India’s militarized Nagaland calls for an end to military impunity

OTING, India — Technically, there’s no more war in Nagaland, but peace isn’t certain either. What India’s remote northeast state has are plenty of soldiers, keeping their hands heavy and sparking growing anger among locals who say change is long overdue.

Those tensions boiled over in December near the hilltop village of Oting, when Indian army special forces mistook ethnic Naga villagers for rebels and opened fire on a truck returning them home after working in a coal mine.

Survivors say there was no warning before the bullets flew, killing six people. By nightfall, the death toll had risen to 13 civilians and an army soldier, as an angry mob – some armed with machetes – clashed with soldiers, who again opened fire.

Among the dead was C. Shomwang Konyak, the chairman of the village church youth group, who did seasonal work at the coal mine for about $15 a day. He was 32, his father said.

“The Indian army killed my son,” his father, Chemwang Konyak, said in an interview in his backyard. “He was not an underground rebel, not an underground partisan. There is no underground rebel cadre movement here.

Nagaland, a state of more than two million people, was once a battleground, the site of a separatist rebellion that spanned more than five decades. But a ceasefire was agreed 25 years ago and has mostly held since then. The area around Oting had been quiet for years, according to local officials and residents.

But a heavy military occupation remains, authorized under a Special Powers Act that the Indian government has been reluctant to overturn. Locals complain that the impunity soldiers enjoy under the act has made them abusive and that the military presence has set back local law enforcement and governance – and led to deadly mistakes like the one in Oting.

The killings sparked widespread protests and drew attention to the measure, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was put in place in the 1950s when a newly independent India faced a wave of uprisings and insurgencies, particularly in the northeast.

Most of them have ended – or, as in Nagaland, have been quiet for the past few years. But the Special Powers Act remains the law of the land in two full states and one territory, and parts of two other states where there are similar complaints of hampered local governance and pervasive fear.

“There is no logic for this form of militarization in an area where you are supposed to have a ceasefire and where you claim you have democracy,” said Sanjay Barbora, a professor at the Tata Institute of social scientists who has written extensively on counterinsurgency efforts in the northeast. “It empowers everyone who wears the uniform and allows the military to do whatever it wants.”

The people of Nagaland have been in something of a vacuum since 1997, when a ceasefire was established between separatist rebels and the army, but left both sides armed and holding their territory.

Talks for a permanent peace agreement have begun, but 25 years later there is no final settlement. Rebel groups were not suppressed, but allowed to control fiefs as long as they did not target soldiers. Depending on where they live, residents can be harassed by both the army and the rebels.

“There are many factions underground, and they also run their own government with impunity,” said SC Jamir, who served as Nagaland’s chief minister for 15 years across four terms. “The public remains silent on all issues because they are afraid of gun culture.”

In Nagaland and other areas governed by the Special Powers Act, the military is still allowed to search, stop and open fire without a warrant or charge, and soldiers enjoy near-total immunity from prosecution. .

While Nagaland’s armed forces have carried out far fewer raids and operations in recent years, locals say the refusal to remove the special powers measure perpetuates an environment of fear and daily harassment that only makes the news when a fatal error occurs. Many described a sense of humiliation at being treated like second-class citizens and constantly watched by an outside force that is not accountable to the elected local government.

“There are random digs and digs everywhere – without prior information they come, they raid,” said K. Elu Ndang, general secretary of a group of local tribal groups in Nagaland. “It’s very embarrassing for the public – it’s mental torture.”

The December killings in Oting reignited protests against this act, commonly referred to as AFSPA. Calls for its repeal have come from activists and peace marchers, but also from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allies in Nagaland, including the state’s chief minister. In late December, the Nagaland State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for the repeal of the law.

The site of the killings, a narrow stretch of dirt road with bamboo forests on either side, immediately turned into an exhibition of the perils of militarization and a protest camp against it. Burned out army vehicles are cordoned off with police tape. The ambushed truck is covered in bullet marks on the windshield and blood on the seats. The area is dotted with protest signs: “STOP KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE,” some read.

Chongmei Konyak, 43, said his left foot was hit by a bullet during the violence after the initial ambush. He had served in the army for 15 years and was working in the coal mine that day.

“Why is the Indian Army killing innocent people in the name of AFSPA?” Mr. Konyak said from his hospital bed. “They keep the insurgency alive.”

General Manoj Mukund Naravane, the Indian army chief, called the episode “very regrettable” and said an investigation was underway.

“Based on the findings of the investigation, appropriate action will be taken,” Mr. Naravane told reporters this month.

There are disputes over why it took so long to reach a final peace settlement. One of the sticking points is borders, with the Nagas wanting the incorporation of parts of territory that have been added to neighboring states. These territorial disputes between northeastern states have recently resulted in deadly clashes.

While the Nagas have given up on their demand for full autonomy, wishing to share sovereignty and allow the central government to control certain issues such as defense and foreign policy, some analysts regard the Indian state’s slow response as a strategy of waiting for the Nagas to come out. Rebel factions continue to fight for resources and the older generation is dying out.

GK Pillai, who was involved in negotiations when he was India’s home minister from 2009 to 2011, said he repeatedly recommended the repeal of special powers for the military because that Nagaland was “as peaceful, or perhaps more peaceful, than many places, including Delhi”.

Mistrust between the two sides could only grow if a final settlement drags on, in part because of Indian government actions elsewhere in the country, Pillai said.

Mr Modi’s government in 2019 unilaterally revoked the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, another restive and contested region with a heavy military presence, and placed it directly under the central government without engaging with the local elected assembly. Political leaders who had for decades sided with the Indian republic in the face of militants and separatist groups have been jailed or placed under house arrest, while the military further tightens its grip.

The unilateral move in Kashmir raises fears among the Nagas that the Indian state could easily reverse any concessions it makes, Mr Pillai said.

“How can you make a decision that affects my sovereignty without my agreement? said Mr. Pillai. “They are re-evaluating this ‘shared sovereignty’. ”

During the years of relative peace under the ceasefire, young Naga sought employment in other parts of India. Now, the coronavirus pandemic’s blow to the urban economy has forced a reverse migration. In Nagaland, many young men are returning to a home where years of calm have brought little development, but a delayed peace perpetuates military and rebel abuses.

“People are very clear that this is not a military issue,” said Mr. Ndang, the tribal leader. “But if the current talks don’t bring any settlement and solution to the problem, then the next generation would be a different move.”

Hari Kumar reported from Oting, India, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.

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