Zoramthanga: From being an insurgent to becoming Mizoram CM
Zoramthanga went underground for 20 years (1966-1986), living in hideouts in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), Arakan (Myanmar) and Islamabad.
On Saturday, he took oath as the chief minister of Mizoram for the third time. His party, Mizo National Front (MNF), received a thumping majority with 26 seats in the 40-member assembly, wresting the last Congress bastion of the Northeast.
Zoramthanga, 74, had served as the chief minister between 1998 and 2008. The MNF president’s office in the heart of Aizawl city has two big photos on the wall — one of his mentor and founder of MNF, Laldenga, and the other dated 2003 of him with the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. MNF is a partner of North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a two and half year old entity formed by BJP to bring all non-Congress political parties of the Northeast under one umbrella. During the assembly poll, MNF, however, adroitly avoided any contact with its partner, BJP, fearing that any bonhomie with the saffron party in the pre-dominantly Christian state of Mizoram might boomerang. Instead, Zoramthanga and his team listened to the church leaders and promised in its manifesto total prohibition of liquor.
MNF, which started as a civil society organisation to fight the great famine of 1959, got involved in insurgency in the mid ’60s. It received funding and training from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Zoramthanga went underground for 20 years (1966-1986), living in hideouts in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), Arakan (Myanmar) and Islamabad before the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986, paving the way for his mentor, Laldenga, to become the chief minister of Mizoram.
In a free-wheeling chat with ET Magazine in Aizawl in the first week of October, Zoramthanga walked down the memory lane to share his experiences and retell a story of how he made a “James Bond type escape” during a raid by Indian forces in the Chittagong hills during the 1971 Bangladesh war. Former official of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), B Raman, had in his 2007 book Kaoboys of the R&AW mentioned how the organization’s clandestine units destroyed MNF “sanctuaries” in Chittagong but that “did not result in many captures and killings”. The following are the excerpts of what the insurgent-turned-politician told us two months ago:
The decision of the Mizo National Front (MNF) to come overground was right because it was the voice of the people of Mizoram. All churches, political parties and civil societies told us that the people for whom we were fighting started dying because of the conflict. They said people would accept whatever settlement we would arrive at. We signed the Mizo Accord in 1986.
The path to the settlement was long though. Sometime in 1971, when the Bangladesh war was yet to begin, I was first sent by my underground government in Dhaka (then in East Pakistan) to hold discussions with an officer from R&AW. He was Mr Subramaniam. But till date, I have no idea whether Subramaniam is his real name or not. We met in Shillong (the then capital of Assam). But soon, the war started, and further talks were halted.
During the war, we all fled from Dhaka and started living in Chittagong. In Chittagong, all Pakistani army commandoes were captured, but we (MNF guerrillas) managed to escape.
I became a party member in 1965. I was then a student of DM College, Imphal. The next year, I went underground and remained so for 20 years. Initially, I was handling the affairs of the northern part of Mizoram. Till the beginning of 1969, I was roaming around in the forests of Mizoram. Then we shifted our base to East Pakistan.
In 1969, I became secretary to MNF president Laldenga. I was then 25 years old. We were all in Chittagong. During the war, we escaped to Arakan hills (in Myanmar) before reaching West Pakistan. It was a James Bond-type escape. The directorgeneral of the ISI later told us in Islamabad that they couldn’t imagine how we had managed to escape. Many Pakistani army personnel were killed, caught and imprisoned. We joined a group of refugees and somehow reached the Akyab (now called Sittwe, a famous port in Myanmar). We were there for a month or so. Finally, we took a Pakistani flight from Rangoon to Karachi. Between 1972 and 1975, we were based out of Islamabad.
Earlier in 1970, I accompanied party president Laldenga to China. It was a secret mission from Dhaka to Beijing. We first reached Canton (Guangzhou) before landing in Beijing. We then visited Shanghai before returning to Dhaka. During our stay in China, we had a talk with the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and other important functionaries. Mr Zhou Enlai asked me: ‘You look very young, how old are you?’ I said I was 26 sir. He laughed and said, ‘You are younger to me by almost 50 years.’
Going to China and getting arms training turned out to be difficult. We sent two batches of MNF boys – about 150 boys in total – to China through Kachin (Myanmar) for training. But the journey itself, from Chittagong to China, was strenuous. It took about three months, one way.
While in Pakistan, between 1972 and 1975, we held a number of secret talks with R&AW officials. We came back to Delhi in 1976. Then the formal peace talks began, which concluded in 1986 when the Mizo Accord was signed.
We all came overground. Laldenga became the chief minister of Mizoram. He died in 1990. I then became the MNF president and have remained in the post for the last 28 years.