Last Saturday, December 4th 2021, a botched ambush by the Indian Army’s 21 Para Special Force and indiscriminate firing killed at least 14 civilians and one soldier near Oting village of Nagaland’s Mon district. The Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland caused severe ignominy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it threatened to jeopardise the ongoing Naga peace process.
Though the news of the death of India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, along with his wife Madhulika Rawat and 12 other defence staff, in a tragic helicopter crash on Wednesday, December 8th 2021, overshadowed the public outrage in Nagaland, the BJP is feeling the heat not only from the people on the streets but also from its ranks and allies in the region.
As per news reports, a group of eight coal mine workers were returning to Oting village from Tiru Area in a Mahindra pick-up truck to spend Sunday with their families. The Army had an intelligence tip that a group of Naga insurgents belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang-Yung Aung) [NSCN (K-Ya)] will travel through the same route, following which an ambush was laid.
When the truck carrying the workers reached the spot, the soldiers reportedly asked it to stop but when it didn’t abide, the soldiers opened fire, killing six workers at the spot. Two of them have been seriously injured and are undergoing treatment at the Assam Medical College and Hospital (AMCH) at Dibrugarh. According to these two wounded survivors, contrary to the Army’s statement, the soldiers neither asked their vehicle to stop nor raised an alarm before spraying bullets on them.
Nagaland’s Director General of Police (DGP) T John Longkumer and Commissioner Rovilatuo More have said in their ground report that the troops “fired on the coal miners at random, apparently without any attempt for identification”. The report detailed what happened that fateful day and held the Army responsible for the bloodbath.
“When the villagers reached the spot, the security personnel were trying to hide the bodies of the six villagers by wrapping and loading them in a truck apparently with the intention of taking the bodies to their base camp”, the report by the DGP and the commissioner said. The 21 Para Special Force is based in neighbouring Assam.
The villagers were irate as they saw the soldiers trying to take away the bodies to Assam. They demanded the bodies back, which infuriated the soldiers who then fired indiscriminately at the villagers while trying to escape towards Assam. The villagers also retaliated and torched a few vehicles, while stoning the troops.
This indiscriminate firing by the soldiers killed seven civilians and the retaliatory strike by the Naga villagers killed one soldier Nearly 11 people have been seriously injured and two have been missing. It’s alleged by Mon district BJP chief Nyawang Konyak, a local of Oting village, that the armed forces were stripping the dead and putting khaki clothes on them to dress them as militants.
Nyawang alleged that when he was rushing to the spot to stop the military from killing civilians, the soldiers shot at his car as well, even though it had a BJP banner on the bonnet. Though Nyawang, who was accompanied by his neighbour, his nephew and a driver, escaped unhurt, the rest three suffered bullet injuries. His neighbour eventually succumbed to his injuries later. He told Scroll.in that the soldiers were “joyously firing” at them.
This incident of the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland sparked outrage throughout the north-eastern region. The Naga people’s anger against the armed forces, deployed in Nagaland since the 1950s to suppress the Naga rebellion for a sovereign ‘Nagalim’, has manifested itself once more.
Shutdowns have been observed throughout Nagaland and Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio was compelled to end the iconic Hornbill festival, which is a tourist attraction, to show respect to the dead. The dominant Konyak tribe of Mon district had earlier announced that its members would boycott the Hornbill festival, later other tribes also followed suit and Rio had to cancel the festival to show an optics of unity among the Naga people.
Nagaland has the controversial and draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), in force, which allows the armed forces to operate with sheer impunity and violate human rights. The AFSPA has been criticised globally as a draconian and colonial law used by the Indian state to suppress its people.
Apart from Nagaland, the AFSPA is also in force in Manipur—except for seven of capital Imphal’s legislative assembly constituencies—and Arunachal Pradesh. The AFSPA is also in force in the disputed region of Jammu & Kashmir, which also is the most-militarised region in the world. The people of these “conflict zones” have been accusing the Indian Army of violating human rights using the AFSPA as an immunity shield.
Public outrage in Nagaland panicked New Delhi
A massive public outrage has been sparked in the entire Nagaland from Sunday, December 5th onwards over the Indian Army’s Oting massacre. The people have blockaded several roads. In several areas the masses have been found blocking the Indian Army’s vehicles, asking the soldiers to leave Nagaland.
Rio is running an all-party government in Nagaland, supported by the BJP, sans opposition. His ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) has been an ally of the BJP for years and it’s a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Union and the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) in the region.
