Nagaland Tragedy Is a Cyclic Tragedy Foretold by a Draconian Act
Much has already been said of the December 4 Army ambush which killed 14 innocent coal mine workers. In its aftermath of grief and anger not just in Nagaland but the entire Northeast, an old wound of the promulgation of a draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) 1958, and the atrocities that visited the region under it, have been reopened. Calls for its repeal are now gathering again, with two chief ministers, Neiphiu Rio of Nagaland and Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya leading from the front. This Act which not only gives sweeping powers to the Army in the discharge of counterinsurgency duties in areas declared disturbed, but also shields Army personnel from legal persecution for their action, resulting quite naturally in the emergence of a culture of impunity. The AFSPA has also become a symbol of oppression not just in Nagaland but wherever in the Northeast it had been or are still promulgated. The Act is also not applicable anywhere else in India except the Northeast and Kashmir, giving it a discriminatory and even racial attribute, making resentment against it even more bitter.
There are no words to express the outrage and grief over the killing of 14 civilians (the toll so far) in Mon district of Nagaland, home of the Konyak Nagas. They lost their lives in firing by para commandos of the Indian Army based in Jorhat. According to information available, this was intended as an ambush on what Army intelligence had indicated was a group of insurgents moving in the area. This intelligence, or the fact that the Army commandos would be responding to it, was not communicated to either the local police or the Assam Rifles based in the area. It was in this sense, a continuance of the culture of ‘surgical strikes’ hyped up after the Pulwama incident in Jammu and Kashmir, and in the context of the North-east, the ambush by a combined group of militants led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in Chandel district of Manipur in 2015. The NSCN-K then was not as fragmented into factions as it is now.
While the earlier ‘surgical strikes’ are understandable — though their success has been disputed — the Mon ambush is completely beyond comprehension. First, unlike the earlier strikes, which were in response to grave provocations, and the targets were outside Indian territory, the scenario was markedly different in the present. The ambush was unprovoked, and the target was well within India. This would have meant assault resources were much more in abundance. Again, an ambush — as those in the North-east with a history of violent insurgencies will understand — is the combat tactics of an inferior force against a far superior one; for this reason it is also often summarised as hit-and-run warfare.
The important question is, even if there was intelligence available about the movement of insurgents, why was this tactic resorted to? Why was no attempt made to have the targeted men who were in a single pickup truck, surrender to be captured alive, even if these men were insurgents and armed? From a superior pre-mediated position, and force strength precalculated to overwhelm, there should not have been much difficulty to block off the truck making its way along a winding narrow hill road, put the men in it in a hopeless position and force them to surrender.
The intent obviously was to destroy and eliminate as would be done to hated enemies. But, as it turned out tragically, the victims were all innocent unarmed villagers; six of them were killed on the spot. More casualties resulted after outraged Konyak villagers attacked the ambushers first and then an Assam Rifles post later. One army trooper was also killed in the violence.
The truth is that long decades of violent insurrections and draconian counterinsurgency laws, in particular the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) 1958, have ensured a climate of impunity among those fighting insurgency.
In neighbouring Manipur, this became evident even in a pocket where AFSPA had been removed after public agitation following another atrocious rape and murder of a woman insurgent suspect in 2004. Fake encounter killings soared in the area in the years that followed. The intuitive understanding of those tasked with counterinsurgency duty has come to be that action towards this cause will have little or no legal consequence. What happened at Mon is new evidence of this. It too reeked of the attitude that in these wild lawless territories, mistakes, even if they spell immense losses to civilian life, are part of the game.
In an invisible way, this mindset seems to have pervaded among a larger section of the population nationwide, other than just the combatants directly engaged in counterinsurgency duty. Hence, there have been a flood of expressions of anguish. These include messages from Parliament, the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and more. But many have also brushed off the tragedy as collateral damage — an inevitable part of any conflict scenario. Obviously, it was a mistake, but an unpardonable one that culminated out of the uniquely oppressive climate of impunity which has been allowed to normalise.
What is called for then is something beyond the expression of anguish or condemnation. It must instead be about repentance and ownership of responsibility for the tragedy. Therefore, it is about sharing the tragedy, represented by deeds and sacrifices that also pinch the giver; not just about buying truce at affordable prices. According to a report from Kohima, the central government has agreed to pay ₹11 lakh as ex gratia to each family of those killed. The State government is to pay ₹5 lakh each.
Though commendable, this gesture would hardly make for a true language of repentance. If for instance the gesture was for ₹11 crore each, that would have been closer to saying sorry. It would also have sent out the message to those likely to commit them again that such mistakes come at immense costs. Saying sorry could have also been accompanied with a gesture such as declaring AFSPA, which has come to be seen as a symbol of oppression across the region, abrogated.
What is also intriguing is the nature of the intelligence which led to the ambush. Almost all insurgent factions that matter in Nagaland are in ‘ceasefire agreement’ with the Government of India and engaged in peace talks. If there were still perfidies committed by these groups, such as extortion and intimidation, they should have amounted to breaches of ceasefire ground rules; not challenges to the Indian state. Obviously then, the Naga underground faction noted in this report must have been one which had still to enter into the ceasefire agreement. Reports indicate this is the faction led by Yung Aung, the nephew of NSCN-K founder, the late S.S. Khaplang. But Yung Aung’s support base is in Myanmar. So could he still have been seen as a threat to India’s integrity?
In a nutshell, when insurrection began in Nagaland, there was only one group — A.Z. Phizo’s Naga National Council. This group entered into a peace agreement with the Government of India in 1975 as the Shillong Accord. A group calling itself the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), broke away in protest, in 1980. But the NSCN also split into two, violently, in 1988, with S.S. Khaplang, a Myanmar Naga, leading one faction and the other led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu. While the latter remains more or less cohesive, the Khaplang faction splintered a number of times.
The pattern of these splits is also interesting. In all cases, the separations were broadly between the Indian and the Myanmar Nagas; the Indian Naga factions end up entering the ongoing ceasefire making observers suspect the influence of the Indian intelligence to be behind these splits. This is understandable too, for India could not have entered into any truce with Myanmar nationals. The last of these splits, in 2018, followed this pattern. After Khaplang’s death in 2017, the leadership mantle of the NSCN-K passed on to Khango Konyak, an Indian Naga. Then, in a bloodless coup in 2018, Khango Konyak was impeached and Yung Aung took over leadership. The former returned to India and entered the ongoing ceasefire.
The question now is whether the tragic development would have any lasting impact on the ongoing peace talks now presumed to be in its final stage. Considering the combat fatigue of the Nagas, maybe not. But this would also depend greatly on the Indian state’s ability to say sorry from the heart and not just bargain for just another quid pro quo truce in the present tragedy.
Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and the author of ‘The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers’. A version of this article first appeared in The Hindu