Oting massacre

Between the law and the lawless: Civilian killings in Nagaland provoke outrage, calls to revoke AFSPA intensify

Print edition : December 31, 2021

At a mass funeral of civilians killed by security forces in Mon district, Nagaland, on December 6. Photo: AFP

Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio paying homage to civilians killed Mon district on December 6. Photo: REUTERS

Villagers set fire to army vehicles after the Oting outrage on December 4. Photo: PTI

A candle-light march to mourn the death of 13 people killed near Oting in Mon district, on December 5. Photo: PTI

Coffins of the 13 Civilians killed, at a burial ground in Mon district on December 6. Photo: PTI

A banner of protest at the funeral site. Photo: Fifi Konyak/AP

Union Home Minister Amit Shah at the BJP parliamentary committee in New Delhi on December 7. On November 25, he claimed that “peace has been established in the north-east” and urged the Indian Chambers of Commerce and its members “to look at the north-east from a different perspective, understand the changes that have taken place there, and invest there”. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

The indiscriminate killing of 13 people in Mon district of Nagaland by the Indian Army sparks popular anger in the State, strengthens the north-eastern States’ demand for repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and casts a shadow over the Naga peace talks.

SOLDIERS OF 21 PARA (SPECIAL FORCES) OF the Indian Army are trained to handle lethal strike weapons and carry out specialised operations. On December 4, unprovoked and indiscriminate firing from their weapons claimed the lives of six coal miners and caused grievous injuries to two other miners in Mon district in Nagaland. The miners were returning to their homes in Oting, a Konyak Naga village in the district, when weapons of the Army commandos blazed piercing the stillness of the twilight hours and buried the dreams of helpless miners in blood and mud. The weapons did not fall silent after the brutal killing of the miners. They blazed again killing seven villagers, who went in search of the miners, got agitated on seeing their bodies in one of the three Army vehicles in the area and torched two of them. Another civilian was killed on December 5 when the troops opened fire to disperse an agitated mob that attacked the Company Operating Base of Assam Rifles at Mon town and set fire to its buildings.

Central government’s version

Making a statement in Parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah said: “Based on inputs received by the Indian Army about movement of the insurgents near Tiru village in Tizit area of Mon district, a team of 21 Para commandos of the Indian Army laid an ambush in the evening of 04.12.2021. During the ambush, a vehicle approached the location, and it was signalled to stop. However, the vehicle tried to flee, following which the vehicle, suspected of carrying insurgents, was fired upon resulting in the killing of six out of eight persons travelling in the vehicle. However, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The two persons who sustained injuries were evacuated to the medical facilities by the Army personnel.”

About the second incident, the Minister said that “upon receiving the news, local villagers surrounded the Army team, burnt two vehicles and assaulted them resulting in the death of one Security Force (SF) personnel and injuries to several others. To disperse the crowd, SFs opened fire, which resulted in the killing of seven more civilians and injuring some others.”

He also stated that the Government of India “sincerely regrets this unfortunate incident in Nagaland and expresses its deepest condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives”. However, his allegation that the “vehicle tried to flee when signalled to wait” has added to the people’s anger over the unprovoked firing and the deaths of innocent civilians.

Bitter memories

The Oting massacre revived bitter memories of past instances of the massacre of innocents and of alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces in the north-eastern region under the cover of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958. It has also revived the movement for repeal of the AFSPA in the region. The Act is currently in force in Nagaland, Assam, Manipur (except in Imphal municipal areas), and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. It has not been in force in Tripura since 2015 and was withdrawn in Meghalaya in 2018.

The aftermath

According to Oting Citizen, a forum of the people of the village, the incident occurred on December 4 when the security forces ambushed a pick-up truck carrying eight coal miners and daily wage earners from a mining site. The miners were returning to the village to be with their families during the weekend and attend church services the next day (Sunday).

The villagers heard sounds of automatic weapons piercing the stillness of the evening around 4:30 p.m. Initially, they thought it was a shootout involving the security forces and insurgents. “They blocked the road for all vehicular and all other movement in that direction from all sides and diverted all vehicles to take the less frequented old Pioneer Road,” reads a statement issued by Oting Citizen.

Also read: AFSPA: Licence to kill

They were anxiously waiting for the pick-up truck carrying eight coal miners, which had left for the village at 3:30 p.m., after they heard about a shootout in the area. They informed the District Administration about the shootout, but they did not suspect that the occupants of the pick-up truck were massacred by the security forces. At around 8 p.m. the villagers could not wait any longer, so they went in search of the pick-up truck. They found an empty truck with its windshield pierced with a bullet mark at the driver’s position, blood stains covered with dust and mud and the occupants missing from the vehicle, Oting Citizen said.