Even after such bonhomie, realising the gravity of the situation, Rio harshly criticised the AFSPA and called for its repealing. “They (world) are demanding its repeal. As you demand, I also say that this has to go”, Rio said at the funeral of the 14 victims of the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland. He announced ex-gratia of Rs 1.6m each for the slain civilians and Rs 150,000 each for the wounded civilians.
“Human rights bodies in India and beyond are debating the contentious AFSPA that gives unbridled powers to the security forces. They can visit your house, conduct frisking and arrest people without a warrant. While doing this, if they kill someone, there won’t be any case. That is AFSPA”, Rio was quoted by The Hindu.
Rio’s demand to scrap the AFSPA was seconded by Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, whose National People’s Party (NPP) is also an NDA and NEDA constituent and a partner of the BJP. Sangma told the India Today that he will take up the matter with Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
“My deepest condolences to the bereaved families. I pray for the speedy recovery of those injured and peace to be restored,” Sangma had earlier tweeted. AFSPA was lifted from Meghalaya in 2018. Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who is from the BJP, has demanded the withdrawal of the AFSPA from his state as well, going against the Party’s vociferous advocacy for the draconian law.
This has shocked the BJP high command as it found its north-east workers criticising the party line and calling Shah’s statement in the Parliament—where he acted as a military apologist by stating that the Army shot the workers when their truck tried to flee instead of stopping— “a lie”.
Scared by the public outrage in Nagaland against the AFSPA, the Modi government has been trying to woo the enraged masses to ensure that the Naga peace talks aren’t impacted by the developments. Though the Modi regime and its servile media outlets resorted to jingoism over Rawat’s death to eclipse the Naga people’s discontent, the strategy failed to pay any rich dividend.
Under pressure from New Delhi, the Army’s 3 Corps, based near Nagaland’s Dimapur, admitted to an intelligence failure and regretted the incident. The Assam Rifles announced that it will investigate the Army’s operation, after regretting the incident.
Shah expressed his regrets over the Oting massacre and informed the Parliament on Monday, December 6th 2021, that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) will be formed to probe the incidence within a month. However, the state BJP, compelled by the public outrage, has taken a diametrically opposite stance and condemned the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland.
Temjen Imma Along, Nagaland BJP chief and a minister in Rio’s all-party government, was quoted by NDTV saying that the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland “tantamount to war crimes during peacetime and amounts to summary execution as well as genocide.” He said that such a massacre “can’t be tolerated by anyone at any cost.”
Several other mainstream parliamentary parties have also condemned the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland and the killing of innocent citizens. This is a unique development as these parties, like the ruling BJP, are infamous for their endorsement of state violence against civilians in the conflict zones like Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Manipur, etc.
What did the parliamentary parties say on the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland?
The Congress party’s member of the Parliament (MP) Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “This is heart-wrenching. GOI must give a real reply. What exactly is the home ministry doing when neither civilians nor security personnel are safe in our own land?”
Ironically, the Congress party had been at the helm of the country when the Indian state launched its military campaign to crush the Naga rebellion six decades ago. The former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, now hailed as a liberal democrat idol by the critics of the Modi regime, was the one who enacted the AFSPA to crush the democratic aspirations of the people.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Bandopadhyay demanded a fast-track probe and justice for the victims. The TMC is on an expansion spree in the north-east, and this incidence helped it to portray itself as a party concerned for the Naga people.
The Politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned the massacre and extended its heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. It also demanded speedy justice for the victims and stated that the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland “underlines the need to remove the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from the Statute Book.”
What did the Naga organisations and rebel groups say about the Oting massacre?
Local organisations like the Naga Hoho, the apex Naga tribal body, and the Naga Mothers’ Association also condemned the incident. The Naga Students’ Federation had unfurled its flag half-mast to condemn the killing. Various Naga organisations and tribal leaders have threatened to approach the international human rights organisations if swift justice isn’t delivered.
The NSCN (Isak-Muivah), which had signed a ceasefire treaty with the government of India in 1997 and a new framework agreement with the Modi regime in 2015, condemned the incident and called it a “black day” in the history of Nagaland.
“It is learned the killing was the work of the trigger-happy 21st Para Commandos/Assam Rifles. The Nagas had in the past faced trigger-happy Indian security forces, acting with impunity under the Government of India’s AFSPA which is mainly used against the Naga political movement”, the NSCN (I-M) said in a statement issued by the organisation.
