Former Mizoram Chief Minister Brigadier (retd) Thenphunga Sailo, who gained prominence as an opponent of atrocities committed by Indian Armed Forces in the insurgency-torn Mizo hills of the 1970s before becoming CM twice during the state’s years as a Union Territory, died from a heart ailment in Aizawl just before noon on Friday. He was 93 years old.
Family members and medical staff at the private hospital Sailo said he had trouble breathing in the morning and was rushed to the hospital, where he passed away about an hour later. He had been undergoing treatment for ill-health including lung problems for some time, but was well enough to stay at the family home in Aizawl’s Kanan Veng until his condition suddenly deteriorated.
A son of an erstwhile Mizo chief and a veteran of the Second World War in the British Indian Army, Sailo became the first Indian Army officer from among the Mizo community. As a Brigadier, he was posted in Orissa and Bihar during the floods of the mid-1960s, where he was honoured for distinguished service in providing relief to victims.
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In 1966 however, things went from bad to worse back home where the movement against governmental indifference towards a cyclical famine some years earlier had gathered steam and resulted in the Mizo National Front declaring a war of independence against New Delhi. One of Sailo’s sons, Lalsangliana, was a prominent insurgent who was close to MNF supremo Laldenga.
When Sailo returned home in the early 1970s, he established the Human Rights Committee to counter the Indian Army’s aggressive anti-insurgency campaign, which included forcibly herding villagers in large settlements to enable better patrolling of the populace (a policy that resulted in four-fifths of Mizo villages being displaced) and frequent detentions and tortures of those suspected, sometimes on no more than rumours, of harbouring insurgents.
His movement evolved into a political party called the People’s Conference (now officially Mizoram People’s Conference), and Sailo became CM for six months in 1978, and again from 1979 to 1984.
His years at the helm of government is fondly recalled by many in Mizoram as a visionary era as his party pushed for its “six basic needs” (of food, power, water supply, communication, transport system and rural development) policy of providing basic necessities for a fairly stable standard of living for all, as well as his plans to build capital Aizawl in a planned manner.
His government’s Garden Colony (Grow more food) livelihood program, conceived in 1984, has been adopted and evolved by succeeding governments – both Congress and MNF – and implemented under different names, currently as the Congress’ flagship New Land Use Policy (NLUP).
Sailo also aggressively backed the long-held dream of integrating all Mizo-dominated regions in NE India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and even after his years out of power was a prominent supporter of a movement by the Chins of western Myanmar to secede from that country and join the Indian Union, a movement that however died out due to lack of support from New Delhi and strong suppression by Rangoon. The idea of Mizo integration however remains an ethno-political rallying cry for all major political parties in Mizoram, including the Congress.
The PC-government years are however also criticised as one in which human rights abuses were committed by a core group of policemen known as “Special Force” against MNF fighters and even sympathisers.
Sailo also attracted criticism for refusing to kowtow to MNF supremo Laldenga’s demand that he be given the reins of government before the rebel fighting force laid down its guns (the MNF had been in peace talks with New Delhi from the end of the 1970s). Present CM Lal Thanhawla has since gone on to claim the legacy of dethroning himself for the sake of peace.
Sailo’s party has never quite regained its past force or glory after Mizoram attained statehood in 1986, and it has had to be content with either being a smaller partner in MNF-led governments or being seated in the opposition.
Sailo himself remained active in politics and was till end-2013 one of two legislators for his party. He was then 91 years old.
He stood up to announcement his retirement on July 24 during the state assembly’s last sitting of the monsoon session, when he read out from a short speech without the need for spectacles.
“We have sat together in this place for many, many years. Today will be my last sitting. From now on, I will no longer occupy a seat here. It is going to be very nostalgic for me,” he said then.
His son, retired IRS officer Lalhmangaiha Sailo, has since taken over the reins of the MPC, which currently has one MLA in the 40-seat assembly.
The MPC, of which Sailo is the founding president, said Sailo was the “comforter” of the Mizo people at a time they were “mourning under great worries and troubles” and credited him with getting the ball rolling on electricity supply for the state, then a UT.
Both the Congress and the MNF issued condolence statements upon the former CM’s death, both offering empathy for his wife and children and other members of the family.
The Congress party said, “We have lost a great leader…. The Congress party will uphold his visions for the state’s development. His demise is a great loss for the Mizo people for whom he was a great comforter.”
The MNF meanwhile said, “Brigadier T Sailo rescued many innocent men, women and children from the atrocities committed by the Indian Armed Forces during the years the MNF fought for independence, and the army’s tendency to act with impunity was somewhat stemmed because of his efforts. He put forth many priceless visions for the state during his years in power.”