THE WHITE pick-up truck still stands at the spot — its number plate missing, its windscreen pock-marked with bullet holes, its sides covered with the same fraying yellow tarpaulin from the day of the deadly attack, which killed six of its occupants, and maimed two for life.
On December 4, 2021, the Indian Army’s 21 Para Special Force had opened fire at the truck — carrying eight miners from Tiru on their way home to Oting in Nagaland’s Mon district — mistaking them for insurgents of the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang-Yung Aung) group.
The operation – executed by a team of 30 and led by an Army Major-rank commander — was based on inputs that cadres of the NSCN-KYA and ULFA were operating in the Tiru-Oting area. Six had died on the spot, while two survived. In the clashes that followed between villagers — mostly men of the Konyak tribe that inhabits this part of Nagaland — and the security personnel, seven more civilians, and one paratrooper, had died.
Overnight, Oting, one of the many bastis (villages) that dot the remote hills of eastern Nagaland, reopened the wider debate on the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the Northeast. It resulted in the Centre partially withdrawing the Act — often criticised for the unbridled power and impunity it gives to the armed forces to operate in the Northeast — from several parts of the region (Nagaland, Manipur, Assam) in the months that followed. The Act, however, is still in place in Mon district, where Oting falls. The incident led the National Human Rights Commission to take suo motu cognisance of the killings, and the Nagaland government to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to “facilitate free and fair investigation” in the case. In June, based on the SIT’s report, the state police filed a damning chargesheet accusing the 30 Army men, including the commander of Major rank, of “attempt to murder”. To investigate the incident, the Indian Army, too, set up a separate Court of Inquiry, as per the Army Act, 1950.
A year later, the Centre’s Department of Military Affairs is yet to sanction prosecution of the accused, a protocol requirement under AFSPA. In July, the Supreme Court stepped in, responding to a writ petition filed by the wife of one of the accused Army personnel, and stayed further proceedings on the FIR/SIT report. Army sources have confirmed that the Court of Inquiry is complete, but its recommendations are still awaited since the matter is now “sub-judice”. Till such a time, the Army personnel involved continue to be on duty.
It is the white pickup truck — a grim reminder of the deadly ambush — that the villagers now hold onto for “justice”. “Why should it be removed? Let it be there. Let it be seen by the world…otherwise everyone will forget,” says 45-year-old Chongmei Konyak, who suffered a bullet injury on his left foot in the violent aftermath of the shooting. He is a former Army Supply Corps soldier from Oting, who opted for early retirement.
Like Chongmei fears, not many tangible signs of the incident remain in Oting. On the Sunday before the first anniversary of the incident, women hurry back home after attending church service in the morning. At sundown, men drive white pickup trucks — much like the ones the eight miners were in — from the open cast mines in Tiru valley, where they work, to Oting. “On the face of it, life has carried on…it has to. But the grief lingers,” says Noklet, a member of the Oting village council.
It is felt most in the homes and hearts of the families who lost their own. And the ones who witnessed it all and survived.
Like Yeihwang Konyak and Sheiwang Konyak. The two survivors of the ambush — and the key witnesses in the SIT investigation — made it back home in February after two months in the hospital. But it has been less than a happy homecoming .
When The Indian Express visited his home in late November, Yeihwang, 31, was curled up in a blanket on the floor. Seated on a cane murha (stool) beside him, his mother, Kamyen, says.”(He is) Not dead, nor alive… just suffering”.
In the year Yeihwang has been home, Kamyen says her son has never spoken about the incident. Asleep for most part of the day, he wakes up only to express primal needs: thirst, hunger, or the pain in the back of his head from the bullet.
Keapwang Konyak, his friend and the president of the Oting Students’ Union, remembers Yeihwang as “a cool guy, who had no truck with anyone”. “Now,” Keapwang says, his friend is no more than “a zinda laash”, a living corpse. Yeihwang’s sister-in-law Angun recalls how they would work together in the fields and eat together. But he has not said a word to her after his return. “What’s the point of being alive if there is so much suffering? The world has moved on, but for us, time has really stood still,” she says.
