Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Assam Regiment and Brig. T. Sailo

Last month, the Salute magazine published a special issue on the Assam Regiment, one of Indian Army's well-know infantry units. I wrote a small tribute to one its illustrious officers, Brig. T. Sailo, who also later became the Chief Minister of Mizoram. Here's the account of my first encounter with him more than 33 years ago.

It was January 1984. Barely, seven months into the profession of journalism, my Editor at The Sentinel, the Guwahati-based newspaper, decided to send me to Mizoram. The idea was to do a comprehensive coverage on the Union Territory (Mizoram was to become a state three years later) and the state of insurgency there.

Although it was a big break for me at that age (I was not even 22), the assignment was not going to be easy. First there was the physical journey.

Travelling to Aizawl from Guwahati meant taking a ‘night super’ bus, a 17-18 hour journey via Meghalaya and southern Assam’s Barak Valley. 

For another, Mizoram was still in the grip of insurgency launched by the Mizo National Army, the armed outfit of the Mizo National Front (MNF). The rebels (or militants or insurgents as they were described in popular lexicon but never terrorists) had been fighting the mighty Indian state since February 1966. So there was always the fear in the minds of the ‘outsider’ about being targted in Mizoram.

Excited and apprehensive at the same time, I prepared to make my first ‘outstation’ trip on assignment. The mandatory Inner-Line permit was obtained (all non-Mizos entering the state still need the permit), the bus ticket was bought, the bag was packed with woollens since Aizawl I was told by senior is in the mountains and therefore much colder than Guwahati which is on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

Luckily, I had some support in Aizawl even before I arrived there. The newspaper owner’s brother-in-law was posted there in the State Bank of India as the Branch Manager. I was in fact supposed to stay with him.

So one fine morning, after the grueling 18 hour journey, I arrived at Aizawl. It was misty and cold. I went to SBI officer’s house, slept immediately. After three-four hours of sleep and early lunch, I went to the Chief Minister’s office.

Before going there, all that I knew was that a retired Brigadier named T. Sailo was the Chief Minister of Mizoram. At the office I was met by a pleasant, extremely courteous officer named LR Sailo. He was the Chief Minister’s PRO. Although he has never told me what his memories of our first meeting are, one look at me, and LR (we have been friends since that first meeting 31 years ago) would surely have thought ‘is this skinny little boy really a journalist?’ But he kept a straight face and took me to Brig. Sailo.

After the formal introduction, I handed over some copies of The Sentinel to the Chief Minister and in a typical soldierly bluntness he asked me: “What do you know about Mizoram? About its history, its people?”
Sheepishly, but with all honesty at my command, I blurted out, “not much sir!” Brig. Sailo glared at LR conveying his annoyance in just one look and told him something in Mizo before turning to me and saying: “Son, let me arrange for you to read some history and some details about us and our state. Spend a couple of days here and then come and meet me again.”

I was dismissed with a flourish. My heart sank. What will I tell my bosses back in Guwahati? Does this mean, I am going to fail in my first-ever outstation assignment? All kinds of negative thoughts raced through my mind. But LR was helpfulness personified. He arranged for several books, including one called the Dagger Brigade by Nirmal Nibedon, the first journalist to get access to the MNF/MNA leadership and bring to life the story of Mizo insurgency.

For the next 48 hours, I read feverishly, trying to absorb as much as possible. KN Hazarika, my newspaper owner’s brother-in-law, who had also spent time in Mizoram, was a great help too.

So, after 48 hours of nearly non-stop reading books on Mizoram, I went to see Brig. Sailo again. Uncertain about his reaction, I was tentative initially but the old man put me at ease and answered all my seemingly silly questions. I met several other people in order understand the state of affairs in Mizoram that time and made the long journey back home to Guwahati. A week later, I had a full-page cover story in the Sunday edition on The Sentinel and my first ever interview with a Chief Minister was published too.

In three decades since, numerous interviews have been done, some I am proud of, some I am not happy with but no matter how many interviews I do in the future, I will always remember the first one fondly. And therefore will never ever forget Brig. T. Sailo. He taught me the importance of background check, domain awareness and triggered a habit of advance reading about a place or a personality that I am visiting or interviewing.

​Later, I met him a couple of times when he was not Chief Minister. In th​ose meetings, I ventured away from politics and asked the Brigadier about his Army life. In his slow, deliberate style, he recounted how as a young 20-year old man he was commissioned into the Assam Regiment in 1942 in the middle of World War II. "I was the first Mizo to become a commissioned officer. The Army took me to different places including overseas and made me what I am," he reminisced.

The apogee of  
​his military career was to command the 190 'Korea' Brigade of the Indian Army. Now headquartered at Tawang along the China border, the 190 Brigade is called Korea Brigade because it was deployed in Indo-China in the 1950s. ​Brig Sailo was proud to have been part of the Indian Army and particularly the Assam Regiment. 

​As I started gaining better insight into the Army and learning about its structure, ethos and traditions, it was not difficult to see why ​the Brigadier was so fiercely possessive about the Assam Regiment, a unique experiment
​ in integration of disparate tribes in the north-east. There was no common language that these boys, from different tribes spread over the region, could speak or understand so they have, over the years evolved a lingo of their own: a mix of multiple languages, a language that only they can understand! More than the language however, it is remarkable that the Assam regiment has  emerged as one of Indian Army's finest regiments, thanks to early work by its leadership, both British and Indian officers.

Brig Sailo passed away in 2015 but I will always remember him as someone who was kind to me in early days as a journalist.

I haven’t had the chance to visit Mizoram for almost a decade now but the people, the state and friends one has made there over the years, continue to be close to my heart.

All thanks to a man called Brig. T. Sailo.

(The writer lived and reported from the north-east between 1983 and 2006)

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