Sensing something fishy, they chased and “intercepted” three Army vehicles. “They [occupants of the Army vehicles] first denied knowledge of the whereabout of the boys travelling back to the village on a pick-up truck. The villagers then started searching the Army vehicles. In one of them, they saw security personnel sitting on a tarpaulin that covered the whole floor of the vehicle. Under the tarpaulin lay the half-dressed bodies of six youngsters.

Oting Citizen alleged that in an attempt to show the boys as militants, the security forces had dressed them in camouflage uniforms and boots and placed some weapons near them. The villagers, however, could not locate the other two boys who were supposed to have travelled with the slain.

Narrating the sequence of events, the statement adds: “The situation turned into a heated argument between the security forces and the villagers, subsequently turning into scuffles. Then suddenly, the security forces started firing indiscriminately killing some villagers and injuring a few of them.” Condemning the “barbaric cowardice act” and “atrocities towards the innocent civilians and youngsters” by the Indian armed forces, Oting Citizen has dared the security forces to come clean on the incident and to do timely justice to the victims’ families. The people of Oting have also barred “all groups and parties of various groups” and “Indian Armed forces” indefinitely from entering “Oting jurisdiction”.

A press statement issued by the headquarters of the 3 Corps of the Indian Army on the incident reads: “Based on credible intelligence of likely movement of insurgents, a specific operation was planned to be conducted in the area of Tiru, Mon district, Nagaland. The incident and its aftermath is deeply regretted. The cause of the unfortunate loss of lives is being investigated at the highest level and appropriate action will be taken as per law.” It adds: “The security forces have suffered severe injuries in the incident, including one soldier who succumbed to injuries.” The statement, however, did not give details of casualties and injuries.

The Army has instituted a Court of Inquiry, and the Nagaland government has ordered a special investigation into the incident. The Nagaland Police has registered a first information report (FIR) at the Tizit police station. The case was subsequently transferred to the State Crime Police Station.

NHRC’s intervention and limitations

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken suo motu cognizance of the incidents on the basis of media reports and issued notices to the Union Defence Secretary, Union Home Secretary, Chief Secretary and Director General of Police, Nagaland, calling for a detailed report within six weeks. An NHRC release stated: “While issuing the notices, the Commission has also observed that it is incumbent upon the security forces ensuring proper precaution with a humane approach even if it involved the militants.”

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has welcomed the NHRC notices and urged it to set up a human rights commission in Nagaland.

The CHRI statement states: “In the 28 years of the existence of the Protection of Human Rights Act (PoHRA), 1993, the Nagaland government has not established a State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) despite the fact that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, was imposed in the Naga Hills district of Assam five years before the State of Nagaland was formed. The CHRI called upon the State government to start the process of setting up an SHRC without delay, through a consultative and participatory process.”

The CHRI also pointed out that Section 19 of the PoHRA restricts the NHRC’s remit to seek reports from the Central government, make recommendations on the basis of such reports and publish these documents. In effect, this provision, bars the NHRC from acting on complaints involving the defence forces.

The CHRI statement says: “The established jurisprudence in matters relating to such complaints arising in areas where the AFSPA is enforced is that the inquiry procedures internal to the security forces get primacy over the jurisdiction of civilian courts. In every case of conflict between the two jurisdictions, the Central government as the final arbiter decides as to where the accused shall be tried. Where civilian courts are involved, the Central government has invoked Section 6 of AFSPA to withhold sanction to prosecute security personnel accused of various crimes.”

The incident has given a fresh impetus to the long-standing demand of various sections of people for withdrawal of the AFSPA from the north-eastern region and scrapping of the Act. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said on Twitter: “Nagaland and the Naga people have always opposed AFSPA. It should be repealed.” Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma also tweeted: “AFSPA must be repealed.”

The Nagaland State Cabinet, in an emergency meeting held on December 7, decided to urge the Central government to repeal the AFSPA and, directed the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to complete the inquiry within a month. As a mark of protest against the Oting killing, the Cabinet decided to call off the Hornbill festival, the largest annual calendar event of the State organised to promote tourism, which had commenced at Kisama heritage village near Kohima on December 1.

Civil society organisations, student bodies and political parties took to the streets in Nagaland raising slogans and carrying placards demanding immediate repeal of the AFSPA. The Naga Students Federation called for total shut down in protest against the killings and press for the repeal of the Act. The protests have intensified with all States in the region joining the chorus. The North East Students Organisations and its constituent student bodies in all the States in the region staged a protect against the massacre and demanded repeal of the draconian Act.

Disturbed area tag

The Central government had extended the “disturbed area” tag to the entire State of Nagaland under Section 3 of the AFSPA with effect from June 30, 2021, for a period of six months. “The Central government is of the opinion that the area comprising the whole of the State of Nagaland is in such a disturbed and dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary,” the gazette notification states.

