The festive pre-Christmas atmosphere in Nagaland was shattered last weekend after a counterinsurgency operation went horribly wrong, with the Army killing 14 innocent civilians in three instances of firing in Mon district, which borders Myanmar. It is important to look at the sequence of events before any comments can be made on the incident itself and its possible fallout. Union home minister Amit Shah said in Parliament on Monday that the Army had received intelligence inputs about the movement of insurgents near Tiru village in Tizit subdivision of Mon district, following which troops of the 21 Para Commandos laid an ambush. A pickup truck with eight on board, all local coal mine workers, approached, was signalled to stop, but apparently did not. This led the troops to open fire, resulting in the death of six of the eight people in the vehicle. As news trickled out about the firing, local villagers surrounded the Armymen, burnt two vehicles and began assaulting them. This, the home minister said, led to the death of one securityman and injuries to several others. The troops then opened fire to disperse the mob, resulting in the death of seven more civilians. These two incidents were on Saturday evening. On Sunday, an angry mob of around 250 attacked and burnt some houses at the Company Operating Base of the paramilitary Assam Rifles in Mon. The troops opened fire, killing one protester and injuring another. If we are saying today that this was a counter- insurgency operation that went wrong, it is because the Centre, starting with the home minister, and the Indian Army itself, admitted to it. Mr Shah said in Parliament that the firing in which the civilians were killed was a case of “mistaken identity”. The Indian Army’s 3 Corps, which is in charge of the area, was unduly quick in issuing a statement expressing “deep regret” at the incident and its aftermath that led to the unfortunate killing of innocent civilians and promised an inquiry at the highest level and said it would punish anyone found guilty under the law. There are two major points to note here — if the firing by a specialised unit like the para commandos on a vehicle without fully ascertaining who the occupants were is in itself highly surprising, what is also very surprising is the quick admission by the authorities that those killed were not insurgents, and that the civilians were victims of “mistaken identity”. In fact, it was this admission that to a great extent helped the situation from escalating like wildfire. The speed with which Nagaland chief minister Nephiu Rio and deputy CM and state BJP leader Y. Patton condemned the incident and described those killed as “civilians”, and the announcement of a probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) too helped matters. Mr Amit Shah tweeted early on Sunday expressing “anguish” over the killings and promising justice.
This stand of both the Centre and the state government can be seen as an attempt to send out a message that the government was in no way connected with this botched operation.
The Mon incident was less than a month after the November 13 ambush by Manipur Valley-based insurgents on an Assam Rifles convoy in Churachandpur district, in which an Army colonel, his wife and young son were killed along with four other soldiers. Therefore, one can appreciate that the security forces engaged in the counter- insurgency operations in the region have been on edge. But that obviously cannot be a reason for acting in haste or misjudging a vehicle with civilians to be one in which armed insurgents were travelling. The incident has also raised questions on the quality of intelligence, particularly intelligence that may seem actionable. The Army has ordered a court of inquiry to be headed by an officer of the rank of major-general and posted in the Northeast. One would expect that the focus of the investigation would cover some of these aspects like intelligence and the standard operating procedure before any soldier can open fire.
The latest incident has, not surprisingly, brought the spotlight back on the need or legality of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that is in force in Nagaland and several other parts of the Northeast. The AFSPA gives the security forces sweeping powers to search, arrest and even open fire to the extent of causing death simply on suspicion that those targeted could be insurgents. During the past few days following the Mon incident, the chorus for the repeal of AFSPA has been growing across the region, led by none other than Nagaland CM Nephiu Rio and Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma. Addressing the gathering at the funeral service in Mon on Monday, Mr Rio said that AFSPA was damaging India’s image as the world’s largest democracy. Adding to the discourse on AFSPA, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is the convenor of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance, or NEDA, a platform of the BJP and its regional allies, said it was up to state governments to take a call on keeping or removing AFSPA depending on the prevailing law and order situation.
The obvious question that many are asking is whether this incident would impact the ongoing peace talks between the Naga rebel groups and the Government of India. The answer to some extent was found in a question that the Nagaland chief minister raised on Monday when he asked why this draconian law is in force when the ceasefire between the Naga rebel groups and the government has been holding for the past two decades. The point of view of the security establishment also cannot be completely ignored — that they cannot pursue counterinsurgency operations without some legal protection for their actions. Here lies the dilemma: Can the Centre afford to repeal AFSPA, that has not succeeded in ending insurgency in the Northeast? And if the AFSPA remains, can the government afford to see innocent civilians getting killed in the name of counter- insurgency operations? After all, it has been two decades or more since the November 2000 incident at Malom in Imphal, when 10 civilians were killed in firing by the security forces. The Mon incident has refreshed old memories and has brought more questions directed at the government. The situation is tricky and the deaths, both of civilians or of members of the security forces, are not welcome and must end....