Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
With just under 3 years service, in March 1966, while many seniors were available in 13 Kumaon, our Commanding Officer (CO), selected me to take the Advance Party from Gaya to Mizoram. My second in command (2IC) was another youngster Lt DS Shekhawat (Shekhu) but we had some finest Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and Non-commissioned Officers (NCOs) in our advance party. This move indeed was very complex one. While the Advance Party Commander and his deputy were novices, our Battalion was operationally to relieve 5 Para deployed in Aizawl administrative headquarters of Mizoram and then part of Assam, unit arms and ammunition were to be taken over from 14 Rajputana Rifles (14 Raj Rif) located at Agartala (Tripura) while the mechanical transport (MT) was to be taken over from 18 Punjab located at Masimpur (Silchar) in Assam and the railhead to Mizoram. Mizoram is a landlocked northeastern region of our country that shares 722 km long international border (IB) with Myanmar and Bangladesh while in the north it is surrounded by Manipur, Assam and Tripura.
For the next 3 months Advance Party was very busy shuttling from our administrative base at Masimpur to Agartala (303 km) by narrow road and Masimpur to Aizawl (175 km) through semi-metalled road while both the roads were prone to landslides and hostile actions though those days Tripura was the most peaceful union territory (UT). The Battalion arrived at Silchar and moved by road convoy to Agartala where we were temporarily located in the bashas in the Leechi Bagan (tropical fruit lychee, pronounced, Lee-Chee/Bagan- garden) belonging to the erstwhile Maharaja of Tripura. After a few weeks stay, nucleus training team under
Major (later Brigadier) RV Jatar with Lieut Chiddi Singh his deputy moved to Aizawl for training in the newly established Eastern Command Jungle Warfare School, later upgraded to Counter Insurgency & Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) at Vairengte in Mizoram, roughly halfway between Silchar and Aizawl. After a few weeks, the Battalion moved by transport unto Udaipur (Tripura) (50 km) and thereafter marched on foot tactically covering 300 km in 2 weeks time as in those days there was only a serpentine hilly cross country track connecting Udaipur with Aizawl. These days both Agartala and Aizawl have well connected national highways(NHs) taking around 6 hours to complete the journey and Mizoram with second highest literacy rate in the country is fast developing state with immense potential in tourism, cottage, agro-tech and horticulture industries.
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. With diverse flora and fauna, the Blue Mountains have been now declared as a National Park. Primitive farming based on ‘slash and burning’ or jhum cultivation is now being replaced with modern farming techniques. Due to thick jungles, undulating hills, wet and colder climate and sparse poor population, Mizoram was the ideal insurgency terrain that also hosts numerous species of birds, wildlife and flora, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates and our story’s main hero the Asiatic black bear!
Our Unit got inducted in Aizawl with operational role all over Mizoram as the reserve Battalion in the thick of Mizo insurgency spearheaded by Laldenga, who was a Havildar in the Indian Army and later worked as Accounts Clerk in the Assam Government. He was alienated with the Assam Government’s indifference towards severe famine and as a leader of the outlawed Mizo National Front (MNF) led the secessionist war for independence. He took support from Pakistan taking shelter, training, weapons, money and moral support from the neighbouring erstwhile East Pakistan for the separatist movement and was arrested and jailed by the Indian authorities several times. The secessionist war lasted for sixteen years till the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986; the MNF became the legitimate local political party and Laldenga the Chief Minister. He died of lung cancer in 1990.
