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

OTING, India — Technically, there is no longer any war in Nagaland, but peace doesn’t feel secure either. What the remote northeastern Indian state has is plenty of soldiers who keep a firm hand, prompting growing anger among residents who say change is long overdue.

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

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

Among the dead was C. Shomwang Konyak, president of the village church youth group, who did seasonal work at the coal mine for about $15 a day. His father said he was 32 years old.

“The Indian army killed my son,” his father Chemwang Konyak said during an interview in his yard. “He was not an underground rebel, not an above-ground supporter. There is no movement of underground rebel cadres here.”

Nagaland, a state of more than two million people, was once a battlefield, the scene of a Separatist rebellion that spanned more than five decades. But a truce was struck 25 years ago and has largely held ever since. The Oting area has been quiet for years, local officials and residents say.

But it remains a heavy military occupation, allowed under a special powers law that the Indian government is reluctant to reverse. Local residents complain that the soldiers’ impunity has left them abusive and that the military presence has stymied local law enforcement and governance – leading to deadly blunders like that in Oting.

The killings have sparked widespread protests and brought renewed attention to the measure, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was introduced in the 1950s when a newly independent India faced a wave of rebellions and insurrections, particularly in the Northeast .

Most of these have ended – or, as in Nagaland, have remained dormant in recent years. But the special powers law remains the law of the country in two entire states and one territory, and parts of two other states, where similar complaints of clogged local governance and pervasive fear persist.

“There is no logic for this form of militarization in an area where you should have a truce and where you pretend to have democracy,” said Sanjay Barbora, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who has written extensively on the Counter-insurgency efforts in the Northeast. “It empowers everyone who wears the uniform and allows the army to do as it pleases.”

The people of Nagaland have been in a state of limbo since 1997, when the ceasefire between separatist rebels and the military began.

Talks for a permanent peace deal have begun, but 25 years later there is no definitive solution. Rebel groups were not crushed, but were allowed to control fiefdoms as long as they didn’t target soldiers. Depending on where they live, residents can be harassed by both the military and rebels.

“There are many underground factions and they run their own government with impunity,” said SC Jamir, who served as Prime Minister of Nagaland for four terms for 15 years. “The public remains silent on any subject because they are afraid of the gun culture.”

In Nagaland and other areas under the Special Powers Act, the military still have permission to search, arrest and shoot without a warrant or charge, and soldiers enjoy near-total immunity from legal action.

While Nagaland’s armed forces have conducted significantly fewer raids and operations in recent years, residents say the refusal to scrap 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 as a second-class citizen and under constant scrutiny by an outside power not accountable to the elected local government.

“Random searching and searching is going on everywhere – without prior notice, they come, they ambush,” said K. Elu Ndang, secretary-general of a group of local tribal groups in Nagaland. “It’s very uncomfortable for the public – it’s mental torture.”

The December killings in Oting reignited protests against what is commonly referred to as AFSPA. Demands 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 law to be repealed.

The site of the killings, a narrow dirt road with bamboo forests on both sides, immediately turned into a demonstration of the dangers of militarization and a protest camp against it. Burnt down army vehicles are cordoned off with barrier tape. The ambushed truck is riddled with bullet holes in the windshield and blood on the seats. The area is littered with protest placards: “STOP KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE,” some read.

Chongmei Konyak, 43, said his left foot was hit by a bullet in the violence that followed 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 uprising alive.”

Indian Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane called the incident “highly regrettable” and said an investigation is underway.

“Appropriate measures will be taken based on the findings of the investigation,” Mr Naravane told reporters this month.

There is some dispute as to why it has taken so long to reach a final peace settlement. One of the sticking points concerns the borders, with the Nagas wanting the incorporation of territories added to neighboring states. Such territorial disputes between northeastern states have recently resulted in deadly clashes.

While the Nagas have backed down from their call for full autonomy, willing to share sovereignty and let the central government take control of some matters like defense and foreign policy, some analysts see the Indian state’s slow response as a strategy to wait and see the Nagas. The rebel factions continue to fight for resources, and the older generation is dying out.

GK Pillai, who was involved in negotiations as India’s interior minister from 2009 to 2011, said he had repeatedly recommended the lifting of the army’s special powers because Nagaland was “as peaceful or maybe more peaceful than many places, including Delhi”.

Distrust between the two sides could only grow if a final deal drags on, partly because of the Indian government’s actions elsewhere in the country, Mr Pillai said.

Mr Modi’s government unilaterally revoked the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, another troubled and disputed region with a heavy military presence, in 2019 and placed it directly under the central government without dealing with the local elected assembly. The political leaders who for decades had sided with the Republic of India against militants and separatist groups were jailed or placed under house arrest while the military continued to increase its influence.

The unilateral move in Kashmir has nagas concerned that the Indian state could easily reverse any concession it makes, Mr Pillai said.

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

During the years of relative peace during the ceasefire, Naga youth have looked to other parts of India for jobs. Now the blow of the coronavirus pandemic on the city’s economy has forced reverse migration. In Nagaland, many young men are returning to a homeland where years of calm have brought little development, but delayed peace continues abuses by the military and rebels.

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

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

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