Naga peace stakeholders demand early political accord after army massacre of 13 civilians

S Pangnyu Phom, Nagaland’s health minister, along with other dignitaries lays a wreath at the mortal remains of the civilians killed during an army attack in Mon district, on 6 December. Armed Naga organisations, as well as student unions, academicians and a human-rights organisation were unanimous in their demand for the withdrawal of the AFSPA, following the attack. ANI/Hindustan Times
10 December, 2021

On 6 December, the union home minister, Amit Shah, called the Indian Army’s recent ambush of 13 civilians in Nagaland’s Mon district a case of “mistaken identity” on the floor of Parliament. Shah said he regretted the deaths on behalf of the Indian government and that it has been decided that “all the agencies would ensure no such unfortunate incident will be repeated before taking any operation against rebels.” Shah told Parliament that the state had set up a special investigation team which would conclude its probe “within a month.” He added that an additional secretary to the north east division of the union home ministry was also sent to the state to “review the situation.”

But a number of signatories to the Naga peace process said that they had no faith in the SIT’s functioning. This was because of the SIT’s limited power and jurisdiction over prosecuting para forces. In addition, the killings has made them suspicious of the government’s intention. It happened at a time when Naga armed and political organisations were expecting a lasting final solution from the Indian government to the longstanding Indo-Naga conflict. Several stakeholders in the peace process said that they felt that the union government’s response to the massacre was a weak attempt to buy time to reach a final agreement. Moreover, according to the stakeholders, the killings also violated the agreements that had already been reached between them and the government. The official statements from the two rebel factions in light of the latest civilian killings—with whom the union government signed separate written agreements in 2015 and 2017 respectively on the terms of negotiations—also suggested that military operations in the state undermined the government’s authority in the ongoing peace process. Armed Naga organisations, as well as student unions, academicians and a human-rights organisation I spoke to were unanimous in their demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. The AFSPA grants the Indian military extraordinary powers to use force—even to the extent of death—and protection from prosecution in “disturbed areas,” which are notified by the union government.

RN Ravi, the former Indian interlocutor, had informed the state assembly in February that the political talks with rebel groups had concluded and only the signing of a final agreement was to be worked out. One of the signatories to the peace process, on the condition of anonymity, told me that AK Sharma, the current government interlocutor in the peace talks, was able to bring a truce between different rebel groups and worked on a “common draft” for the solution recently. In such a backdrop, signatories to the peace agreement told me that local sentiments would not be very receptive to the government’s maneuvering on the incident and would want nothing less than a lasting peace accord.

T John Longkumer, the state’s director general of police, and Rovilatuo Mor, a commissioner of the Nagaland government, visited the spot of the incident on 5 December. In their report on the incident, a copy of which is with The Caravan, they wrote, “On the evening of 4th December around 16:10 hrs, where 8 villagers were returning home from coal mining work at Tiru in a pickup truck, they were ambushed and killed by the security forces (reportedly, 21 Para Special Force based in Assam) at random, apparently without any attempt of identification. They were all unarmed civilians working in the coal mines in Tiru valley and possessed no arms.” The report mentioned that six of the Naga civilians were killed on the spot in the Tiru valley’s Oting village, Mon district, while two severely injured and were admitted to Dibrugarh Medical Hospital in Assam.

 “On hearing the gunshots, the villagers went to the spot being apprehensive that the individuals did not return home from work,” Longkumer and Mor further wrote. “On reaching the spot, they found the pickup truck and the special forces personnel trying to hide the dead bodies of the six villagers by wrapping and loading them in another pickup truck (Tata Mobile) apparently with the intention of taking the dead bodies to their base camp.” The officials continued, “On finding the dead bodies in the Tata Mobile, under a tarpaulin, violence broke out between the villagers and the security personnel. As a result, irate villagers burnt three vehicles belonging to the special forces personnel. In the melee, the security personnel again opened fire against the villagers which led to the death of seven more villagers and eyewitnesses.”

