5 March 1966: The Day IAF Fighters Dropped Bombs On Indian Citizens On The Then Government's Orders

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Mar 5, 2022 01:40 PM +05:30 IST
5 March 1966: The Day IAF Fighters Dropped Bombs On Indian Citizens On The Then Government's Orders Indira Gandhi
  • 5 March 1966 was the day when Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters dropped bombs on urban clusters in what was then the Lushai Hills district of Assam, present day Mizoram.

    The bombing was ordered by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Today--March 5--is inarguably one of the most shameful days in independent India’s history. Though not well-known in the rest of the country because an ignominious chapter has been suppressed by successive Congress governments in Delhi, people of the northeastern state of Mizoram have been observing the day for the past 55 years with a lot of pain.

March 5, 1966, was the day when Indian Air Force (IAF) fighters rained incendiary bombs and strafed many urban clusters in what was then the Lushai Hills district of Assam in response to an outbreak of insurgency there. The bombing of the country’s own citizens was ordered by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The Mizo National Front (MNF), which was then an insurgent outfit--it is a registered political party and is in government in Mizoram now--declared independence from India in the early hours of March 1, 1966. Following this declaration, MNF rebels launched coordinated attacks on Indian army and paramilitary installations all over the Lushai Hills (the present-day state of Mizoram).

In the wee hours of March 1, 1966, MNF rebels attacked the district treasury at Aizawl and camps of police and security forces at Lunglei and Champhai. These two towns were captured by the MNF. The rebels attacked the Assam Rifles battalion headquarters at Aizawl and an Assam Rifles patrol party was ambushed in the Chanmari area of Aizawl (the present state capital) on the night of March 3, resulting in the deaths of five jawans of the paramilitary force.

The Union Government panicked. Nagaland was already beset with insurgency and the then Union Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda raised the alarm after receiving intelligence reports about MNF chief Laldenga’s plans.

Laldenga had established contact with Pakistan and the latter had been supplying arms and other equipment to the MNF, besides providing safe havens in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) to the rebels. The Lushai Hills shared a 318-kilometer-long border with East Pakistan.

In five years’ time (by February 1966), the strength of the MNF had swelled to eight battalions, thanks to aid and training by the Pakistani army. A plan, codenamed ‘Operation Jericho’, was then put in place.

As per this plan, MNF rebels would launch surprise attacks on government treasuries, fuel stations, police stations and take over camps and bases of Indian security forces. ‘Operation Jericho’ also involved taking senior non-Mizo government officers serving in the Lushai Hills as hostages.

After neutralising the police and capturing army and paramilitary bases, the MNF planned to raise the flag of independent Mizoram in Aizawl and keep it flying for 48 hours.

Pakistan assured Laldenga that it, along with some other countries, would take the matter to the United Nations and get the world body to grant recognition to Mizoram as an independent nation. Pakistan promised to grant diplomatic recognition to the new country immediately.

As per the plan, hatched with considerable help from Pakistan, MNF rebels started attacking government installations and the Assam Rifles battalion in Aizawl. But Assam Rifles jawans, though taken by surprise, held out for three days.

They were running short of ammunition and made desperate appeals to rush reinforcements. On March 4, it appeared that the besieged Assam Rifles battalion headquarters would fall to the rebels and ‘Operation Jericho’ would become successful.

It was then that Home Minister Nanda and his boss, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, panicked. Sending reinforcements to the Lushai Hills would take time since the MNF rebels had taken control of the roads leading to Aizawl and army or paramilitary convoys using these roads ran the grave risk of being ambushed.

There was also little chance of airdropping forces since most parts of Lushai Hills had been overrun by the rebels by then. There was sketchy intelligence on the strength of their rebels, how well they were armed and the location of their camps.

The only option, decided Indira Gandhi, was to send in IAF fighters to bomb Aizawl and other places where the rebels were concentrated in.

But that was akin to using a cannon to kill a mosquito. And there was the grave moral and ethical aspect also of using such lethal force on one’s own fellow citizens. But these concerns did not weigh on Gandhi’s mind as she ordered the IAF to launch a full-scale assault on the Lushai Hills.

