Ambushing Zaithanmowia in Mizoram!

I dare say, killing of Zaithanmowia broke the backbone of the Mizo insurgency and it was a big feather in the cap of the Rezang La Battalion, Major Jatar and the mixed column that he led so successfully.

Ambushing Zaithanmowia in Mizoram!

The extremist secessionist elements within Mizo National Front (MNF) and its armed wing Mizo National Army (MNA) launched secretly series of simultaneous well coordinated attacks on the posts of the 1st Battalion, The Assam Rifles (1 AR) 5th Battalion, The Border Security Force (5 BSF) and the local police deployed in Mizoram on night 28 February/1 March 1966 to seek independence from India.  

The Indian Air Force (IAF) MI-4 helicopters with fighter escorts were unable to reinforce troops to besieged 1 AR Aizawl location due to heavy and accurate fire of the MNF insurgents. The IAF had no option but to bomb the MNA insurgents by fighter squadrons operating from Kumbhirgram and Jorhat. It is believed that Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi took part in the bombing missions.

Headquarters 61 Mountain Brigade then located at Agartala initially under Brigadier RZ Kabraji and later Brigadier Jaswant Singh, was inducted in Aizawl on war footing under the direct operational command of Headquarters 101 Communication Zone located in Shillong under Major General Sagat Singh who reported to Headquarters Eastern Command then under Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw.

311 (Independent) Infantry Brigade was located at that point of time in Silchar and commanded by a Kumaoni Brig BC Chand, VrC. In the later stages of Mizoram insurgency Headquarters 57 Mountain Division was also raised at Masimpur, near Silchar.

Headquarters 61 Mountain Brigade ordered 8 Sikh to move from Silchar to Aizawl, 2/11 GR towards Champhai and 3 Bihar to Lunglei. 5 Para was flown in by helicopters to Lunglei on 14–15 March and ordered to secure Demagiri. By 25 March, all important towns/villages/posts seized by the MNF/MNA had been freed from their control.

Later, 5 Para was made reserve Battalion located at Aizawl and was replaced by my unit 13 Kumaon. At one time this Brigade had around 12 Battalions operating with unison in insurgency environment- 4 regular, couple of Assam Rifles, BSF, CRPF and an odd one like Bihar Military Police (BMP) Battalions and the

Brigade Major 24x7 worked, lived and slept in the Operational Room (Ops Room). The standards of training, outlook and orientation of the central police organisations (CPOs) along with the personnel of Border Roads were woefully short of operating in an insurgency environment and they were most vulnerable targets to insurgents who ambushed and looted their weapons, ammunition and equipment. We carried an intensive search and cordon mission all over Mizoram through long range patrols (LRPs) and ‘ambushing Zaithanmowia’ was one such mission being narrated in this article.

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A word about Zaithanmowia & Dampha Area

Mizoram was part of the erstwhile larger Assam when insurgency was unleashed. It is strategically located having Assam in the north and northwest, Manipur in the north and northeast, while the major portions of the borders have erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the west and Myanmar (Burma) in the east respectively. A little portion of Tripura border is sandwiched between erstwhile East Pakistan and Assam in the northwest.  

Mizoram is a land of rolling hills, valleys, rivers and lakes and the average height of the hills to the west of the state are about 1,000 m (3,300 ft), gradually rising up to 1,300 m (4,300 ft) to the east with a few rising to 2000 (6,600 ft). Phawnpui Talang (Blue Mountain) situated in the southeastern part of the state, is the highest peak in Mizoram at 2,210 m (7,250 ft). About 76% of the state is covered by thick bamboo forests, 8% is fallow land and 3% is barren. The western border with erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh is called Dampha Area.

Primitive farming based on ‘slash and burning’ or jhum cultivation is now being replaced with modern farming techniques. Due to thick tropical jungles, undulating hills, wet and colder climate and sparse and poor population, Mizoram was the ideal insurgency terrain that also hosts numerous species of birds, wildlife and flora, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates and is home of the Dampha Tiger Reserve.

It is not easily accessible unlike other park where one can drive through but one has to slog through the forest and such terrain is ideal for insurgents to operate where they just vanish in thin air and thick jungles’ wilderness. The reserve park consists of forest interpolated with steep precipitous hills, deep valleys, jungle streams, ripping rivulets causing insurmountable logistical nightmare to operate and neutralize the insurgents.

Zaithanmowia was the hard core self style (SS) Commissioner of the highly insurgency ridden area Dampha (Western) Area of the Mizoram bordering the then East Pakistan where they could escape when hard pressed by the Indian Security Forces (SFs). He was very shrewd right hand man of Pu (Mr) Laldenga spearheading insurgency for seeking independence. He was one of the signatories of the MNF drafted Mizo constitution that was to be enforced on attaining so called independence.

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Zaithanmowia Ambush

Around 11/12 Feb 1968, our Commanding Officer was briefing Officers on an impending counter insurgency operations. He wanted Captain Mahesh Subba to lead the column towards Dampha area on a hard bit of intelligence. There was some murmur amongst the junior officers partially over heard by Major RV Jatar, the senior most Company Commander who enquired from Captain RL Jain, the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) sitting close to Captain Subba as to what was being whispered or resented.

The RMO conveyed in whisper that Captain Subba was saying that why only junior officers were being sent on columns and seniors were spared. Major Jatar requested the CO to please let him go for the mission as some big Mizo insurgent leader was lurking around in Dampha (Western) Mizoram.

