Echoes from the Mizo hills | Review of ‘If I Have to be a Soldier’ by Nikhil J. Alva

The media entrepreneur’s debut novel brings alive the raging Mizoram insurgency of the 1960s

Updated - April 05, 2024 09:35 am IST

Published - April 05, 2024 09:33 am IST

File photo of a counter-insurgency training camp in Vairengte, Mizoram. 

File photo of a counter-insurgency training camp in Vairengte, Mizoram.  | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

March 5, 1966. Screaming fighter jets of the Indian Air Force (IAF) — Dassault Ouragan (Toofanis) and British Hunters — strafed Aizawl, now Mizoram’s capital, using machine guns to fire at the densely populated town, dropping scores of incendiary bombs. Shocked and terrified civilians fled to the hills; rebels escaped to the jungles of Myanmar and East Pakistan. Till date, it remains the only instance of the IAF carrying out bombings within the country’s civilian territory, on orders from the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. New Delhi denied the bombings.

Soon after, the military, again on government orders, regrouped villages, clustering residents into the so-called Protected and Progressive Villages (PPVs) and forcing them at gunpoint to give up their land, crops and homes to live behind barbed wire under armed guard. A newspaper reported that no Russian gulag or German concentration camp had hosted such a large chunk of the local population.

The bombing was to quell the Mizoram uprising after Mizo National Front (MNF) leader Pu Laldenga declared independence from India. The military action left deep scars on the collective memory of Mizoram, leading to an insurgency that lasted two decades until Mizoram became a State of the Indian union.

Demons of the past

The Mizo uprising and the secretive war is at the core of Nikhil J. Alva’s debut novel If I Have To Be A Soldier. Equally, the story is about friendship and love, identity and survival as Alva deftly weaves fact with fiction.

It is a significant piece of work with contemporary relevance and a poignant reminder of the horrors and fallout of conflicts, and the lasting impact it leaves on the masses. Coincidentally, the book was released just days before the 58th anniversary of the Aizawl bombing.

The story revolves around two boyhood friends — Samuel Rego (Sammy), the son of a Baptist pastor, who goes on to become an Indian Army Captain, and Sena, the rebel son of a teacher who runs away from home to enlist with the MNF, soon becoming a guerilla leader.

Sammy, who was packed off to a distant place after false accusations of rape, returns years later in uniform to the land of his birth to interrogate Sena who is under arrest. The story takes a curious turn with the two boyhood friends now on opposite sides of the law. Sammy is sympathetic towards Sena and when faced with a moral dilemma, he makes decisions that compel him and Sena to become fugitives. While on the run through dense and rugged jungles, hills and rivers, with the Army in hot pursuit, the duo, desperate to stay alive, faces the added challenge of dealing with the demons of their bitter past and atoning for their failures in bygone days.

 Folk performers from Mizoram at an event in Mumbai, 2016.

 Folk performers from Mizoram at an event in Mumbai, 2016. | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

While the novel is essentially about Mizoram’s turbulent political history, it doesn’t seem weighed down by the political or ideological aspects of the insurgency. The narrative is peppered with the life and culture of the Mizos, the love story of Sammy and Martha (Sena’s sister), the once-in-50-years flowering of the bamboo in the Mizo hills, the plague of rats and the great famine (Mautam), the wailing of the witch and the many encounters, all of which give the book that special flavour, like the Mizo dish Sawhchiar, making it an engaging and thrilling page-turner.

Shaped by memories

As the son of politician and former minister Margaret Alva, the author has had the good fortune of knowing the Northeast region and interacting with its people during his numerous travels accompanying his mother. “These memories, emotions and experiences have helped shape the characters in this novel,” acknowledges Alva. With his deep research and lucid writing, Alva has documented a dark but significant chapter of India’s post-Independence history for people to read, learn and not forget.

Finally, one can’t help feeling that this moving Mizo insurgency story would make a good candidate for film adaptation. After all, Alva is an award-winning television filmmaker and social media ‘maven’ who was instrumental in the makeover of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. I only wish this debut novel had a catchier title given its many layers and sweep.

If I Have To Be A Soldier
Nikhil J. Alva

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and writer.

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