The killing of fourteen Naga civilians in firing by troops in a remote village in Nagaland on Saturday may open fresh controversies over the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in India’s Northeast.
The Army accepted responsibility for the “unfortunate incident” and promised “action” . Locals say soldiers (belonging to Assam Rifles and 21 Para Commando Regiment ) fired on a vehicle carrying labourers home from a coalmine , killing 13 of them. One soldier died when the locals turned violent and set fire to military vehicles . Later another Naga civilian died of wounds in hospital.
The army says the soldiers were operating on the basis of “credible inputs ” , waiting to ambush rebels of the NSCN ( Khaplang faction) . That they ended up ambushing a vehicle carrying coalmine labourers points to either very inaccurate intelligence or the soldiers going trigger happy without adequate verification of targets .
It could well be the Assam Rifles units deployed along the India-Myanmar border were seeking to hit back at the rebels to avenge the assassination of one of their battalion commanders in Manipur last month and therefore were less than cautious .
The incident comes at a time when the Naga peace process is stuck because of lack of consensus on key issues. With many Naga tribes now announcing they will even pull out of the forthcoming ‘Hornbill’ festival , the scene is likely to get more complicated.
The Army and the Union Home Ministry has admitted to wrongdoing in the unfortunate incident on Saturday . The Army’s 3 Corps headquartered at Nagaland’s Rangapahar ( near Dimapur) issued a statement on Sunday, owning responsibility for the killing of the civilians and assuring “appropriate action”.
The Nagaland Government has ordered a high-level probe into the incident by a Special Investigation Team (SIT). Even Governor Jagdish Mukhi has been critical of the incident.
“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 are deeply regretted,” the statement said.“The cause of the unfortunate loss of lives is being investigated at the highest level and appropriate action will be taken as per the course of law,” it said, adding that a few soldiers were severely injured and one soldier succumbed to his injuries.
Expressing anguish at the incident, Home Minister Amit Shah also took to Twitter expressing condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives and assuring justice.
So the top decision makers have come clean by not defending the firing and promising appropriate action after enquiry.
But the incidents raises serious issues about the quality of intelligence used for counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast.
The Army has insisted in its statement that the operation on Saturday was undertaken on the basis of “credible intelligence”.
But how can ‘ credible intelligence ‘ leads to such mistaken targetting ? Who generated this piece of ‘ credible intelligence ‘ – Assam Rifles, Military Intelligence, State Police or any other central agency ?
Was any double check before action done with local level human intelligence asset(s) ? Was the intelligence specific or was it in the category of “non-specific inputs” ? If it was of latter category, did it justify the obvious overkill evident by the forces ?
The Konyak Union, representing the dominant Naga tribe in the Mon district say some labourers were returning home to Oting village in a pick-up van from a coal mine in Tiru area 15 km away.
The labourers come home every Saturday from the mine, spend Sunday with their families and return to work on Monday. This has been a routine for a long time.
How can the troops in the ambush then open such heavy fire without confirmation of target ? And during the two phases of firing , first when the troops fired on who they believed were insurgents and then to quell public anger over the firings, there seems to be no element of fire control.
An Army officer has been quoted by “The Hindu” as saying the troops fired at the vehicle instinctively. In counter-insurgency operations , it is expected troops will fire judiciously rather than instinctively to avoid collateral damage because these are operations within the country and not against a foreign enemy.
Rebel groups like the NSCN and ULFA have blamed the killings on the ‘culture of impunity” they say has followed from the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA. Critics of AFSPA in the northeast and the country’s human rights community have long called for repeal of AFSPA. It is time for phasing out this controversial legislation if not repeal it in one go, to avoid gross misuse of Powers.
Successful counter-insurgency is based on a friendly connect between the forces to the host community , which helps generate accurate intelligence, rather than on outdated concepts of ‘area domination. AFSPA, many allege, encourages lazy soldiering and distances the force from the host community . That must change.