Accommodative politics, combined with political incentives, helped pave the way for the Mizo National Front to turn into a mainstream political party
If grievance ever had legitimate reason to be translated into political rebellion, it was in Mizoram. The Mizo National Front (MNF) was an insurgent group that emerged from the Mizo National Famine Front in 1959 — a formation protesting the widespread famine caused by a regular failure of the bamboo crop due to mautam, and the failure of the Indian state to send adequate relief.
Deprivation soon led to open rebellion. On February 28, 1966, the MNF launched Operation Jericho under which about 1,500 MNF cadres overran Lunglei, Aizawl and Champhai districts by beating back the Assam Rifles personnel stationed there. India’s Home Minister at the time was Gulzarilal Nanda who recommended “stern action” against the rebels. This meant a two-column assault by the Indian army on Lunglei and Champhai on March 7, 1966. A week later, the Indian army recaptured these districts, albeit after the air force was called in to launch an aerial assault on Aizawl.
The turning point
Mizoram has just finished polling in its latest round of Assembly elections with a very high voter turnout of 81.19 per cent. How did a decidedly secessionist State turn from the insurgent path towards accepting a place in the Indian Union, and what form of politics developed after the end of the insurgency? Accommodative politics, knitted with political incentives for the insurgents, helped pave the way for the MNF to turn into an electoral force. After that turning point, the tussle between the regional force and the Centre has taken the form of an electoral competition between the Congress and the MNF. We argue that this successful channelling of insurgency into manageable electoral competition is a model that can be emulated in other States of the northeast.
The 20 years that followed Operation Jericho were interspersed with severe counterinsurgency battles that involved not only regular fighting with the rebels but also village resettlement schemes, which resulted in 80 per cent of Mizos being relocated and resettled by 1972 in 102 population centres. The aim of the resettlement was to drive the MNF into the jungles and cut off its recruitment base and supply lines.
Alongside, the Indian government also opened a dialogue with the rebels, keeping in mind that the region was remote and the MNF enjoyed immense popularity among various Mizo sub-tribes. Also, for a fledgling country it seemed imperative to address the northeast’s insurgent threats through any means possible — war or diplomacy — so that the rebellions didn’t become a model for other groups in the region. While the latter aim didn’t work as well for the Indian state, what did emerge were negotiations and offers of peaceful elections with the MNF competing in them. When such an electoral experiment was conducted in 1978, the MNF’s Pu Laldenga lost to Brig. Sailo of the People’s Conference. As the MNF stepped up its insurgent activities in response to an electoral loss, the government decided to end the matter more decisively.
In 1986, the Union of India under Rajiv Gandhi and the MNF signed the Mizoram Peace Accord. Pu Lalthanhawla, the Congress Chief Minister, was made to step down and Pu Laldenga of the MNF was made Chief Minister. Rajiv Gandhi was clear about one thing — the MNF violence had to end and Mizoram had to stay in the Union. Practising accommodative politics seemed the right way forward even if it meant replacing the Chief Minister with Pu Laldenga, who had spent the better part of his adult life deep in the jungles of Myanmar raising two armed brigades to fight the Indian state.
Today, Mizoram is a State that cradles several oddities. It is a Christian majority state where the Presbyterian Church has immense sway over everyday life and politics. It is one of the few States with Prohibition due to an intervention by the Presbyterian Church. It is also one of the few States with a remarkably high voter turnout. Further, electoral politics took a healthy competitive turn after two decades of violence, as we describe below.
After the peace accord, the MNF won the Assembly elections in 1987. However Laldenga’s government survived for barely two years. Nine of the 24 MNF MLAs defected to the Congress, and President’s Rule was imposed in the State in September 1988. The Congress under Lalthanhawla returned to power after the 1989 polls and continued its winning streak in the 1993 elections by forging an alliance with the Mizoram Janata Dal (MJD). The two Opposition parties, the MNF and the Mizoram People’s Conference (MPC), formed a pre-poll alliance and won in the 1998 Assembly elections. The MNF won 22 seats, the MPC won one seat, and the Congress got only six of the 40 seats. The incumbent Congress Chief Minister, Lalthanhawla, also lost his seat in the election. MNF leader Zoramthanga (Laldenga’s successor) was sworn in as the new Chief Minister.
In the 2003 Assembly elections, the MNF retained power after winning 21 seats while the Congress won 12 seats. The MPC and the Zoram Nationalist Party (ZNP) combine got four seats. The biggest loser was the MPC — from 12 seats in the previous Assembly, its strength was reduced to two seats. During the last Assembly elections in 2008, the Congress stormed back to power with 32 seats, while the MNF was reduced to three seats. In a humiliating blow to the MNF, Pu Zoramthanga lost both his seats. The MPC and the ZNP contested as pre-poll allies but got only two seats each.
For the 2013 Assembly elections, Mr. Zoramthanga formed a pre-poll alliance with the MPC and the Maraland Democratic Front (MDF). This was seen as essential by the MNF to wrest power from the Congress and reinstate itself as the guardian of the Mizo people’s political and cultural rights. The other main party in the State, the ZNP, contested on its own.
New political front
On October 21, 2013, 10 regional political parties in the northeast formed a new political front — the North-East Regional Political Front (NERPF) — and adopted 17 resolutions, which include an end to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a return to paper ballots and a fresh look at the Centre-State relations. The Front elected former Assam Chief Minister, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, as the chief adviser and the Nagaland Chief Minister, Neiphiu Rio, as the convener.
This development went unnoticed but the front will gain momentum after the counting of votes in Mizoram. The formation of NERPF is a signal that regional parties in the northeast are ready to take on bigger roles at the Centre, and have realised that it pays to band together to secure the region’s interests. They have realised that during the government formation in New Delhi in May 2014, they may be in a position to bargain hard, as every seat may matter. In this way, the 10 parties as a bloc can offer more to any coalition and secure for themselves, perhaps, a more important place in the Lok Sabha.
The normalisation of electoral politics in Mizoram is important as an instance of accommodative politics in India. The reduction in violence brought about by the end of the insurgency and the crippling counterinsurgency campaigns can perhaps be replicated in other States of the northeast.
(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She and Rahul Verma are Ph.D candidates at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.)