On 4 December, a vehicle carrying eight coal miners in Nagaland was ambushed by the Army’s elite 21 Para Special Forces, who were engaged in a counter-insurgency mission. Six people died, while two were admitted with serious injuries in a nearby hospital.
The events of 4 December have left the otherwise peaceful and serene environment of Oting village in Mon district of Nagaland, which was getting prepared for Christmas, scarred and traumatised.
“We don’t want the Indian Army to come to Oting village. We don’t want anyone to disturb Mon,” says Phamsa Konyak, wife of late Phaokam Konyak, in deep anguish.
Phaokam was among the 13 civilians killed by the Indian Army in a botched counter-insurgency operation on 4 December, when the Army’s special forces “based on credible intelligence” mistook them for “insurgents”.
The incident took place at Tiru village in Mon district of Nagaland, just about 5-6 kms away from Oting village where the workers working in coal mine fields lived.
Phaokam, who worked in the coal mines of the village, was the sole breadwinner of his family, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and a year-old son.
The Quint went to the ground to tell the story from the place where it all happened.
When we entered Mon district of Nagaland on 8 December, we could see 'Revoke AFSPA' banners put up.
Enacted in 1958, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), applicable in four of the seven states of the North-east and Jammu and Kashmir, grants special powers to the Army to maintain public order in "disturbed areas”. Nagaland is under the law.
When we reached Oting village which is on a hilltop, a pall of gloom was seen as the villagers were left scarred with the incident of 4 December that had killed 13 of their own. A meeting was held at the Morung (public meeting hall) to discuss the incident that had brought the village to a still.
While talking to the villagers, I could understand that the villagers were vexed with some media houses over misreporting, and that had created mistrust among the villagers.
At that moment, some men came and said that they wouldn't allow any more journalists to meet the bereaved families, as the families were tired of speaking to the press and needed space to grieve. It took me sometime to finally persuade them to allow me to meet the families, and they agreed to let me meet just one family.
Chemwang Konyak, father of late Shomwang Konyak who was killed on 4 December, looked frail and tired as he awaits justice for his son.
“We want the Indian Army personnel and the commandos who were involved in the killing of my son to be identified and tried under the civil courts,” he told me.
“I want the draconian AFSPA to be repealed,” he added.
While speaking to the villagers, they were unanimous in the call for repealing AFSPA, and also demanded that the security forces who were behind the killings be identified and tried in the criminal court of law.
They also demanded that union home minister Amit Shah, who had said in the Parliament that the Army had "resorted to retaliatory firing in self-defence", must withdraw his statement.
KEAPWANG HAD LOST THREE OF HIS COUSINS
I was assisted to the families of those affected by a person named Keapwang. The president of Oting Students' Union, Keapwang had lost three of his cousins in the botched operation.
After meeting the family, he took us to the cemetery in the village where the bodies were laid to rest. The 13 graves were buried together and were bordered by thatched palm leaves.
Enroute to the cemetery, Keapwang remained stone-faced. The anguish in his eyes, however, could be seen. The emotional exhaustion could be felt. All when he silently looked into the graves of his three cousins—32-year-old Shomwang and 23-year-old twin brothers, Lamwang and Thapwang.
Ironed blazers and traditional Naga bags hung over the graves, along with some food items and water that were laid beside, as the Nagas believe in afterlife.
“We don’t have much deaths in this village. You can see only two-three graves here. The mass graves of 13 of our brothers is a shock that we can never recover from,” he laments.
Next, from Oting village, we left for Tiru, where the incident took place. The area had the presence of Nagaland police as well as forensics team, and crime scene tapes were put across the area.
Meanwhile, Keapwang, who accompanied me to the site of the ambush, initially hesitated to speak on the camera. He had said that he was the first one to have found the bodies and that is why his account was crucial for the story. However, later, after many requests, he agreed to speak on the camera and tell the story.
“Indian Army’s uniform is the most respected uniform in India. This was shocking that they could do this to our people,” Keapwang had said.
NAGALAND ASSEMBLY PASSES RESOLUTION FOR AFSPA REPEAL
With the incident of December 4 and 5 in Oting and Mon town, the demand for repealing of AFSPA has become stronger.
The Nagaland Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the Centre repeal the controversial AFSPA,1958, from the state and rest of the Northeast.
Condemning the civilian killings, the resolution, moved by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, demanded that the appropriate authority issue an apology for the 'massacre', and that justice be delivered to the perpetrators.