Oting, Mon district. Before December 4, few would have known of the existence of this tiny village in Nagaland's eastern province of Mon, home to the Konyak tribe. But since late afternoon of that day, in a region where the sun sets earlier than the rest of the country in these winter months, six men were shot down and two seriously injured as they made their way to their village after a day of back-breaking work in the coal mines.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to reach Oting. A day later, at least one major media house invested in sending its reporter to the village. The reports by Tora Agarwala of Indian Express, placed as the first lead on the front page, are an example of how this story should be told. Not as the “botched army operation” that most mainstream media reported in the immediate aftermath. But a story with names, faces, context and history that will inform and touch readers.
The very fact that I am pointing this out is in itself a story – one that people in Nagaland and across the northeast constantly reiterate. That the media on the “mainland”, as they refer to the rest of India, reports sporadically and superficially about their region, as I have mentioned in an .
Distance and inaccessibility cannot be an excuse anymore. The northeast region is now well connected by air and rail. Mobile connectivity has shrunk further the distance. But the real distance is not a physical one; it is a mental one. It is an inability to take the time to understand the multi-layered and complex history of a region that is lumped into one only because of its geographical location. In fact, each state, and even within states, there are distinct and overlapping histories that form the context of current developments.
Tora Agarwala's stories give us the names of some of the 14 civilians who died on December 4 and 5. She reached Oting within a day of the incident. Her appeared on the front page of Indian Express on December 6. She told us about Langwang and Thapwang, identical twins who were shot and killed that day. They were 25 years old.
There is also the story of Hokup, who was married to Monglong just 10 days before he was killed, as reported in , a daily newspaper published from Dimapur. His widow told the reporter, “I want the world to know that my husband was neither a terrorist nor a militant.”
Perhaps the by Agarwala appeared on the front page of Indian Express on December 8. She spoke to 23-year-old Sheiwang, one of two who survived the attack. He is quoted as saying "Direct marise...they shot right at us, no signal to stop, we did not flee.” This was said a day after made a statement in Parliament calling it an “unfortunate incident” and claimed that the vehicle was “signaled to stop” but that it “tried to flee”. Sheiwang's statement, and others that have followed, have painted a starkly different picture of the incident.
Sheiwang survived the attack but the way he and Yeihwang, the other survivor, were left at the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh, as reported by Agarwala, is shocking. They were brought there by security forces with no explanation about who they were. Their identities were unearthed because the hospital staff, on their own initiative, uploaded their photographs on social media after they heard about Oting. That's how their relatives came to know and were able to attend to them.
These stories remind us that so-called “botched” army operations, and admission of “mistaken identity” after the fact, involve real people who are not statistics.
These stories are just the beginning of the unraveling of what really happened. There are still many questions that remain unanswered. There is also an important context connected to Nagaland’s political history that needs to be understood to fully comprehend why and how these killings happened. This piece by , a Naga academic whose research has included Mon district, provides that.
Nagaland might be a “disturbed area” in official parlance but in fact, people in the state have been living peacefully for several decades. There have been agreements and ceasefires. There are incidents of intermittent clashes between factions of militant groups with the security forces. But this has not been the dominant feature of life in the state.
So, the question that still needs to be asked, and answered, is why a special group of commandos from the army set out to ambush a suspected group of militants without taking into confidence either the local police or the Assam Rifles based in Mon. There will be speculation but whether we will ever get the real story is doubtful, given past experience. Meantime, the focus has now shifted to demands for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
As far as media coverage of the Oting killings is concerned, barring Indian Express, there was practically no other major newspaper that invested in basic newsgathering or sending a reporter to the area. Even the Telegraph, published from Kolkata, did not carry ground reports. Independent digital platforms like , and did have reports.
This indicates a marked change in the coverage of the northeast that has never been adequate, even in the best of times. A couple of decades back, major newspapers had correspondents in Assam and at least one other northeastern state, such as Manipur. They also encouraged these reporters to travel to the different states and report directly about developments there. As a result, for those of us on the “mainland” who were interested in the region, we could read granular coverage in major Indian newspapers.
Today, if you want detailed news, the only option is to turn to the online editions of newspapers from the region or digital platforms like to get the news. The northeast appears only if there is a major natural calamity, or if there is an incident like the one in Oting, and then disappears.
Although the situation is very different in Kashmir, there are some parallels. In Kashmir, since the 1990s, most major Indian media houses have hired local journalists to write for them. Before that, Delhi-based correspondents would be sent if there was a major development, the typical “parachute” journalists.
Today, despite the difficulties Kashmiri journalists face every day, we get to read about developments directly from people based in the region. Not so in the northeast. Although newspapers have correspondents in Guwahati, they do not travel in the region as they did in the past. Nor do they have a network of reporters in other states who could send stories. The poor coverage of Oting is only one of several examples of such neglect.
To get a fuller picture not just of events, but also of what people think and of the background, there is no option but to read the local papers online. , for instance, carried a strong editorial on December 5 headlined “Black December”. Another local paper, , carried the full text of a report prepared by the citizens of Oting on the incident. It is full of anguish and anger, and states that no groups or parties, or members of the armed forces will be permitted to enter Oting indefinitely. “For we are warriors by blood and origin, and no force can intimidate us.”
Also, despite being heavily dependent on government advertising, these papers still report about such atrocities and other human rights violations involving the armed forces or the government.
Unfortunately in Kashmir, since August 5, 2019, the local press has been bludgeoned into submission through a combination of intimidation and cutting off the only dependable stream of revenue, government advertising. This is something I plan to visit in another column.
The reports on Oting so far are only the beginning of the real story. There is much more to unearth, not just about the incident, but about the history of the fragile peace in Nagaland and the real costs of trying to impose a resolution to the decades long conflict through the use of force and the AFSPA.
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