The Narendra Modi government also extended the “disturbed area” tag to Manipur, excluding the Imphal Municipal Area on December 17, 2020, for one year with retrospective effect from December 1, 2020. It declared Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts and the areas falling within the jurisdiction of Namsai and Mahadevpur police stations in Namsai district of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Assam, as “disturbed areas” until March 31, 2022.

Assam notification

On September 10, the Assam government issued an “urgent” gazette notification extending the “Disturbed Area” tag under the AFSPA for the entire State with effect from August 28. The notification cited, among other reasons, the “secessionist activities” being carried out by the Paresh Barua-led United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) “supported by” the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) faction.

“The outfit has been indulging in subversive activities like kidnapping, extortion, explosion, attack on Security Forces.” It also cited the reason of the hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao witnessing “hydra-headed ethno-based militancy, which has inter-State ramifications”, adding that “moreover, these groups have received support from the militant groups like NSCN (IM) operating in neighbouring States. NSCN factions are reportedly playing a key role in inciting the ethno-based militancy to their own benefit. Movement of NSCN (K-YA) in certain districts of upper Assam has also become a matter of concern.”

The notification also referred to the formation of the United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia, a common platform uniting the insurgent groups of the north-eastern region with “ULFA (I) and NSCN (K) as major stakeholders along with KUO and NLFT as members. This, the notification said, “is reportedly an evil design hatched by the Foreign Intelligence Agencies.”

It further stated that the emergence of Islamist terrorist groups such as HUM (Harkat-ul-Mujahideen), JMB (Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh) and HM (Hizbul Mujahideen) posed threats to the security situation. Another point made in the notification is: “ULFA (I) and NSCN (K-YA) cadres are jointly moving in Assam-Arunachal-Nagaland bordering areas with a view to indulging in subversive activities like extortion, kidnapping, target on security forces and vital installations, especially the oil sector.”

Amit Shah’s claims

In his address (delivered though videoconferencing) to the annual session and Annual General Meeting of the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) on November 25, Amit Shah claimed that “peace has been established in the north-east” and urged the ICC and its members “to look at the north-east from a different perspective, understand the changes that have taken place there, and invest there”.

“There was a time when there were problems like violence, extremism, disputes, floods, corruption and drugs. Manipur was known only for bandhs, blockades and strikes. Assam was known only for terrorism and conflicts between ethnic groups. But today the north-eastern region is in the news for increasing connectivity, development, tourism, employment, electricity and forests as well as ending floods,” he said.

He claimed that in the past seven years the Narendra Modo government had created an environment of peace, political stability and a healthy environment for industrial investment.

“After the Bodo and Karbi Anglong peace agreements, many militants have laid down their arms. About 385 civilians were killed every year in incidents of violence from 2007 to 2014. In 2019 -21, an average of two civilians have died. He said even the death of two civilians was unfortunate and we want to reduce such incidents to zero. In these two years, around 3,922 militants had surrendered, and 4,000 weapons were deposited with the police,” he added.

Shadow over peace talks

The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM), in a statement, stated that “the Oting killing has become a threat to Nagas’ longing for Naga political solution”. The organisaton, which is engaged in peace talks with the Government of India since 1997, has taken a tough stand on the AFSPA. “No political talks will be meaningful under the shadow of the AFSPA. Let human dignity take control and be made integral part of the Naga political peace process,” it said.

Also read: AFSPA: Criminal misuse for decades

The peace talks reached a dead end in 2019 with the NSCN(IM) refusing to accept any solution without “a separate flag and a separate constitution for the Nagas” while R.N. Ravi, the Centre’s interlocutor and Nagaland Governor then, claimed that the talks had concluded. Talks resumed in September after a gap of nearly two years following the appointment of A.K. Mishra, former Special Director of Intelligence Bureau, as the Centre’s new interlocutor. Ravi has been appointed as the Governor of Tamil Nadu.

Condemning the Oting massacre, the Working Committee Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), a conglomerate of seven rebel groups, demanded that the Government of India find “honourable and acceptable political solutions to the Indo-Naga conflict to ensure that all draconian laws in the Naga homeland are repealed and done away with”. The solution will not be political, neither honourable nor acceptable if “our youth are murdered at will by Indian Armed Forces”, it said in a statement. The NNPG which signed an “Agreed Position” for peace talks with the Government of India in 2017, is engaged in parallel negotiations with the Centre and was ready to sign the final accord and negotiation for the flag and the constitution post accord.

The Oting incident is likely to find Naga rebel groups hardening their positions on their demand for repeal of the AFPSA, making the task tougher for the Centre’s interlocutor and hampering the dialogue.

A breakdown in the talks will force the civilians to remain in a situation of armed conflict for an uncertain period. The Central government has found itself on a sticky wicket on the issue of the AFSPA.

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