The following, pieced together from multiple sources, is the broad sequence of events that resulted in the tragic deaths of at least 14 civilians and a soldier of an elite unit of the Indian army in Nagaland this past weekend.
Early evening on December 4, a group of soldiers from the 21 Para Regiment carried out an ambush on what they thought was a group of Naga militants belonging to a faction of the insurgent organisation, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. It was only after they had cut down the eight men in the open pickup truck in a hail of gunfire from automatic weapons that they approached the vehicle.
Six of the men had died on the spot and two were severely wounded. All were unarmed.
Villagers from nearby areas heard the gunfire and went to investigate. They found the soldiers with the bodies which they recognised as those of locals who worked in nearby coal mines. Those killed were poor young boys from the neighbourhood, barely more than teenagers. At this point, tempers flew, and a fight broke out between the soldiers and the villagers.
It is normal for villagers in those areas to carry machetes. The fight resulted in injuries to six of the special forces men and the death of one, who was cut down with a machete. Three SUVs in which the soldiers were traveling were burnt down by the angry mob. The soldiers were forced to fight their way out of the melee and fired on the mob, killing seven more people.
There are at least 35 different Naga tribes in India and Myanmar, each with their own language and their own traditional area of habitation. These incidents took place in Mon district of Nagaland, which is the stronghold of the Konyak Naga tribe. The main town there is Mon town.
News of the incident soon reached Mon. A crowd gathered at the local office of the Konyak Union to wait for the bodies of the civilians killed in the firing. Word had gone around that the bodies were being brought there before the funeral and when this did not happen, the agitated crowd vandalised the union office before heading towards the local Assam Rifles post. They began to vandalise the post and set fire to buildings, upon which the Assam Rifles resorted to firing. One person died in this firing and six more were wounded.
The Nagaland police has now filed a suo moto first information report against the 21 Para Regiment soldiers, charging them with murder.
The events that led to the avoidable deaths of at least 14 civilians – the toll is rising as more of the injured succumb to their wounds – and one special forces soldier followed, according to an army statement, from an operation that was launched in response to “credible intelligence of likely movement of insurgents...in the area of Tiru, Mon district, Nagaland”.
The 21 Paras are not normally based in Nagaland. They were brought in from neighbouring Assam. The operation was clearly conceived as an ambush, and the fact that an elite special forces unit was tasked with it would indicate that it was cleared at a fairly high level.
The place where the incident took place, between the villages of Tiru and Otting, is less than 10 km from the Assam border as the crow flies. It is well inside Indian territory, away from the Myanmar border. Elite special forces of the Indian army do not normally carry out ambushes within the country, and definitely not against fellow citizens.
Public anger throughout Northeast India has coalesced around the provision of law that enabled this misadventure. This is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, easily the most draconian provision of law in India. It allows any officer or jawan of the armed forces to kill anyone on suspicion “if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order”. The killer faces no consequence if the suspicion turns out later, as in this case, to be incorrect.
However, even the AFSPA requires soldiers to give due warning before firing.
The AFSPA only operates in areas such as Nagaland, Manipur and Kashmir, which are declared as “disturbed”. This declaration has to be renewed every six months, and this is done routinely and unthinkingly. In the case of Nagaland, the AFSPA has been in force ever since it was first brought in as an ordinance in 1958. It has been more than 63 years, but military means have failed to bring about a solution. Recognising the futility of trying to impose a military solution, successive governments of India from the 1960s onwards have engaged in peace talks with Naga insurgents.
Currently, there is a ceasefire between the government of India and most of the Naga underground groups. The biggest group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s faction, founded by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, known as NSCN(IM), has been in ceasefire since 1997. Its rival faction, NSCN(K), named after its founder SS Khaplang, abrogated its separate ceasefire with the government of India in 2015 shortly before a framework agreement was signed between the government and the NSCN(IM) in the presence of prime minister Narendra Modi. The NSCN(K) then carried out an ambush in Manipur in which 18 soldiers of the Indian army were killed.
The militant commander identified as being responsible for that ambush was a man named Niki Sumi. A price of Rs 10 lakh was placed on his head. After Khaplang passed away in 2017, Sumi broke away to form his own faction.
Three months ago, this September, the that “In fulfilling the vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of Insurgency Free and prosperous North East and in a significant boost to the peace process, under the guidance of Home Minister Amit Shah, the Government of India enters into a ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K) Niki Group”.
After the 2015 ambush, a “surgical strike” had been carried out across the Myanmar border on militant camps there. The force that carried out that strike was the 21 Para Regiment.
The group that they were targeting this time, in their misdirected ambush, was the Yung Aung faction of the NSCN(K). This is a faction whose leader Yung Aung is believed to be based in Myanmar, with which Nagaland shares a border.
The civilian killings have caused both this faction and the NSCN(IM), which is in peace talks with the government, to issue strong statements against the army’s action.
Every single student union of note across Northeast India has also issued statements of protest against the killings and the AFSPA. All major representative organisations of the Naga tribes have similarly condemned the killings and demanded repeal of AFSPA or its removal from Nagaland. So have womens' groups. Even among politicians, there are voices against AFSPA. One chief minister, Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya, tweeted saying “AFSPA should be repealed”.
These killings have brought back bad old memories. Civil society across the region, which always hated this lawless law, wants to see it gone now.
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