Nagaland killings: ‘Not dead, nor alive… just suffering’

The white truck, the missing thumb, the cool guy who is now a ‘zinda lash’, the bullet marks — daily reminders in Oting of December 4, 2021, when 13 villagers were killed in an Army ambush followed by a clash. Back to the Nagaland village where it’s hard to move on: “If only it was that easy”.

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”.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in December 2022. Full article here.