Nagaland killing of unarmed civilians: How long should Army and AFSPA maintain peace ?

The botched Army operation will no doubt trigger cosmetic inquiries, token action and platitudes. What is needed is a relook at governance, AFSPA and tendency to look at North East as disturbed area

Nagaland killing of unarmed civilians: How long should Army and AFSPA maintain peace ?

Patricia Mukhim

Assam Rifles, a para-military force often led by military officers but which is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, calls itself, “Friends of the Hill People” and “the Sentinels of the Northeast.”

But after what happened on Saturday at Oting in Mon District of Nagaland, where 13 people were gunned down by Assam Rifles personnel who mistook some labourers engaged in coal mining and travelling in a pick-up van to be militants of the NSCN (K), that moniker stands questioned.

That this should happen during the ongoing Hornbill Festival speaks poorly of the situation in Nagaland and the uneasy peace that prevails while “peace” talks with the NSCN(IM) the main negotiator with Government of India since 1997 is on track.

Poor intelligence led to the mayhem following which the villagers retaliated and as a result one army personnel was killed. The situation in Nagaland’s distant Mon district – a much neglected district which constitutes the Eastern Nagaland region that had at some point demanded a separate state, is tense and public anger is unlikely to die down soon.

Although the Nagaland Government has resorted to internet ban as the easiest way to counter the spread of information from that district, early birds have already circulated videos of the incident showing helpless men being shot down mercilessly and screaming for their lives.

This brings us to an important flashpoint where important questions need to be raised.

The first question is – how long will India use the military to maintain internal security? It is a given that military too develops a vested interest when it is deployed for counter-insurgency operations for too long a time. The Naga insurgency started with the birth of this nation and since then the army has operated more often as an alien force dealing with an external enemy. How does it work for forces coming from a different part of the country and posted to a region where people are racially different; speak a different language and have a completely different culture and religion? Accounts of army atrocities are still fresh in the memories of octogenarians. The ongoing Naga Peace talks don’t seem headed anywhere although people’s hopes go up each time one interlocutor is changed and another takes over.

In fact, the business of interlocuting has become a specialty of retired Intelligence Bureau officials, who have excelled in the game of “wait and watch.” They have nothing to gain or lose. The Naga insurgent outfit currently in talks with the Government of India – the NSCN(IM) led by a wily veteran – TH Muivah who plays mind games better than the IB is perhaps not so keen to see an end to this ‘extractive industry.’

Hence the outlandish demands for a separate flag and constitution which Government of India will find difficult to concede considering that parts of the Naga inhabited areas are in the state of Manipur and a separate Constitution for one ethnic group amongst the many in Manipur would be an inflammable idea.

And while the so-called peace talks have gone on since 1997, there has been no respect for the ceasefire ground rules. The rebels still go around with their arms and extortion continues unabated in Nagaland, thereby putting paid to entrepreneurship and a strain on those running businesses.

Coming back to the reckless act by the Assam Rifles in Oting, Mon District, it would be a lost opportunity if people of the seven state of the North East don’t stand together and demand an end to the militarisation of the region.

Manipur alone has about 55,000 security personnel for a population of about 3.3 million people. It’s a different matter that people are used to physical checks and other intrusions that people in other states would find offensive.

How long can the North Eastern states of Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur continue to be termed as disturbed areas and therefore be burdened by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – a colonial law that the Indian state has used because it is unable to come up with more creative ways of handling internal security.

Insurgency cannot be tackled by a force that’s trained to fight an enemy. For years the army has alienated the people of the region because of use of indiscriminate force as has happened in Mon District. For the army to say it was a case of mistaken identity, hence intelligence failure is to admit a serious error of judgment.

The Indian Army and Union Home Minister Amit Shah were quick to issue statements expressing grief and announcing a Court Martial and a probe by a special investigating team of the Nagaland government, respectively. But such actions appear banal for those that have lost family members in what was a reckless act.

It appears from all accounts that the army exceeded its brief. Normally, security forces only retaliate if they are fired at. In this case the army fired at unarmed civilians although it appears that they had intel that NSCN(K) rebels were crossing over from Myanmar to Mon District.

These are matters that will be investigated and action taken. Also, mob violence followed. Many of the injured taken to hospitals in Assam died Now while temperatures are soaring, there will be the pretence of fact-finding and a lot of muscle flexing by the Government of Nagaland.

But public memory is short and the poor men who died are poor coal miners with no clout. Such is the situation in this region. The fact finding will take months and years since there is never any time line set for such investigations.

What is happening is that the police force, which is supposed to deal with internal security has for a long time failed to live up to its calling as the law keepers. Hence the need for the army and para-military forces to step in. But this should be the exception, not the rule.

Alas! The police have become handmaidens of politicians and are used by them. They have forgotten what it is to serve the ordinary citizens and keep them safe, which is their primary duty. Be that as it may the police will have to return to their duty of law keeping which is also to deal with insurgency, because if the army has not been able to contain internal rebellion for over 70 years, it is unlikely to succeed now.

India’s North-East is not yet emotionally integrated with the nation. This is a work in progress but often those who govern in Delhi don’t seem to understand this. They speak about the mainstream while the people of the North East claim they have their separate cultural streams and will not merge and give up their identity. If the North East had developed at a faster pace after the Chinese invasion in 1962 perhaps insurgency would not have taken roots here. It is the general disillusionment of unemployment and lack of opportunities that pushes young people to take up arms and for militancy to continue to raise its ugly head.

A new approach to governance and greater accountability from the elected is a much-needed antidote. Military action has to end and so too the AFSPA.

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Published: 06 Dec 2021, 8:44 AM