The rebel who chose peace

The rebel who chose peace
Mizoram CM Zoramthanga. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)
08/08/2021, by , in Article of the Day

This story first appeared in The Indian Express

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 CM won’t back down, as Assam just found.

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.”

Adds Mukhim: “Land (in tribal communities) belongs to communities and clans, not to the State. These disputes are not binaries that can be constitutionally interpreted. They lend themselves to nuanced understanding of tribal dynamics and landholding patterns.”

This is the primary difference, she says, “in our understanding of land as a constitutional entity, and land as a living space which tribal ancestors handed down to their people. Kinship ties are deeply embedded and international boundaries are often meaningless lines on a map.”

As Assam raised the heat on an old land claim, Zoramthanga had to show he would do whatever was in his power to protect the territory. In the several rounds of talks with Delhi, his representatives refused to budge even an inch. “They would say, ‘Sorry, that’s my CM’s position’, and that was that,” says an official from Assam privy to the talks.

Earlier, in March, following the military coup in Myanmar, Zoramthanga had similarly stood up to the Centre. While the government ordered that borders be closed to Myanmar refugees, Zoramthanga welcomed them as fellow brethren, invoking a common tribal lineage. Around 10,000 refugees are believed to have crossed over to Mizoram, and have been given official support.

“Zoramthanga does not shy away from speaking his mind,” says the observer, “even if it’s unpopular vis-a-vis the Centre.”

His oratory is another skill Mizoram knows Zoramthanga for. “It is this that eventually helped him become the top MNF leader after Laldenga’s death. Everybody loves his speeches, with their bombastic words,” says Dr Lallianchhunga, a professor of Political Science at Mizoram University.

In April 2020, soon after the Covid pandemic started, Zoramthanga had left social media in splits when he came out of a video-conference with the PM on the situation saying he felt perplexed. “They were speaking in Hindi. And I don’t understand a word of Hindi.”

Two decades after he chose peace over insurgency, the 77-year-old remains an endearing personality in Mizoram — often seen playing badminton, cracking jokes, an ordinary man. Married after he came overground, Zoramthanga and wife Roneihsangi have a son and a daughter who keep a low profile.

At the same time, Zoramthanga has proved he can be shrewd, knowing when to push the right buttons. “Take the development fund in 2000. It is said he made several rounds of Delhi for it. He does not care much for protocol… if he needs funds, he will go down right to the joint secretary,” says a senior journalist from Aizawl.

Another example of his skills of persuasion is the Lengpui airport, perhaps the only one in the country to be owned by the state government and not the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

Under his uncontested reign in the state, there has been a significant improvement in roads, apart from in healthcare and education.

However, in the last three years, the MNF government under Zoramthanga has invited some criticism. Many complain it’s a dispensation that “talks more, does less”. “Sometimes, people don’t take him seriously because he says a lot of things that never really pan out… for example, the CM’s obsession with importing bamboo species for more than a decade now,” says the journalist, adding that there is a “sense of lethargy”.

The pandemic has also left the state reeling under a severe financial crisis, with salaries reportedly delayed and several development projects stalled.

Senior Congress leader Lalsawta says the bigger problem is that the Zoramthanga government is “wasteful”. “At the end of the day, it is about the management of finances. The CM holds the finance portfolio.” Claiming that any of the other 26 MNF MLAs would make a better CM, Lalsawta says, “The problem is that Zoramthanga talks too much… A person has to think before he speaks.”

Lalduhoma, the founder-president of the Zoram Nationalist Party, which is part of an anti-Congress, anti-MNF alliance, says that while on the border issue Zoramthanga has their full support, “whether it’s the pandemic or development or financial issues”, the government has failed. “Mizoram has only one RT-PCR lab,” he points out.

The two also ask why the root cause of the boundary issue — the border demarcation with Assam — had not been addressed by the CM. “No one has the political will,” says Lalduhoma. But, as his minister Royte puts it: “Zoramthanga did what people expected of him. In a week, we saw his maturity, how he listened to the people — and for Mizoram, that’s what matters.”

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About Tora Agarwala

Tora covers the Northeast for The Indian Express.