The report mentioned eyewitness accounts too: “Eyewitnesses have confirmed that the Special Forces Personnel opened fire indiscriminately as they fled from the scene towards Assam side even firing in the coal mine hutments on the way.” The next day, the 27th Assam Rifles shot down a civilian protestor in Mon Town after “around 600-700 people armed with sticks, pipes, flammable fluids and machetes” surrounded their post in the town. In the incident, six other protestors sustained bullet injuries.

On 5 December, Ubi Posehu Kezo, the officer in-charge of the nearby Tizit police station, registered a first-information report against the 21 Para Special Forces Personnel, a copy of which The Caravan has. “It is to be noted that at the time of the incident there was no police guide nor security forces did make any requisition to police station to provide police guide for their operation. Hence it is obvious that the intention of the security forces is to murder and injure civilians,” the FIR mentioned. The police booked the personnel of the special forces for murder, attempt to murder and common intention under multiple sections the Indian Penal Code.

N Kitovi Zhimomi, the chairperson of the working committee of the Naga National Political Groups, told me on 5 December that the military operation showed there was a “lack of trust” between the government and the peace signatories. The NNPGs is an umbrella platform of six armed Naga nationalist organisations. Most of these are breakaways from either the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or the Naga National Council, armed movements that have been active in the region since 1980s and 1940s, respectively. The NNPGs negotiated with the government and signed a written agreement, known as the Agreed Positions, in November 2017. “On one hand they are negotiating with us, on the other hand they have given free hands to army,” Zhimomi told me. Zhimomi said that mere condemnation of the forces would not ensure that such an incident could not happen again, because “they are trained to kill.” He wanted the union government to remove the AFSPA as an exercise to gain the trust of the locals. Referring to the various armed groups that participated in the peace negotiations, Zhimomi said, “Since all groups are in ceasefire and we are just waiting for a solution, why is the government of India continuing to enforce Armed Forces Special Powers Act? These things will continue, happen again, post solution also, unless the special powers act is repealed from Nagaland.”

Following the signing of the Agreed Positions, the working committee of the NNPGs had also released its terms of negotiations with the government in November 2019. It mentioned, “As a part of the confidence building measures immediately on the signing the agreement, all black laws like AFSPA and Disturbed Areas Act will be withdrawn. All out posts, barracks and units of the Army and Paramilitary forces will be withdrawn from populated areas. They will be relocated to cantonments within a specified period. However, international border outposts supply and command areas will not be disturbed.” In August, when I had met Zhimomi in person for an interview, he told me that the government had “agreed” to all the terms of negotiation mentioned in the document they made public in November 2019. He had also said he was waiting for the government to seal a final political solution.

The political solution, however, got delayed because the Indian government had also signed a separate agreement in August 2015 with the Isak Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The NSCN (IM) had objected to the appointment of Ravi, the former interlocutor, as the governor of the state.  VS Atem, a senior NSCN (IM) leader, had told me in August, that Ravi’s appointment as governor to the state reduced the political talks to a “law and order problem.” In September this year, Ravi resigned from his position as interlocutor’s and was appointed as the governor of Tamil Nadu. Mishra, a former special director of the Intelligence Bureau, took over as the new interlocutor. Atem told me that Mishra would previously accompany Ravi during the negotiations, so he was already familiar with the history and situation in Nagaland. Ravi’s role in the Nagaland, however, does not seem to have fully ended as he was also called in for an emergency meeting to Delhi the day of the Mon killings.

Zhimomi said if the government was “sincere to their commitment” towards a political settlement, they should not continue “military operations in Nagaland.” An official statement released by the NNPGs on 5 December said, “The destructive Indian military tactics and actions in Naga homeland has belittled the political commitment of Indian Prime Minister and Home minister.” It once again demanded that the government sign a lasting agreement at the earliest. “The government of India must declare honorable and acceptable political solution to Indo-Naga conflict to ensure all draconian laws in Naga homeland are repealed and done away with,” the NNPGs said. 

