joined electoral politics. Power has since largely remained with the party, first under Laldenga and then his personal secretary and closest aide, Zoramthanga.

Now into his third term, Zoramthanga is known as frank and outspoken, but also soft and pacifist — a carefully cultivated image. “His politics has never been combative. He barely attacks his opponents even during poll campaigns. And if there is a scandal, he probably won’t even make a statement — at best, issue a press release,” says a senior Aizawl journalist, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Zoramthanga does not betray that side of him which pushed him to take up guns. Rebel leaders need not fit the stereotype of being tough and uncompromising,” says Patricia Mukhim, Editor, Shillong Times.

Robert Romawia Royte, a Cabinet minister in the MNF government who is close to Zoramthanga, says the CM never “scolds anyone”, not even a “peon”, but can “be tough when the situation demands it”.

Given this record, over the years, the Central government — from the Vajpayee-led one to Narendra Modi’s — has sought Zoramthanga’s help to reach out to other rebel groups in the Northeast. In an interview, he once said, “It is my life’s mission to bring peace here.”

Since the 1990s, the MNF has been an ally of the BJP, before it even registered a presence in the Northeast, and is now a part of its Northeast Democratic Alliance. In local, state-level politics though, the MNF and BJP often fight each other.

To dissect the events of the past week then, it is important to not just look at Zoramthanga alone, but Mizo society as a whole, for whom land is the most important asset. “It’s not just Zoramthanga. Any other Mizoram CM would have taken a similar stand,” says an observer in Mizoram. “When it comes to issues of ethnicity, whether it’s against the Brus or for the Chins (from Myanmar), or land, they will rally together across political lines, no matter what.”

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in August 2021. Full article here.