In January 1984, when I was working in The Sentinel, Guwahati, the Editor decided to send me to Mizoram (then Union Territory, which became a state three years later) to do a comprehensive coverage of the state of insurgency there. Although it was a big break for me the assignment was not going to be easy. Firstly, travelling to Aizawl from Guwahati meant taking a ‘night super’ bus and a 17-18 hour journey via Meghalaya and Southern Assam’s Barak Valley. Secondly, Mizoram was still in the grip of insurgency launched by the Mizo National Army, the armed outfit of the Mizo National Front (MNF).
Excited and apprehensive at the same time, I prepared to make my first ‘outstation’ trip on assignment. After the gruelling 18 hour journey, I arrived at Aizawl. 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. After a 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 Sailo, his PRO, 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. 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. 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. 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 the Brigadier a couple of times and asked about his Army life. He recounted how as a young 20-year old he was commissioned as first Mizo officer into the Assam Regiment in 1942, in the middle of World War II. “The Army took me to different places including overseas and made me what I am,” he reminisced.
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. It is remarkable that the Assam Regiment has emerged as one of Indian Army’s finest regiments, thanks to early work by its leadership.
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.
(The writer lived and reported from the north-east between 1983 and 2006)