The Indian government’s talks with the NNPGs was largely mediated by the Nagaland Gaon Bura Federation, a union of village heads, which had also helped in facilitating ceasefires between the six groups that make up the NNPGs. Shikuto Zalipu, the general secretary of the NGBF, told me, “If it were insurgents, it would have been other thing. But, clash with civilians is bad. I feel the government of India should suspend the forces in order to avoid escalation of the situation.” Zalipu believed that an early political solution can put an end to all the hostilities. “People are longing for a solution,” he said.

The NSCN (IM)’s press secretary was not available for a comment on the issue. Earlier, when I met Atem in person, he told me the government had agreed to hand over “internal security” of the state to Naga people. Atem had said, “As for defence, internal security shall rest with the Nagas, except defence of the international border: Indian security force and Naga security force shall jointly defend it.” The NSCN (IM)’s official statement on the Mon killings also blamed the military operations for vitiating the ongoing political peace process. It mentioned, “Notwithstanding the ongoing Indo-Naga political dialogue that has seen much fruition during the period running more than two decades, the violence against the Nagas continues unabated. This is the most unfortunate part of the Indo-Naga ceasefire signed in 1997.”    

Unlike the peace signatories, civil society organisations were harsher in their criticism of the government. The Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, a human-rights organisation, released an official statement on 5 December. The statement said, “We squarely hold the government of India with all its draconian and fascists laws responsible for letting loose their dogs of war to maul to shreds the innocent villagers of Oting.” In 1998, the NPMHR had challenged the constitutionality of the AFSPA in the Supreme Court. The court had upheld the AFSPA but said the power to declare an area “disturbed” cannot be “arbitrary.”

On 5 December, the 3rd Corps of the Indian Army said that the operation was based on “credible intelligence.” The army regretted the killing in its press release and also formed a “high level committee” to inquire into it.  Commenting on this, Pithungo Shitio, the general secretary to the Nagaland Student Federation, an influential student union in the state, told me, “It’s a complete failure of Indian intelligence system. We honestly feel Nagas cannot be made to pay for India’s intelligence foolishness.” Shitio said, “Despite this happening Naga people is looking for a peaceful future.” N Venuh, a professor at the department of history and archaeology in Kohima, compared the situation with how it had been in 1954, the year the Indian government sent forces to remove a parallel government set up by the Naga National Council. “Innocent villagers are being taken as insurgents,” Venuh told me. “It’s just like they wanted to kill. It’s just like 1954.”

I met Neingulo Krome, the NPMHR’s general secretary, in Kohima in August. When asked if the state gaining political autonomy would end the violation of human rights, Krome said, “Right now we are talking in terms of life and death,” because “there are military occupations.” He continued, “We have to focus on how to protect people’s human rights from the onslaught of the government and mercenaries.” However, Krome said that his work of fighting for human rights would not stop with a political solution to the Indo-Naga conflict. “That’s just a beginning,” he said. “If independence is given, we will have to focus on human rights within Nagas themselves. We are a classless society, but still there are a lot of discrimination, lot of inequalities among Nagas. In terms of communities, we have this sort of backward and advanced [tribes].” Within Nagaland as well, four districts in the east bordering Myanmar, there has been a political demand for a separate state on the basis of the backwardness of this region. People from the eastern region have also been fighting for increasing reservation in jobs and education in the state. Krome told me the human rights fight “in terms of inequality” can be fought only after “political independence.”

On 7 December, Neiphiu Rio, the state’s chief minister, tweeted, “Nagaland and the Naga people have always opposed #AFSPA. It should be repealed.” State legislators have stood united on the issue of the AFSPA as well as calling for a lasting peace agreement to the Indo-Naga conflict. During the monsoon session of the state assembly, legislators proposed the formation of an opposition-less government to show the union government that they were united on seeking early political solution. The union government, however, seems to have not made any progress on repealing AFSPA, much less shown any indication on signing a final peace agreement anytime soon. Zhimomi said, “Having ceasefire and negotiating neck to neck, [and then] deploy army makes no sense.”