Following a tip-off a couple of attainable motion of insurgents, trigger-happy armed forces shot useless 13 harmless civilians in Mon district of Nagaland on December 4. Rahul Karmakar reconstructs the occasions of that tragic day which have soured relations between the villagers and the armed forces and led to protests towards the AFSPA
Seven minutes earlier than all hell broke unfastened, Kepwang Wangsa Konyak recalled handing over his cellphone to a soldier on the passenger seat of one of many three SUVs parked halfway on the steep kutcha highway between the hilltop Oting village and the coal mines of Tiru Valley near Assam. The soldier, his face barely seen at midnight, seemed to be in command. He was the one one who spoke however in monosyllables.
Kepwang, the president of the Oting College students’ Union, was amongst scores of villagers who had converged previous 10 p.m. on December 4 on the spot from the place that they had heard a volley of gunshots about six hours earlier. Some had come down from Oting village about 4 km uphill and a few from Higher Tiru and the adjoining Decrease Tiru villages a few kilometres downhill.
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Kepwang, based mostly in Mon, the headquarters of Nagaland’s Mon district about 65 km away, was not presupposed to be in Oting that evening. The loss of life of an aged neighbour had introduced him residence on December 3, greater than a fortnight earlier than his typical journey to the village for Christmas.
He rode all the way down to Tiru Valley the next afternoon to meet up with pals and kinfolk working within the coal mines. He was significantly all in favour of assembly his “richer” cousin Shomwang, proprietor of a coal mine, and extracting ₹500 from him for khana-peena (meals and drinks).
“I used to be having tea and snacks together with his cash at Tamulbari (a junction from the place the highway to Oting snakes up from close to the opencast mines) when Shomwang drove previous in his pickup truck, carrying seven of my pals and cousins. He turned in the direction of Oting,” Kepwang mentioned.
Minutes later, at about 4:30 p.m, Kepwang heard gunshots within the course the place the pickup truck had gone out of view. The gunshots have been not like these produced by the ever-present muzzle-loading searching rifles that nearly each grownup Konyak male villager carries as a behavior, together with a machete.
It had been some time for the reason that individuals of Oting and close by hamlets had heard such gunshots. Members of two rival extremist teams had an trade of fireplace in a jungle near Oting in 2001. Three extremists and a soldier had died in two encounters over the previous 5 years — one between Oting and Wangla village and the opposite at Lapa village. The pictures of December 4 despatched a chill down Kepwang’s backbone; he knew one thing was incorrect.
‘Night time of insanity’
“The thoughts mentioned encounter, however the coronary heart hoped not. There have been 10 bikes at Tamulbari on the time the pictures have been fired. All of us headed uphill, with three of us who knew learn how to converse in Hindi and English main the way in which. Some troopers stopped us about 200 metres from the place the presumed encounter occurred and we took a detour to Oting as advised to,” Kepwang mentioned.
The villagers grew fearful when eight of their sons didn’t attain residence after greater than three hours. A public announcement sanctioned by the Angh, the native king, was made concerning the lacking males and the necessity to seek for them. Messages have been additionally despatched to their brethren in Tiru Valley.
“The Military autos, all Assam-registered and pushed by civilians, have been prepared to depart after we reached the spot. We noticed within the near-darkness three troopers bounce onto the again of a pickup truck and attempt to cowl one thing. I reached out and felt a head, a leg and a hand, chilly and sticky. I withdrew my hand instinctively, requested the troopers what was up. They didn’t communicate,” Kepwang mentioned.
He went to the automobile the place the soldier who gave the impression to be in command sat. “At 10:12 p.m., I referred to as the DC (Deputy Commissioner of Mon district, Thavaseelan Ok.) and advised him one thing unhealthy had occurred. I handed over the cellphone to the soldier and requested him to talk to the DC. I don’t know what they mentioned, however the soldier handed the cellphone again to me after about two minutes when my sister referred to as in desperation to find out about our lacking males,” Kepwang mentioned.
