Aizawl: After a wait of over 35 years, Mizoram’s former Chief Minister Laldenga’s request to shift the Assam Rifles headquarters from the heart of the city will see the light of day.
Zokhawsang, located around 15 km from Aizawl, will become the home of the Assam Rifles Battalion headquarters when it is inaugurated on Saturday, April 1, 2023, by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
Many see it as a political tactic as it was a poll promise of the ruling Mizo National Front party in 2018. But few can deny the history of this demand, which goes back over three decades.
On March 31, 1988, a headline in the Los Angeles Times read, 8 Killed as Troops Fire on Mob in India. The report states, “Eight people were killed and 30 injured when Indian troops fired on a mob that broke into their camp in the northeastern state of Mizoram, the Press Trust of India said Wednesday. It said a mob stormed the Assam Rifles camp Tuesday night and started to throw bricks at buildings after accusing the regiment’s soldiers of assaulting a police officer.”
It had been just 20 months since the Peace Accord had been signed and only one year since Mizoram had attained statehood. The government was trying to avoid unrest, but on the night of March 30, tension erupted when an Assam Rifles personnel, S W Anal, got involved in a drunken brawl. The Superintendent of Police, H Khiangte, tried to arrest Anal, but his fellow jawans assaulted Khiangte. An angry crowd gathered in front of the Assam Rifles camp that night and the next day, damaging the headquarters gate and other properties.
A report in India Today wrote of the incident saying, “An accord signed 20 months ago had brought peace back to insurgency-affected Mizoram after two decades. But last fortnight unpleasant memories were revived as the funeral processions of 10 Aizawl residents wound their way through the shocked state capital. The dead were victims of firing by the paramilitary Assam Rifles.”
“I was standing near Zodin Traffic Point towards Treasury Square when it happened,” K Zabikia, the editor of Newslink, recounted to EastMojo. He was around twenty years old then and a newbie in the media world.
“Bullets were raining down, and I ran as fast as I could towards the area now known as Solomon’s cave. We could not see who was shooting at us. There was one Mizo police officer who took his pistol and tried to guard the crowd, but he had to retreat because the attack from the other side was too much for him. The crowd was in a frenzy, and people were tripping over one another. The bullets struck people and the roadside rods. There were no targets: anyone who the bullet struck was a target,” he said.
The mob had broken down the compound wall and stormed the camp. The number of casualties, according to India Today’s report, was ten, with four civilians gunned down on the night of March 30 and six on March 31, 1988.
F Biakzama, the secretary of the MNF youth wing that time, told EastMojo how they disseminated a press release and distributed it among the public to subdue the situation. He had drafted the press release in a hurry after the incident. “I drafted a press release and showed it to Chief Minister Laldenga. He told us to make copies and distribute it among the public,” he said.
While he found it hard to remember the press release line by line, he recounted a few lines saying, “The people who we thought would protect us have shot at us, and the MNF condemns this act. The public should not panic, we have no fault in this incident.”
It was 1917 when the Assam Rifles first set foot in Zodin. Even before this incident in 1988, when MNF came to power in 1987 as Mizoram gained statehood, a poll promise made mentioned that Assam Rifles would be relocated to Zokhawsang. Compensation due to the locals, a total of Rs 92, 59, 158, was paid off on July 14, 1987, by the then Revenue Minister Tawnluia, now the Deputy Chief Minister.
The incident in 1988 heightened the demand for the relocation of the AR headquarters, “In spite of being a counter-insurgency force, men of the Assam Rifles have enjoyed an excellent rapport with the residents of Aizawl, which, over the last century, has grown all around their 100-acre camp. But now, with anger high, the state Government wants them to go, saying there is no need for a 6,000-man force since insurgency no longer exists. Assam Rifles sources suspect that the chief minister deliberately permitted the situation to get out of hand so that the force could be pressured into vacating prime land worth crores that it sits on. Indeed, the MNF had promised Aizawl voters that the land would be developed for public use and that the Assam Rifles would be shifted to the suburbs. This is why force officials are keen that the present battalion is replaced quickly to appease public opinion,” states the incident report.
After Laldenga’s government was ousted and Congress came to power, Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla had different plans to shift the Assam Rifles headquarters to Khatla. After different plans and promises over the years by the two parties, now after three decades and dozens of meetings with central ministry leaders, the poll promise made in 1987 is coming to fruition.
EastMojo tried to track down the victims, but the locals we interviewed could not recollect their names. While the India Today report mentions the death of three Mizo policemen, the list of martyrs of the Mizoram police from 1966 to 2015 published on the Mizoram Police website has no records of any martyred police in 1988.
Ex. Minister R Tlanghmingthanga told EastMojo of a widow from a locality, Bethlehem Vengthlang, in his constituency who lost her young daughter in the firing incident. “Her name was Pi Thanghliri, she was a poor widow, and she was in distress. I helped her by buying gas and other amenities for her,” he said. The widow has now passed away too.
After 1988, Assam Rifles has built a good rapport with the locals, with Mizo men even joining the battalion.
However, the locals interviewed by EastMojo said they are not sure if justice was done to the civilians killed on this day 35 years ago.
“They said we would arrest them and initiate court martial proceedings but there is no proof that any of it happened,” said Zabiaka. Biakzama also shared the same opinion saying, “I do not know any arrests made. Assam rifles officers at that time had assured the Chief Minister that they would appoint the accused as quarter guards. There was a lot of tension between the civilians and the personnel so there was no further contact or communication.”
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“That New Delhi viewed the incident seriously became evident when Corps Commander Lt-General V. Madan was sent as its emissary. Laldenga, who had demanded that the force be disarmed, was pacified when Madan, along with Lt-General Malay Kumar Laheri, director-general of Assam Rifles, assured him that not only would action be taken against the guilty, but also that the 22 Assam Rifles would be shifted from Aizawl at the earliest,” said the India Today report regarding action taken against the accused.
In 1986, after a Peace Accord was signed between the Mizo National Front and the Government of India, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was no longer in force, but it remains a “sleeping” law, says a Human Rights Watch document. AFSPA grants the Indian military extraordinary powers to use force—even to the extent of death—and protection from prosecution in “disturbed areas,” which are notified by the central government. The law is currently in force in four states of the Northeast—Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur—and in Jammu and Kashmir.
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