Updated: December 12, 2021 7:56:02 am
What happened in Nagaland recently was a tragedy. The Indian Army, in an operation on December 4 that went horribly wrong, killed 14 civilians in Mon district inhabited by the Konyak tribe, who have generally been supportive of the government. The Army has set up a court of inquiry headed by a Major General to probe the circumstances under which the botched operation by the 21 para-special forces took place. The state government has also set up a special investigation team, which has been directed to complete its work within one month. Meanwhile, the Home Minister, in a statement before Parliament, expressed the Government of India’s regret over the killing of civilians in a case of mistaken identity, calling it “unfortunate”, and offered the government’s deepest condolences to the bereaved families.
The official version is that, based on intelligence inputs about the movement of insurgents, the Army laid an ambush. An approaching vehicle was signalled to stop but it tried to flee, which aroused suspicion. The Army personnel thereupon opened fire, which resulted in the death of eight persons. The villagers, thereafter, reportedly surrounded the Army unit and attacked them with daos and firearms. The forces again opened fire — this time in self-defence — killing six more civilians. Army personnel also suffered injuries and their officer is said to be in ICU.
It is a heart-rending incident for all right-thinking persons. For those sympathetic to the rebel Nagas, however, it is an opportunity to tarnish the image of the Army, demand its withdrawal from the area, and push their agenda to demand a separate Constitution and a separate flag for the Naga separatists. It must be remembered that the security forces are performing an extremely difficult and complicated task in the midst of multiple insurgencies in the Northeast. In fact, they are paying the price for our political mis-management and blunders since the mid-Fifties when trouble erupted in the Naga Hills.
Not many people in the country know that the rebel Nagas have gone back on every agreement that the Government of India negotiated with them in the past. The Naga People’s Convention held in 1957 demanded that the Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang Frontier Division of North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) be merged into a single unit. The demand was conceded and the Naga Hills Tuensang Area (NHTA) was formed. Another Naga People’s Convention, held in 1959, demanded the creation of a separate state of Nagaland. This was also conceded and Nagaland was carved out in 1963. Then there was the Shillong Agreement in 1975 whereby the underground groups agreed to deposit their arms while the government agreed to release the rebels held in detention and give liberal grants for their rehabilitation. The hardcore elements, however, did not abide by the terms of the agreement. Recently, there was a Framework Agreement in 2015, but the NSCN (IM) has been throwing spanners into its implementation.
This is, however, not to deny that the Mon incident was terrible, that it needs to be carefully investigated, and if there was any mala fide or excessive use of force, the guilty must be punished. The suo motu FIR lodged by Nagaland Police, according to reports, mentions that there was an intention to “murder and injure” civilians. This was an unprofessional entry. Mens rea is established only after thorough investigation.
Counterinsurgency operations are full of uncertainties. Intelligence may be right, it may be false. Sometimes you walk into a trap. It is not easy to distinguish friend from foe. To fire or not to fire is always a difficult decision. A split second makes all the difference. In such a situation, mistakes and even blunders happen. To give a few examples from other countries, in Iraq, on March 1, 2017, during a strike on ISIS near Mosul, there was an unintentional death of 14 civilians because the blast set off a secondary explosion. In Syria, on July 15, 2017, the Coalition aircraft engaged four Daesh fighting positions near the Hospital of Modern Medicine, but unfortunately 13 civilians were killed due to their proximity to the target location. In Afghanistan, it is estimated that 40 per cent of all civilian air-strike casualties during 2016 to 2020 were children (1,598 out of 3,977). Recently, on August 30, a drone strike by the US forces killed 10 civilians near the Kabul International Airport. The attack was targeted at a vehicle believed to be carrying suspected ISIS-K suicide bombers. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later said that they had “very good intelligence” for the attack. It need hardly be said that the US generally takes no action in such cases which are dismissed as “collateral damage”. We have much better institutional arrangements for such lapses.
There is, in this context, a vocal demand for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Government has already, during the last few years, been gradually withdrawing AFSPA from different areas. The Act was withdrawn from Tripura in 2015 and Meghalaya in 2018 while in Arunachal Pradesh it is now restricted to the three districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding. The whole of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur (except the Imphal municipal area), however, continue to be under AFSPA. The Jeevan Reddy Commission had, in 2005, recommended the repeal of the Act. The matter could be examined again in consultation with all stakeholders and a well-considered decision taken, keeping in view the requirements of national security.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2021 under the title ‘Probe before criticising’. The writer is a former Director General of Police, Assam
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