The NSCN (I-M) also declared that it’s meaningless to continue dialogue with the government if the AFSPA remains in force in Nagaland. “This notorious AFSPA has given the Indian security forces the licence to shoot and kill anyone on mere suspicion… The Nagas have had the bitter taste of this act on numerous occasions and it has spilt enough blood. Blood and political talks cannot go together… No political talks will be meaningful under the shadow of the AFSPA”, the NSCN (I-M) was quoted by The Hindu.
The NSCN (I-M) further said: “Let human dignity take control and be made an integral part of the Naga political peace process. Unfortunately, the Oting killing has become a threat to the Nagas’ longing for Naga political solution.”
How does the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland threaten the Naga peace process?
As India tied up as an appendage of the US in its so-called “Indo-Pacific” alliance to counter the rise of China and as there is a renewed attempt by New Delhi to build up military capacities against the Chinese in the Eastern War Theatre, it has become imperative to buy peace with the Naga insurgents, who are accused of receiving clandestine Chinese support for their rebellion.
While the Indian state is engaged in fighting the massive ultra-left insurgency in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, etc, and as it’s also engaged in counter-insurgency operations against militants seeking the right to self-determination for Kashmiri and Manipuri people, ensuring a stable and peaceful Nagaland has become important for the government.
As the Naga insurgency is stronger, resilient and widespread than the insurgencies elsewhere, and as Nagaland provides foot soldiers for the Indian Reserve Battalion, it’s New Delhi’s compulsion to engage the Naga insurgents in dialogue, though there has been no fruitful outcome of this 24-year-long ceasefire.
Recently, following the objections from NSCN (I-M), the Modi regime dropped former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and former Nagaland governor RN Ravi as the interlocutor for the Naga peace process. AK Mishra, the former special director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), succeeded him. However, as the Modi regime has been declining the NSCN (I-M)-led Naga people’s demand to have a separate flag, constitution and administrative system, the talks are in a quagmire.
The Indian Army has been carrying out operations against several other Naga groups, especially the anti-talks, Myanmar-based NSCN (K-Ya), while pursuing the peace talks with NSCN (I-M). Several NSCN (K-Ya) activists had been killed in 2021 itself. On July 28th, two alleged NSCN (K-Ya) militants were killed by the Assam Rifles and the state police in the Lomlo area of Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh. In November 2021, three alleged NSCN (K-Ya) militants were killed in the Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Modi regime has been frantically trying to force the NSCN (K-Ya) and other Naga insurgents, as well as Manipuri insurgents, to enter a dialogue with the government by holding them at gunpoint. This strategy has not paid well, as militant attacks in Manipur and Nagaland continue unabated, while the parallel administration set up by the Naga insurgents continue to exert their influence on the public.
Due to their political compulsions, Modi and the BJP are unwilling to accept the core demands of sovereignty placed on the table by the NSCN (I-M), and as there is no positive indication towards the revoking of AFSPA from Nagaland soon, it’s unlikely that the present talks will last longer. The NSCN (I-M) has indicated several times that its patience is wearing out. The Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland has now become another major roadblock for the peace process.
What lies ahead?
The Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland proved that peace is a distant dream, despite the ongoing peace talks with the NSCN (I-M). But this massacre has created a socio-political rift and caused severe setbacks for the BJP not just in Nagaland but throughout the north-east, where it used political manoeuvring to form opportunist coalition governments.
The demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA and its repealing has gained momentum once again. The BJP can’t do away with the AFSPA as it happens to be a very strong weapon in the hands of the Indian state to deal with the insurgency. In case the AFSPA is withdrawn from the north-eastern region, then a similar demand will rise in Jammu & Kashmir, which the BJP isn’t willing to risk.
In this situation, the stand-off between the Modi regime and the Naga people will continue and the peace process may be jeopardised. As the NDPP in Nagaland has no options but to remain as a pawn of the BJP, Rio will face severe public backlash over his capitulation on the demand of AFSPA withdrawal. Such upheaval may pose risk to India’s attempt to buy peace in its north-east while it focuses on upping the ante against China under the aegis of the US’s “Indo-Pacific” command.
Irrespective of the Modi regime’s wishes, the Indian Army’s killing of civilians in Nagaland will turn out to be a nemesis for the saffron camp in the north-east. Until the AFSPA is withdrawn and the people of the north-east are provided with their right to live in peace and are allowed enjoy their democratic rights, there can be no end to the stalemate. As the BJP can’t walk the extra miles, it’s to be seen where the recent developments lead Nagaland and the entire north-east in the future.