Our Modus operandi
We did long patrolling columns in the wilderness of Mizoram against cold, heavy rains traversing remote jungles and hills and dominating the rebels by pro-active operations. One never knew when sub-units would be launched for counter insurgency operations and when would we get back for much needed rest. Yet, we maintained high morale by optimising our counter insurgency operational skills. I remember going for a column on search and destroy mission with scanty intelligence, poor radio and surface communication with 10 days ration, heavy loads of arms and ammunition in end December month and returning in the end February of the next year with tattered rag tag uniforms and jungle shoes and yet with high spirits! Many a times we would be dropped by choppers in the thick remote jungles with old quarter inch scale maps disoriented, not knowing our bearings and where to go for quite some time, as all the hills in the thick landmarks deprived jungles with no habitation around for miles looked alike. There was constant threat of hostile ambushes or straying into East Pakistan or Burma and troops, especially the column commanders remained at tenterhooks. We would mostly harbour on hilltops covered with thick rain forests, full of blood sucking leaches, snakes, reptiles and the only luxury as a column commander one could enjoy at times was a ground sheet bivouac in the night harbour! Sometimes we tactically camped in a remote village to generate confidence in locals, discreetly seek real time intelligence and make temporary helipad in the village to receive logistics support from unit and or evacuate an emergent casualty. Our troops and junior leadership were so well trained that it is a matter of pride, while we raided many hostile camps, captured large numbers of arms, ammunition and hostiles, not even once hostiles could target us. In fact, along with search and combing operations, we ensured winning hearts and minds of poor locals in remote sparsely populated extremely poverty stricken villages dispensing basic medicines that we carried as first aid for our columns.
Shoot Out in Wilderness
Once on a very short notice, in the middle of the night, my column was dropped by vehicles at Serchip village in the Central Mizoram, 112 km away from Aizawl. Serchip, even in those days had the highest literacy rate all over India. Its origin came from the word citrus tree top (Ser=citrus, chip=top). Our column was to lie doggo in a village outpost for the rest and in late evening move towards Baite village. Incidentally, construction work on jeepable road from Serchip to Baite was halted when the insurgency flared up in Mizoram and the only telltale signs of that in the village were a burnt up Willys jeep and wasted and washed out narrow mud track that was easy enough for my column to move with speed tactically with heavy loads. After good 10 hrs march in the insurgency environment, we reached the village and as per standard operating procedures (SOPs) cordoned and searched the village for possible hostiles who often took shelter in the interior villages away from the security forces to gather intelligence, rest, recoup and logistics support. After clearing the village as per my personal drill, I would first collect village headman, church priest, teacher(s), ex-government servants, young married ladies without husbands and ex servicemen if any, and discreetly talk to them and gather inputs about hostile activities. One such young woman was Dintheri in advance stage of pregnancy living in the first house in the north of the village all alone whose husband was missing. Gurung and I had picked up working knowledge of Lushai dialect and I enquired Dintheri nagma pum thao (Dintheri your tummy is enlarged) and circling her tummy with her both hands she with a meek smile replied baby! Discreet enquiries revealed that her husband was MNF misual (insurgent), had a silai (rifle) and was away for long in unknown jungles. We could not trust her and kept an eye on her house as I felt the husband must have been visiting her regularly in her advance stage of her maternity. Also, through the headman I would collect very sick and direct nursing assistant with the column to administer them first aid. Once the preliminary drills were over, the priest and headman let us use the church for shelter in inclement weather with the request to make it available for Sundays’ mass, if we were to stay that long. We always, as code of our conduct, ensured sanctity of churches, schools and residents. Incidentally, Baite village even in those days of turmoil had over 98% literacy rate and was well laid clean developed village which has now grown to a modern town. I was at that time amazed to see a copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica and a few old copies of Readers’ Digest available in the Church library. I was pleased to learn that Baite has been keeping up its standards and it has been in recent times declared as the cleanest town in Mizoram and the entire Northeast!
In an insurgency environment, innocent remote villages away from security posts/pickets suffer the most as security forces (SFs) carrying out mobile operations seek their help as interpreters, guides and porters and moment SFs moved out, the insurgents would barge in with punitive action against them if the villagers had supported the SFs often called Vai (foreign) sepoys sadly reflecting then our integration with the northeast region. But once security post/picket was established in any village, the villagers felt secure and willingly cooperated and divulged real time intelligence and even acted as interpreters and guides in neutralizing the insurgents. Since our stay was getting a bit longer to dominate the surrounding routes of infiltration/ex-filtration of hostiles from/to Burma, I told the headman and the priest that I would be forwarding my recommendation to establish a permanent post in the Baite village; he and the villagers were mighty happy and willingly organised bamboo dance for our column. We got inputs from an ex serviceman of the Assam Rifles that there was a hostile camp towards the IB and he acted as a guide to lead us to the camp in the pitch dark night. Subedar Phool Singh (Rezang La warrior awarded Sena Medal) was sent to raid the camp but as mostly, it was found deserted. In the insurgency environment, the insurgents prefix light and sound signals with villagers all over insurgency prone areas to fore warn them of presence of SFs lurking around. It is very rare to see stray dogs in Mizoram but in Baite village one such dog (named Champion by me) became part of our column and would always as our mascot walk with the leading elements as unofficial patrol dog.