While Sheiwang, the other survivor of the ambush, is better off than Yeihwang, much has changed for him too. The bullet marks on his head, hand and stomach serve as physical reminders of the incident. His left eyelid still droops from the laceration of the bullet that grazed it. But it is the flashes of the shooting, the images of his brother Thakwang’s (who was also with him in the truck) body being carried away that revisit him often and keep him awake at night.
Sheiwang now barely speaks, answering in monosyllables, avoiding any eye contact, before finally saying softly: “If we were in the wrong, if we had done something, what happened (to us) can still be justified to some extent. But we had done nothing, we had made no mistake…that is why I still can’t make sense of it,” he says.
On some days, Sheiwang — homebound, with nothing to keep him busy, and desperate for answers — walks up the hill to visit Yeihwang. “But he does not say anything,” he says.
Following the incident, an ex-gratia of Rs 16 lakh and a government job was given to the family of each of the deceased. Those with grievous injuries received compensation of Rs 1 lakh, while those who had minor injuries were paid Rs 50,000. The government also bore all expenses for their treatment.
But for families like Yeihwang’s, which subsist on daily wage work, the money is barely enough to make ends meet, especially when one earning member is bound to his bed. “It’s been extremely difficult for us to get by – the entire responsibility of caring for the household has fallen on me,” says Kumwang, Yeihwang’s brother.
Others like Tingshen Konyak, a 32-year-old graduate of History, who was injured in the clashes following the ambush, have found it difficult to “restart” their lives. “I don’t hang out with my friends anymore, I don’t go to weddings, I feel awkward on social occasions, I don’t do any work…for all practical purposes, I am disabled,” says Tingshen, whose right thumb had to be amputated because of a gunshot injury.
Chongmei, the Army Supply Corps soldier, says: “Mentally, physically, financially — nothing is right with me.”
In June earlier this year, the Oting Citizens’ Forum wrote to the Chief Minister of Nagaland requesting government jobs/government-sponsored benefits for the injured. “All the injured have become a burden to their families,” the letter said, referring to the “emotional breakdown and turmoil” of the people of Oting.
Nyawang Wangsha, who is the Mon district president of the BJP, said that these injured survivors “deserved better”.”Someone is half blind, someone else doesn’t have all his fingers, someone is limping … it is sad that nothing has been done to help them,” he says.
A Nagaland government official, who did not want to be named, said the requests were forwarded to the state government but “a decision is yet to be taken”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister Y Patton said that he was personally not aware of such a request. “I have not received any such request — but if they come forward, of course they will be helped. If such a request has indeed come to the CMO, I am certain it will be taken up,” he said, adding that the state government had “requested” the Centre to expedite the sanction to prosecute. “The SIT has made its findings clear…the Centre should now give a final decision.”
The Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), a tribal body that represents the six districts of eastern Nagaland, has called for a “black day” on December 4 and 5 to mark one year of the incident.
But on the ground, the seething anger that pervaded in the months after the incident has dissipated to a large extent. There are murmurs that even the most vocal civil society organisations, who mediated with the government on behalf of the villagers, are not pursuing the matter as actively as they had before.
The government official says: “What we thought would happen (in the aftermath of the incident), and what has happened is completely different. Unfortunately, the matter has fallen by the wayside.”
As elections approach, other issues like the Naga peace talks, or the demand for a separate state by the eastern Nagaland districts (Mon is among them), has taken centrestage.
A social worker in Nagaland says that all stakeholders — the government, civil society organisations — were to blame for “not pursuing the matter”. “We can advise them as much as we want to but it has to be driven from the ground,” she says.
From Mon district’s Army battalion, an official says the issue has died down “for the betterment of all”. “Rather than to hold on to it and keep that wound fresh for everyone, it is better for everyone to forgive and move ahead,” he says.
“Moving ahead” is all that Tinghsen, the history graduate, wants. “In the morning, when I wake up, I tell myself that today is a new day. I can restart, I can move on.” But he looks down, and sees his amputated thumb. “If only it was that easy,” he says.