Whatever progress and development we may make as a State, people will account for very little as long as impunity is given to security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Thus ran the editorial of The Morung Express in the aftermath of the death of eight civilians killed in a mistaken ambush by the army and subsequent firing at the angry protest demonstration in Nagaland on Saturday evening. By Sunday, December 5, the death toll of civilians had risen to 15.
The first reported firing incident in the Oting area under Tizit sub-division of Mon district, which is situated close to the border with Myanmar, occurred as per local reports after security forces mistook coalminers for insurgents. The victims were returning home in a pick-up van when they came under gunfire. Six civilians died on the spot whereas two succumbed to the bullet injures later on Sunday.
Deeply regretting the incident, the army claimed that it acted on “credible intelligence inputs” regarding the movement of insurgents. It is believed that the militants usually cross over to Myanmar after attacking security forces. Incidentally, on November 13, a colonel of Assam Rifles, his wife, eight-year-old son and four jawans were killed in an ambush by insurgents in Manipur’s Churachandpur district, near the Myanmar border.
When the slain workers didn’t reach their homes, the local villagers went in search of them and reportedly surrounded the army vehicles. Amid angry protest, one soldier was killed and some army vehicles were burnt down. Allegedly, the soldiers fired in self-defence killing seven civilians on the spot.
While the editorial deplored the “oppressive laws” and “heavy presence of the military in the civilian areas”, it stated, “Generations of Nagas have grown up with the sight of guns amidst their town centers, in front of their homes, schools; resulting in a people desensitized to how abnormal and shocking the scenes in Nagaland would be to any ‘outsider.’”
And it went on to add, “We have tried hard to subdue the realities of our existence under militaristic conditions by creating our own ‘normal’ through any distraction that gets our mind off our violent past and present.”
As the anger over civilian killings spread and protests erupted, the army ordered an inquiry while the administration imposed a curfew to check civil unrest flare-up in a bid to thwart plans of separatist groups. The Nagaland police, meanwhile, has registered an FIR against 21 Para Special forces of the Army, alleging that the army “blankly opened fire” with the “intention to murder and injure civilians”.
At a time when New Delhi was trying to bring separatist groups to the negotiation table besides fast-tracking peace talks with the warring Naga political groups, the killings are likely to derail the process in the wake of growing public outrage. Incidents such as these, as per observers, clearly give credence to the Indians vs Naga people narrative being propagated among local residents.
Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party said in a press statement, “when the entire State has remained peaceful, with a new hope of a permanent settlement to the Indo-Naga issue, it is most unfortunate that the armed forces, whose very duty is to serve and protect, have instead caused terror, pain and anguish to the very people they are to protect and serve.”
The Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee said that “civilians are not enemies of the nation,” adding that “the massacre at Oting under Mon District only goes to tell the people of Nagaland that GOI does not consider the people of Nagaland as part of its citizenry.”
Naga Peoples’ Front said, “the heartless and cowardly act carried out by the Armed forces is nothing but provoking the peace-loving Naga people.”
Lamenting that the Indian armed forces under the shield and protection of the draconian AFSPA have committed more evil against the people of Nagaland rather than contributing to peace and prosperity, the National Peoples’ Party demanded the repeal of the law besides financial compensation to the aggrieved families.
Apprehending that “civilians were deliberately targeted,” the Rising People’s Party lambasted the “insinuation of Indian media houses that the killings were collateral damage.”
Sharply reacting to the killings, the civil society, students’ unions and political parties have demanded the immediate repeal of controversial laws like AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act in the insurgency-hit Northeastern region, withdrawing their participation from the Hornbill Festival 2021.
United Naga Council in a press statement said that “such condemnable act of terrorism is in no way pardonable under any circumstances. The insane action of the security forces has unravelled their hypocritical slogan, ‘Friends of the Hill People’.”
Condemning the incident, the North East Students Organisation, the umbrella body of all the major students’ associations of the Northeast states, has demanded the repeal of the AFSPA from the region. “The action of the security forces is an unpardonable and heinous crime,” said a statement issued by the organisation. “We demand exemplary punishment for those involved in this barbaric act.”
Nagaland Joint Christian Forum said that the military action “cannot just be whitewashed as a mistake.” NJCF Vice president, Rev Dr N Paphino said, “The AFSPA has emboldened such an action without a second thought and this is bound to happen again and again unless the Government of India seriously take note of it and scrap it once and for all.”
“We cannot continue to live in a war-like situation while we try to befriend and propagate peace. Life belongs to God and not to the people who hold the law and power. The military, be it security force or para-military is to provide security and confidence to law-abiding citizens,” it stated.
Central Nagaland Students’ Association stated that the “exorbitant and unbridled” use of military force by the Indian security forces on the Naga people was not just undermining basic human rights but also blatantly violating the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
Maintaining that the draconian AFSPA has been used by the military as a tool to perpetrate “unimaginable terror” upon the Nagas for decades, Angami Youth Organization stated. “The Oting incident serves as a bleak reminder of the atrocities committed by Indian military forces upon the Naga people for the past six decades. As long as the dreaded AFSPA exists, a bloodbath of the innocent will continue.”
Dimapur Ao Youth Organization said that people killed in the first firing incident on Saturday were breadwinners of their families. “Calling the ambush an intelligence failure is another level of insensitivity and insult to the priceless human lives lost for no fault of theirs,” the organisation stated.
Describing the second incident of firing on the agitated protesters as a reflection of the “army’s lack of professionalism and misuse of law”, the organisation demanded immediate court-martial of the erring officers.
“At a time when there is much expectation for a Naga political settlement, such major tragedy can undo the hard-earned ceasefires unless the Indian army exhibits the magnanimity to see that truth and justice is delivered at the earliest,” it added.
Calling for a boycott of all the Samaritan projects initiated by the army, the organisation urged all Naga tribal apex bodies and civil societies to rise to the occasion and build a peoples’ movement for peace.
Dimapur Naga Students Union, meanwhile, has urged the Government of Nagaland to call off the ensuing Hornbill Festival 2021. It also appealed local residents to abstain from the festival.