Things have come a full circle yet again. What has changed between 1995 and 2021? Over 26 years.
This columnist was 25 then and a bachelor; and today – I am a father of a doting daughter and on the wrong side of 50.
The Nagas were waiting for a Christmas gift and peace and solution to the decade old insurgency issue.
The Home Ministry mandarins said the peace talks initiated in 1997 during the tenure of I.K. Gujral as the Prime Minister has reached advanced stage.
Instead, on December 4, three weeks before the Prince of Peace, Jesus birthday is celebrated, so many innocent Naga lives were lost.
It may not be wrong to argue that insurgency and military operations more often work like a vicious cycle. Only on November 13, 2021, in Churachandpur areas of Manipur, Colonel Viplav Tripathi, his wife and their nine-year-old boy were killed in an ambush.
In less than a month’s time, now violence visited Mon district in Nagaland. Four of those killed belonged to two families. Two brothers each. Thapwang and Langwang were sons of one Leiwang while Yeihwang and Shomwang belonged to the family of another villager Chemwang.
Why guns tend to have say?
In the words of veteran Naga leader S.C. Jamir: “The state of Nagaland was born out of tears and blood and through much pain and travails.”
Things have not changed after decades of arson and killing. December 4, 2021 would go down as a Black Day when ‘mistaken’ identity has cost 15 Naga lives. It is worse the victims were innocuous native Konyak tribe coal miners. The merciless killing took place at the hands of security forces.
“For decades now the Naga people have been demanding withdrawal of AFSPA but it continues. I fail to understand why it has continued even even after peace negotiations between the Naga groups and the Government of India was initiated in 1997,” says Y.Z. Ovung of the Lotha Baptist Church in Dimapur.
Standing in Lok Sabha, appearing pensive and embarrassed, Home Minister Amit Shah said that it was a case of “mistaken identity”.
His plea was army had intelligence inputs of the movement of a militant group based out of Myanmar (NSCN-YK) and when the pick up
vehicle did not after it was signaled to do so, the security personnel opened fire killing six of the eight people on the spot.
Others lost their lives later.
In both the Houses of Parliament, Shah expressed “regrets” and extended condolences to the bereaved families.
It is not for the first time such a bungled operation took place in the northeast.
In Nagaland itself, another such ‘Black Day’ was March 5, 1995. Paradoxically, S.C. Jamir was the Chief Minister and the incumbent state Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio – was then a dutiful Congressman and a trusted lieutenant of Jamir.
The incident had claimed eight lives, including few youngsters, when Rashtriya Rifles returning from election duty in the neighbouring state of Manipur went berserk in the southern part of Kohima mistaking a “tyre burst” to an ambush.
This journalist was inside AIR, Kohima, newsroom that fateful day and made a miraculous escape.
We were four in that room when bombs flew over the small tinned building we were in. I was accompanied by a Lotha Naga news reader, one Keralite AIR staffer and two Kuki gentlemen.
We had taken shelter under a table. The fear of death had united four people from different socio-political and linguistic background. Needless to add, we were shivering.
Did you get it right, “Dar sab ko lagta hain”… as that popular commercial ad goes.
My aging parents had summoned me back home in West Bengal but native Nagas remained clueless for days not knowing what was stored in their fate in the name of combing operation and retaliatory violence.
Two journalists (non-Nagas) belonging to the PTI and UNI later had to leave/flee state capital Kohima permanently and the then Deputy Commissioner Kohima, L.V. Reddy was killed few days later.
The journalists had to flee because they had reported that it was “reciprocation” action by the Rashtriya Rifles and Reddy’s fault line was – he was quoted in the agency dispatches.
One of the journalists later went missing mysteriously either from Sikkim or Kolkata.
In my book “The Talking Guns: North East India”, published in 2008, I had written: “The tension was palpable as reports suggested that Nagas would avenge this ‘Indian insult’ from non-Nagas and conflicting media reports only added fuel to fire.”
Come to circa 2021, my point is this gory episode should have been avoided. In today’s social-media hyped world, how did forces and the personnel believe that their actions and misadventure would go unrecorded?
The government is stating the obvious that a Military Court of Inquiry has been ordered and also an SIT probe would be conducted.
The wrong doers ought to be punished in these cases.
Did the Rashtriya Rifles officers and soldiers were punished, one does not know.
The episode has brought the debate on Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) back in the public fore.
“The draconian law AFSPA legitimises killing on mere suspicion. It has once again prematurely ended so many precious lives. This incident is a reminder of what our older folk have faced in yester-years,” laments Baptist Naga leader, Rev V Atsi Dolie.
In July 2021, opposition leaders had penned a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind to take actions to withdraw some of the draconian and black laws.
These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA); section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era legislation; the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA) and Disturbed Area; and the AFSPA.
The letter was written on the background of the death of Father Stan Swamy.
However, those of us who have been tracking northeast has a different experience. In Manipur, during the stint of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one Chief Minister had insisted that the Disturbed Areas Act and the AFSPA should be withdrawn. However, when a top general met him in Delhi and said, “we are withdrawing from Manipur as you desire”, the said politician had shot back: “What will happen to the law and order situation then”.
The moral of the lesson is – nobody really has a short cut to the solution to some of these complex questions.
The military treatment of the malady has been that the only language the ultras understand is hardcore counter-terrorism.
The other side also plays havoc. Otherwise, what do they gain by planting bombs in a public cinema hall at Kohima. That explosion had left my senior journalist friend Lelie Legisie maimed.
The state capital Kohima had no public cinema hall since then.
(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is also author of books, ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’)