During the debate on the no-confidence vote in Parliament on August 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke emotionally about the use of the Indian Air Force against villages in Mizoram on March 5, 1966, to quell a rebellion, and the use of the Indian Army in the Golden Temple to flush out terrorists.
There is a difference between using the professional Indian armed forces against foreign terrorists and against our own people. In 1966, following a famine in Assam, Mizo people were aggrieved, and an insurgency had broken out. As stated by JR Mukherjee in the chapter ‘Evolution of India’s Counter Insurgency Doctrine’ in Force in Statecraft: An Indian Perspective (2021), the then central government lost no time in bringing in the armed forces of India to quell the insurgency. The highly competent Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out orders given by the Congress government of the day.
According to a now deleted Facebook post (reposted in 2014 by ‘We the Nagas’, a digital news platform) by Prof JV Hluna, head of Department of History at Pachhunga University College in Aizawl, IAF fighter jets were dispatched to first strafe and then bomb civilian areas in Aizawl and several other major villages on March 5 and 6, 1966. In a 2016 article, Dr David Buhril, principal at Happy Heart Junior College, Churachandpur (Manipur), stated that the use of the air force had caused civilians to flee to the surrounding hills. Buhril wrote, “No one had imagined that the Union government would bomb its own territory… ‘It took us by surprise that the government had the courage to deploy jet fighters to bomb Aizawl that it dared not fly inside China or Pakistan,’ said Remruata, a village council member.”
The government of the day did not deploy the offensive power of the IAF against the Chinese in 1962 apparently out of concern about possible retaliatory action against India’s population centres. This stands in contrast to the deployment of lethal air power in Mizoram in 1966, without discrimination, against rebels and civilians alike.
Civilian casualties may have been limited, but the damage to the collective psyche in Mizoram ran deep. Even today, March 5 each year is observed as Zoram Ni (Zoram Day) by the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, a student’s body.
The use of offensive air power in Mizoram in 1966 was publicly glossed over as “supply drops”. Opposition leader Stanley DD Nichols Roy’s attempts in the Assam Legislative Assembly to expose the truth were stonewalled by the government. He later moved a motion in the state Assembly lamenting that the air attacks “… destroyed, have done damage to the lives and property of people who are loyal to this nation” and termed them as “excessive”.
Like the Sikhs, the Mizos are among the most talented, hard-working and loyal of Indians. As Prime Minister Modi observed, no attempt was made to heal their wounded psyche.
Many feel that India must not be allowed to live down the use of air power against the Mizos in 1966, especially the trauma caused to civilians. Some observers believe that the then Indian government had attempted to mirror the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the British and the Americans in Malaya and Vietnam. One recalls that in fighting the Malayan Races Liberation Army, British General Briggs had created “protected villages” by corralling the inhabitants of far-flung hamlets into new population centres along major arterial roads. Perhaps inspired by British policies in Malaya, this approach was tried out in both Nagaland and Mizoram. Its failure was a lesson and the scheme was soon dropped.
The decision to bomb Mizo rebels and civilian populations in 1966 stands in stark contrast to India’s emphatic cross-border air strikes in 2019 against terrorist infrastructure at Balakot in Pakistan. The latter were directed against terrorists and the enemies of India, not against fellow Indians.
As for the reference to the Akal Takht, Modi appears to have stated a plain fact, that the storming of the holiest of Sikh shrines in 1984 is still etched in public memory. As in Mizoram so also in Punjab, this left an emotional scar in the Sikh community. The Indian Army, professional to the core, was obliged to carry out the orders of the then Union government. Some observers aver that Operation Blue Star might have been avoided if the government of the day had acted earlier to apprehend Bhindranwale.
In his book The Khalistan Conspiracy (2020), former R&AW official GBS Sidhu states that the then Army Chief, General Vaidya, had called for an urgent meeting at Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s South Block office on May 29, 1984, during which Lt Gen K Sundarji, the GOC-in-C Western Command had clearly expressed misgivings that the siege-and-flushing-out operation could lead to popular resentment among Sikhs.
Eventually, the use of tanks and high-explosive squash-head shells caused much physical damage to the Golden Temple and traumatised the Sikhs.
In hindsight, many observers feel that the nation’s Armed Forces should not have been used to tackle the internal security crises in Mizoram and at the Golden Temple. The instructions on Aid to the Civil Authorities by the Armed Forces, 1970, clearly provide for a role for the Armed Forces in disaster management, maintenance of law and order (through flag marches and show of force), maintenance of essential services (including critical infrastructure) and the like. However, heavy weaponry and air power should always be reserved for use against external adversaries, not one’s own people.
The writer is the DG of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Think20 Chair for India’s G20 Presidency and author of World Upside Down: India Recalibrates Its Geopolitics. Views are personal