In further developments in the shocking cold-blooded killing of coal mine workers by security forces in Nagaland, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken suo motu cognisance of the incident based on media reports. At least 14 civilians and one member of the security forces were killed in two separate incidents.
The NHRC has now taken suo motu cognisance of the killings, and has issued notices to the Union Home Secretary, Union Defence Secretary, the Chief Secretary and DGP of Nagaland. The NHRC has asked for a detailed report within six weeks, detailing the status of the investigation that is being conducted by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), compensation paid to families of victims, state of people undergoing medical treatment for injuries sustained in the attack and cases registered against people responsible for the incident. According to LiveLaw, the human rights body observed that security forces should ensure proper precaution and a human approach even when militants are involved.
The two incidents when security forces killed civilians
The first incident occurred on the evening of December 4, 2021 when coal mine workers, all members of the Konyak tribe, were returning home. The security forces opened fire on their vehicle on a stretch of road between Tiru and Oting villages, in the Mon district of Nagaland. While six people died on the spot, two others were injured and taken to the Dibrugarh Medical College Hospital, where they were admitted to the ICU.
Meanwhile, villagers had sent out search parties when the miners did not reach home. According to a joint report by the Nagaland Director General of Police (DGP) T John Longkumer and Commissioner Rovilatuo Mor, it was at this point that the villagers grew agitated upon discovering that the army was trying to hide the bodies and whisk them away. “On reaching the spot, they found the pick-up truck and the special forces personnel trying to hide the dead bodies of the six villagers by wrapping and loading them in another pick-up truck (Tata Mobile) apparently with the intention of taking the dead bodies to their base camp,” said the report. Villagers protested and the security personnel shot dead seven more people, taking the death toll to 13. A serviceman who was injured, later succumbed to his injuries, taking the death toll to 14.
The following day, a funeral was planned at the helipad in Mon, but was postponed to Monday without proper communication to the families and tribe of the deceased. This led to another round of violent protests where a 700-strong mob reportedly burnt properties belonging to security personnel at the Assam Rifles Camp 27 located in Thamnan Ward. A resident of Chi village was confirmed dead in this incident, and six people including an India Reserve Battalion personnel were reported to have sustained gunshot wounds. The death toll now stands at 15.
“Mistaken identity” : A feeble defence
The security forces claim they opened fire thinking the people in the vehicle were members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) or NSCN-K, a separatist group that has been designated a terrorist group. The Army’s attempt to blame “bad intel” leading to people being killed on the basis of “mistaken identity” have been widely criticised, as they didn’t even bother verifying the identity of people they were shooting at!
The unit of the security forces involved in the killings i.e the 21st Para Special Force, is interestingly, based in Assam and not Nagaland, and reportedly returned across the state border after the firing. For the security forces based in one state to conduct an anti-insurgency operation in another state, permission has to be sought from personnel higher in the chain of command and coordination has to be established between agencies of both states. The operation has to go through multiple levels of checks and balances, and cannot be carried out spontaneously, therefore “mistaken identity” appears to be a feeble, even misleading defence. Also, even if one were to accept that it was a genuine mistake, what could possibly explain the need to hide the bodies of the deceased and attempt to ferry them across the state border in a clandestine manner?
The AFSPA shield
While both Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio called it an “unfortunate incident”, emerging ground realities indicate a degree of deliberation, and even impunity, perhaps because of the protective shield provided by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, that has been active in Nagaland since it became an Indian state in 1963. The draconian Act has already been criticized for allowing security forces to conduct operations anywhere and arrest anyone without a warrant. This power has allegedly been misused by security forces to torture locals with several allegations of gendered crimes also mode from time to time.
The image of the Mothers of Manipur stripping and holding a banner saying, “Indian Army Rape Us”, is still fresh in the minds of people. The AFSPA has been condemned by many rights groups and most famously by human rights defender Irom Sharmila for its misuse by security forces to commit excesses, abuse and human rights violations.
In fact, scrapping the AFSPA was one of the key demands of the draft framework agreement to maintain peace in the region signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah) (NSCN-IM) and the government interlocutor RN Ravi in 2015. However, the act was not withdrawn. Now, there is a growing chorus for a repeal of the AFSPA. This is also building pressure on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, as the party is also part of the ruling alliance in North Eastern states like Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
Impact on Naga Peace Talks
As we have reported earlier, the timing of the attack is also curious given how the Naga Peace Talks have been in a stalemate for some time, with Naga groups digging in their heels on key matters such as repeal of AFSPA, and a separate Constitution and flag to recognise the sovereignty of Nagaland. The NSCN that is part of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) that comprise seven separatist groups that are in talks with the Indian government as part of the Naga Peace Process, has condemned the killings saying that the security forces “will never be able to wash its hands off, smeared with the blood of innocent Nagas…” It further said, “The Nagas had in the past faced a trigger-happy Indian SF (security forces), acting with impunity under the GoI’s AFSPA which is mainly used against the Naga political movement. Notwithstanding the ongoing political dialogue that has seen much fruition during the period running more than 2 decades the violence continues unabated. This is one of the most unfortunate incidents of the Indo Naga ceasefire signed.”
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