“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.
VILLAGERS IN OTING ARE ANGRY
Oting, a village in Mon district of Nagaland, is nestled amidst picturesque hills and serene environment. However, the events of 4 December have brought the village to a still, which was getting ready for Christmas. All the villagers now demand is “justice”.
“We want the Indian Army personnel and the commandos who were involved in the killing of my son be identified and tried under the civil courts.”Chemwang Konyak, father of late Shomwang Konyak
Chemwang looks frail and tired as he awaits justice for his son. “I want the draconian AFSPA to be repealed,” he adds.
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.
WHAT HAPPENED ON 4-5 DECEMBER?
On 4 December, a vehicle carrying eight coal miners in Nagaland's Oting village was gunned down 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.
As workers failed to reach their homes, local youth and villagers went in search of them and surrounded the army vehicles. That’s when they found the dead bodies of the villagers in a pick-up truck.
Reacting to the incident, local villagers had set alight three Army vehicles, and the soldiers fired at them, killing seven more people. One Army personnel was also killed in the "counter firing".
Violence ensued the next day too, when on 5 December, angry mobs had vandalised the offices of the Konyak Union and set fire in parts of an Assam Rifles camp. This resulted in the death of one more civilian in the hands of security personnel and left two injured.
WITNESS RECOUNTS THE HORRORS OF 4 DEC
Keapwang, president of the Oting Student’s Union, was the first one to spot the dead bodies in the truck, he says.
“I was sitting at a shop near the coal field in Tiru around 4-4.30 pm when I heard firing sounds. However, since such an incident never took place in our village, we didn’t go to look around,” he tells me.
The mine is in Tiru valley, about 4-5 km from Oting village.
Keapwang says that there are two routes to the mine from the Oting village, one where the incident took place is a muddy road with a winding route and the another is a temporary route made by the villagers.
“The Army didn’t allow us to go from the usual route. So, we had to change our route, and went back home," he said.
"But, when my brothers didn’t return, few of us went to look for them at around 8-8.30 pm. We found the bullet-ridden and damaged pick-up truck in which the workers were travelling at one side. We understood something went terribly wrong,” he adds.
“That’s when we stopped the Army vehicle and searched for the bodies and found it there. Naturally, we got angry since men from our tribe were killed,” Keapwang says.
VILLAGERS REJECT SELF-DEFENSE THEORY
Two days after the killings, on 6 December, Home Minister Amit Shah had said in the Parliament that six civilians in the pick-up truck were killed in an ambush by the Army due to “mistaken identity” and that when locals had set alight vehicles, the Army had fired in “self-defence” which caused the death of seven more civilians that night.
“Amit Shah must come to the village and inspect the scene himself,” said an angry villager, who rejected the “self-defense” theory.
“What Amit Shah said is totally unacceptable,” he added.
A FAMILY LOSES THREE MEMBERS DUE TO "MISTAKEN IDENTITY"
Keapwang has lost three of his cousins in the botched operation. Enroute to the cemetery, he remained stone-faced but emotions in his eyes could be read. The anguish in his face 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.
Blazers and traditional Naga bags hung over their graves, along with some food items and water laid beside.
“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 we can never recover from,” he laments.
“Indian Army’s uniform is the most respected uniform in India. This was shocking that they could do this to our people,” Keapwang says.
The Nagas of Oting now mourns its dead. What remains is anger and a deep distrust and the demand for justice.