Maj Jatar led a mixed column of all the six companies of the Battalion consisting of personnel going or returning on/from annual leave along with a JCO recently posted to 13 Kumaon from another sister Battalion. Lieutenant Chiddi Singh was his second in command and Subedar Sultan Singh the Senior Junior Commissioned Officer (Senior JCO).

The column had a few jawans of the Band Platoon who in the conventional operations work as stretcher bearers and in peace stations play pipe band. They were initially reluctant to walk and Senior JCO reported that to Maj Jatar who lined them up and told them that the column was on war duty and he was empowered to shoot them for disobedience! They all walked ungrudgingly thereafter.

On the night 12-13 Feb 1968 the column had operationally marched under cold and wet rainy conditions. Havildar Om Prakash, who was exceptionally good Battalion footballer, was walking behind the leading elements. There were strict orders not to cough, smoke bidis/cigarettes or use even muffled torches to maintain stealth, surprise and secrecy.

The column had walked at least 20 km at night and to ensure command and control, the column commander would ask for the silent head count as per the standing operating procedure (SOP) from the rear. The last jawan in the column would tap back of the jawan ahead of him saying one and thus each adding the count. Similarly, the head count from the leading elements let the column commander by simple arithmetic know the strength was OK or otherwise.  

The only fear was, if the column ever halted on the jig jag narrow track(s), men due to prolonged tiredness would often tend to dose off and thus be less alert. Hav Om Prakash, to smoke a bidi entered a nearby Jhoom hut and lit a bidi. To his utter surprise five Mizo insurgents with personal weapons and some goods lying besides were snoring in the hut. Om Prakash without losing his cool challenged them and threw a hand grenade.

Unfortunately, due to constant rains, the detonator was wet and the grenade did not explode and with its thud, all hostiles quickly got up and as they were in the process of escaping with their weapons, Om Prakash with great cool presence of mind with his sten machine carbine fired a long burst. While three of them were killed in the action, two managed to escape.

Well there are always some trigger happy green horns in such a mixed column(s) that start firing the direction they face and there is always fear in such cross firings own troops suffering casualties. Mercifully, it was all safe but neighbouring, villages and security posts got alerted with gun shots and Verey light and two inch mortar flares firing reminding of the Diwali festival.

On the radio set the Maj Jatar apprised CO of the success full encounter in which five insurgents were killed, their arms, ammunition, Remington type writer, hand written Mizoram constitution duly signed by Laldenga, Zaithanmowia and some other top insurgents and Rs 20,000 in cash were captured. The nearby Village Council President (VCP or Gaon Bura) recognised that the one of the dead insurgents as the Zaithanmowia, the Dampha area’s SS Commissioner. It was indeed a BIG fish in the net!

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The next day morning on an emergency helipad successively GOC 101 Comn Zone Area (Maj Gen Sagat Singh with Brigade Commander) and Army Commander Sam Bahadur landed with much bravado, sweets and rum for the troops. The most successful ambush was broadcasted on the All India Radio (AIR) too and published in many leading newspapers published all over India.

I dare say, killing of Zaithanmowia broke the backbone of the Mizo insurgency and it was a big feather in the cap of the Rezang La Battalion, Maj Jatar and the mixed column that he led so successfully. A camera was flown to photograph ambush booty and the five dead insurgents. But the well deserved operational success lasted for a little while due to rustic utterances of Lt Chiddi Singh as explained hereafter.

A few days after the return of the column to Aizawl, the Brigade Commander visited the Battalion Headquarters and CO discussed with him initiating some deserving citations on the successful mission. The Brigade Commander could not meet Major Jatar who was away to conduct some court of inquiry on temporary duty.

The Brigade Commander, however, met Lt Chiddi Singh with much bravado. While the Commander in all exuberance praised Chiddi BUT Chiddi opened the wrong lid by stating in his terrible statement, ‘Sir it is, all bundalbazi, actually, bloody Hav Om Prakash, violated the orders and went to smoke a bidi, saw hostiles sleeping and threw a grenade which he did not keep dry and that failed to explode…he should have been punished’ or words to that effect.

Needless to say, the Brigade Commander, CO and others around (except of course Chiddi) were crest and Battalion lost all the name and fame earned in a jiffy adversely affecting morale of the troops. In my 32 years of military and eight years of Intelligence Bureau service, innumerable operations were planned but honestly I admit none of them were set piece operations in conduct and some story is stitched around to tell the truth to the world.

After the incident, while returning, Sub Sultan Singh also told Maj Jatar that the JCO who was recently posted in 13 Kumaon from another Battalion and part of the column had found Rs 10000/in the jhoom hut and had secretly pocketed the money.

Lt Chiddi Singh and Maj Jatar ordered the search for all but did not have the nerve to search the JCO's body in front of his men. So the JCO got away with it. On hind sight, discreet disciplinary action should have been taken on the JCO but often we infantrymen get over obsessed with false sense of tarnishing Regimental name and izzat and not taking corrective action!

Unfortunately, many a times for silly exuberances and undiplomatic raw utterances one has to pay a heavy penalty and the valiant efforts get evaporated like a fizzy carbonated drink and truth often becomes the first casualty in the life including the war!

I wonder Chiddi ever regretted his avoidable utterances jumping on bandwagon without carefully appraisal of consequences both intended or otherwise that did great damage to Battalion and troops who took part in the ambush. I remember my father often used to tell youngsters in the family, ‘It does not matter what you say, but it does matter how you say’ in every walk of life and Zaithanmowia’s valiant ambush proved right my father’s saying!

About the Author

Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. After retiring from the Army, he served in the Intelligence Bureau for nearly a decade, specializing in industrial security and conducted security audits of a number of vital installations.

He is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security matters. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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