IAF fighters--Hunters and Toofanis--were despatched, mainly from the IAF’s base in Kumbhirgram in nearby Barak Valley (Assam) to bomb Aizawl and nine other major villages in the Lushai Hills over four days from March 5. On March 5 and 6, hundreds of incendiary bombs reduced houses, schools, churches and even government healthcare centres in Aizawl to ashes.

Nearly all of Aizawl’s 10,000-odd residents had fled the town when the rebels started attacking government establishments on March 1 and had taken shelter in nearby villages or the forests. That’s why, despite the hundreds of incendiary bombs dropped on Aizawl, the death toll of civilians stood only at 15.

Professor J.V Hluna, who teaches history at Aizawl’s Pachhunga University College, still has vivid memories of those nightmarish days, and nights, 56 years ago. The professor, who is now a senior office-bearer of the state unit of the BJP, has researched and documented the bombings extensively.

Hluna, who was a high school student that year, told this writer that his entire family had fled to Zokhawsang village, five kilometers from Aizawl, when insurgency broke out on March 1. “IAF fighter planes made about eight sorties from about 10 am on March 5 and dropped hundreds of incendiary bombs over Aizawl. They made many more sorties the next day. We heard deafening sounds and saw huge plumes of smoke rising on the horizon. We knew Aizawl was being destroyed. We were numbed by fear and shock,” Hluna had recalled.

Octogenarian Zosiami, who was a social worker, recalled: “I was 21 years old then. We--my parents, grandparents and four of us siblings--fled from our house in Aizawl’s Khatla area on March 3 and took shelter in a forest in Lawipu Hill near town. We could see Aizawl from that place and witnessed the bombings. The planes dropped bombs which exploded into huge balls of fire and left clusters of houses completely devastated. We returned on March 11 to find our house totally gutted. We could not retrieve anything from the ashes,” she had said.

After destroying Aizawl, IAF fighters bombed Khawzawl village on March 6, Hnahlan village on March 7, Sangau village on March 8, Tlabung village on March 9, Pukpui village on March 13 and Bunghmun village on March 23. But the bombings continued intermittently over other areas even after March.

Hluna said that every time the MNF rebels posed a grave threat to state security forces, IAF fighters would be deployed to bomb villages that the rebels were believed to have been concentrated in. Thus, Mualthuam and Tuipui villages (Tuipui being the native village of Laldenga) was bombed on September 6 and Hmuntlang village on January 31, 1967.

The Union Government ensured all news of the bombings was blacked out, and the country or the rest of the world never got to know about the perfidy immediately.

Denghnuna, who was the Assam government’s information and public relations officer at Aizawl (Lushai Hills was part of Assam then), says that news of the bombings eventually leaked out, as it inevitably would, and the issue was raised in the Assam Assmbly.

The Assam government constituted a fact-finding team comprising two legislators--Stanley D.D. Nichols Roy and Hoover Hynniewta (both from Assam’s Khasi and Jaintia Hills district which is now Meghalaya)--and the then Shillong Lok Sabha MP George Gilbert Swell.

The team visited Aizawl on March 30 and collected a lot of evidence of the bombings. They submitted a report--the report was tabled in the Assam Assembly and can be found in the Assembly archives--stating that IAF fighters dropped incendiary bombs that reduced large parts of Aizawl, including the government circuit house there--to ashes.

But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, while rubbishing the report of the fact-finding mission, claimed that only rations and medicines were para-dropped from IAF cargo planes for the besieged Assam Rifles soldiers in Aizawl.

Immediately after the Prime Minister made this statement on the floor of the Lok Sabha, Swell rose and countered her. He produced photos of the devastation of Aizawl and casings of the shells (bombs) dropped from the IAF fighters over Aizawl. An uproar ensued, but a weak opposition could not create enough noise to force Gandhi to retract her statement.

Swell, later on, said that Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi were among the IAF pilots who flew the fighter aircraft over Aizawl and bombed the town. This claim was endorsed by Denghnuna, who was later nominated to the IAS and retired as a senior bureaucrat.

The bombings were followed by large scale induction of troops into the Lushai Hills to carry out counter-insurgency operations. And those operations were brutal as well.