One fine night the column was ordered to move onto different mission in the north towards Champhai all along the international border with Burma to prevent and squeeze movements of insurgents lurking around the border areas. I along 2 /Lt Fauda Singh Gurung, my Company Officer and leading platoon commander always moved behind the point section so that I could control any operational situation if ever contact with hostiles was made. Havildar Ram Chander (Platoon Havildar nicknamed Nambardar and one of the few survivors of the Rezang La Battle), would move always behind the two scouts along with section commander so as to keep tight control over the leading platoon on any eventuality and operational necessity along with our new unofficial asset Mizo canine Champion! We had just moved out of Baite village for an hour, around 0300 hrs in the drizzling night, advancing in the deafening silence of the thick bamboo jungle on a serpentine track; the Mizo dog Champion smelt, heard or felt the lurking emergency and became alert, paused and cautiously growled giving warning signal about the impending threat. Nambardar was in a fix and the entire column came to lurching halt but the two local Baite boys acting as our guides and interpreters on their natural primitive instincts rushed uphill with their dahs spontaneously and there was a long burst of fire. My first instinct was that the column had been ambushed by the absconding insurgent husband of Dintheri of Baite village! I shouted to Gurung to move his two sections up the hill and charge through the ambush. The remainder column took positions astride the track and some green horns amongst our troops started firing. All villages and security posts around that area must have been alerted. I with my radio operator Sepoy Mange Ram rushed towards Nambardar to ascertain the situation. I heard Nambardar shouting ‘stop …stop… Saab apna fire hai’ or words to that effect. Nambardar quickly apprised me that while Lance Naik Ramautar was the leading scout acting as eyes and ears of the column, Champion’s animal instinct cautioned them about the lurking fear, which before they could understand turned out to be sudden fearful attack by the wild animal that happened to be the wild Asiatic bear which pounced upon Ramautar from uphill bushes. Champion and both Mizo boys with dahs were in close combat with the Asiatic wild bear animal as the wrestling bout between the bear and Ramautar ensued. Nambardar looking for the right opportunity as not to hit Ramautar, the dog and the two Mizo lads, fired a burst from his stengun killing the bear instantly. Ramautar was indeed very badly mauled and bleeding profusely but in high spirits. I was seriously concerned about his survival and ordered 2/Lt Gurung to ensure our boys stopped firing, made all weapons safe do the head count and ensure local defence. My radio operator Lance Naik Mange was smart enough, not losing anytime climbed up the hill and communicated with Battalion Headquarters (Bn Hqs) initially apprising that our column has made contact with the hostiles and firing was on. Soon the CO was on the radio and I apprised him of the entire episode and requested for the evacuation of Lance /Naik Ramautar by the helicopter earliest. We selected an open patch near the Baite village for marking an emergency helipad and Mange transmitted its coordinates to the Bn Hqs by the radio set. Mange kept himself completely busy sending, receiving and writing messages in the darkness and soon it was first light and Ramautar was taken in makeshift stretcher to makeshift helipad made near the village and we waited for chopper to arrive. I realised first time how difficult it was to evacuate a single casualty in jungle borne mountainous terrain devoid of roads and tracks! Meanwhile, I saw badly hassled Mange coming to me with a very intriguing scribbled message by him in English that he could not follow. The CO had desired that the marauding Asiatic black bear body be sent as war trophy but it was bit too late as both Mizo youths accompanying the column had lynched and sliced every bit of the Asiatic Black bear and Baite villagers hearing the fire rushed towards the incident site and shared the booty in no time with great joy. Needless to say, my CO was very upset with me for a long period over the post ambush narrative..!
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