R Zamawia, who had joined the MNF while in college in 1963 and was the commander of the MNF Volunteer Force in March 1966, says that army and paramilitary forces ordered evacuation of hundreds of villages that they then razed to the ground. The villagers were given identity cards and relocated to new settlements along highways and major roads and their movements strictly monitored. The army and paramilitary soldiers kept strict watch over these settlements.

Zamawia, who had risen to become the ‘defence minister’ of the MNF, had spoken to this writer extensively on the insurgency in Lushai Hills and the bombings. Apart from resettling villagers in what he says were ‘regulated camps’, hundreds of civilians were arrested and tortured. “Many disappeared,” he said.

The bombings, the destruction of countless villages and resettlement of villagers in what were like penal colonies, the atrocities committed by soldiers and the large-scale human rights violations still rankle the Mizos, says Denghnuna. “The wounds suffered by the Mizos have healed, but the scars remain. The Government of India has done nothing to address the emotional scarring of the Mizos and that is very unfortunate,” he had said.

Every year, March 5 is observed as “Zoram Ni’ (or Zoram Day) by the Mizos. Prayers are held all over the state and people are urged to forgive the perpetrators of the crimes and atrocities committed on their parents and grandparents during the twenty years of insurgency from 1966 to 1986. The Mizos, Denghnuna had said, are willing to forgive, but the Government of India has to ask for it. An acknowledgement of the bombings and the atrocities that followed would be proper and right.

How The Mizo Insurgency Started

A devastating famine in the Lushai Hills was the trigger for insurgency. In 1959, bamboo plants started flowering in the Lushai Hills (as the plants do after a gap of every 40 to 50 years). The flowers are a favourite of rodents who feed on it and multiply fast. The rodents started feeding on foodstocks and standing crops, thus causing an acute food shortage and a famine., called ‘mautam’ in Mizo.

The Assam government mishandled the famine and failed to provide timely and adequate relief to the residents of the Lushai Hills. As a result, hundreds died of starvation. A social service group by the name of ‘Mizo Cultural Society’ that was formed with Laldenga as its secretary in 1955 plunged headlong into famine relief work. It renamed itself as the ‘Mautam Front’ in March 1960 and then as the ‘Mizo National Famine Front’ in September that year.

This organisation became the Mizo National Front (MNF) a year later. Though the famine had eased, the callous neglect of the state government and the deaths of hundreds had caused a lot of anger that was still simmering. The MNF, leveraging the goodwill it had earned for its relief work, started taking up political issues like integrating Mizo-inhabited areas of neighbouring Manipur, Tripura and the Cachar Hills of Assam with the Lushai Hills to form an integrated administrative unit and statehood for such a unit.

The Assam government refused to even consider this demand and stonewalled demands for greater autonomy for the Lushai Hills in keeping with the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Instead of addressing the concerns of the Mizos and addressing their demands for a separate identity, the Assam government made Assamese a compulsory first language all over the state, including the Lushai Hills. That triggered a lot of resentment in not only the Lushai Hills, but other non-Assamese speaking areas of the state.

Years of resentment bred by stonewalling the Mizos' quest for an identity of their own and the callousness of the Assam government during the famine snowballed into demands for a separate nation. Laldenga established contact with Pakistan sometime in 1961 and was promised financial and material aid. And the MNF then started recruiting volunteers to what was known as the 'Mizo National Army'. These volunteers were sent in batches to East Pakistan where they were given training in arms and guerilla tactics. Within five years, the strength of the MNF had grown to eight battalions and 'Operation Jericho' was launched on March 1, 1966.

While the Assam government has to take a major share of the blame for creating the conditions that bred insurgency in the Lushai Hills with its callousness and criminal neglect, Indira Gandhi and her government are to be blamed squarely for the horrific bombings of Aizawl and other major villages by IAF fighters and the large scale atrocities that followed.

The Union Government, and the army and paramilitary forces, were caught unawares by the attacks launched by MNF from March 1. That represented an abject and shocking intelligence failure and the Union Government, especially the Home Minister, should have been held accountable for that.

The insurgency in Lushai Hills came to an end in 1986 with the Mizo Peace Accord overseen by Rajiv Gandhi whose mother had ordered the bombing of Aizawl and other parts of Lushai Hills.

You can read more about the bombing of Aizawl here.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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