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The sister’s name most likely saved Kepwang’s life. As he moved away from the Military automobile to talk, some villagers noticed the our bodies on the pickup truck and charged on the troopers, who exited the autos, snatched three bikes of the villagers and went in the direction of the Assam border. “They have been capturing on the run, as if we have been enemies,” Wangnai, one of many 35 survivors of that “evening of insanity”, mentioned from his hospital mattress in Dimapur, Nagaland’s industrial hub about 250 km southwest of Oting. He’s recovering from two bullet accidents.
Earlier than lengthy, the spot changed into a battleground — refined firearms versus machetes — leaving seven villagers useless and the Military autos in flames. When the native police arrived, there have been 13 our bodies, six of them coal miners killed at round 4:30 p.m. in what the Military referred to as a case of “mistaken identification”. One of many slain coal miners was Shomwang, shot via the windscreen.
Lacking amongst those that Shomwang was driving again to Oting have been Sheiwang and Yeihwang. The troopers, mentioned to be from an elite commando unit, had reportedly evacuated and dropped them on the Assam Medical Faculty and Hospital in Dibrugarh. On December 22, Sheiwang was shifted to the Gauhati Medical Faculty and Hospital for additional remedy whereas Yeihwang was anticipated to be discharged from the Dibrugarh hospital quickly after Christmas.
A signboard quoting Mahatma Gandhi greets individuals getting into Nagaland’s Namsa from Assam’s Namtola throughout a rickety bridge spanning a stream that just about demarcates the inter-State boundary. It reads: “The longer term depends upon what we do within the current.” The signboard is near a flex poster displaying the pictures of the 14 civilians killed on December 4 and the resultant unrest in Mon city on December 5. Related posters are strung at strategic factors alongside the highway to Mon and elsewhere in Nagaland, a reminder of the larger objective — the repeal of the Armed Forces (Particular Powers) Act (AFSPA) of 1958 that’s believed to offer the armed forces personnel the licence to kill — in addition to the struggle for justice to the victims of the botched Military operation.
Tahwang Angh, whose kingdom contains Oting and Tiru Valley, agrees with the Konyak Union that the way forward for the Nagas must be protected by guaranteeing the current is answerable for the “cold-blooded murders within the identify of counter-insurgency operations based mostly on credible intelligence”. The union is the apex physique of the Konyaks, considered one of Nagaland’s 14 principal Naga communities, that dominates the Mon district.
The Angh’s standout two-storey home is on the tip of the hill on which Oting rests, lording over 221 different homes. His home is barely 400 metres from the village cemetery the place recent graves are beneath shades product of bamboo and palm leaves. The freshest is the mass grave of 12 of Oting’s sons laid in a row, every — in keeping with Konyak customized — adorned by his worldly possessions. The thirteenth sufferer is buried in his native village, Higher Tiru.
“That ought to have been me mendacity there as a substitute of him,” 65-year-old Monyam mentioned, pointing to one of many graves by which Langtun (36) lay buried. “God has maybe punished me for some sin I’ll have dedicated.”
Monyam had grown used to his elder son, who joined the Nagaland Armed Police 10 years in the past, staying away for months because of safety assignments elsewhere within the State. “I must make it a behavior to have a good time Christmas with out Langtun for so long as I dwell,” he mentioned, wishing the Lord would permit him sufficient time on earth to see Yingmai, Langtun’s two-month-old daughter, come of age.
Recovering in Dimapur, 30-year-old Wangnai could be away from his household for the primary time throughout Christmas. “However not less than I’m alive not like a few of my saathis (pals),” he mentioned. He won’t be alone. The Konyak Union has issued an order asking all members of the group in Nagaland and elsewhere within the Northeast to chorus from merry-making, feasting and any sort of extravagance. “Solely church providers, particular prayers and marriages have been exempted. We owe this a lot to our brothers who’ve died for no fault of theirs,” Wango Konyak, the union’s secretary, mentioned.
T. Nokyem, the pastor of Oting’s Baptist Church, introduced the quietest Christmas ever for the village throughout a particular service for the departed on the night of December 22, a day after all of the villagers marched to the spot the place the incident had taken place. They provided prayers close to Shomwang’s bullet-riddled pickup truck and the burnt Military autos, cordoned off by crime scene tapes, and vowed to not relent except the killers are punished and the individuals who matter in India supply an unconditional apology.
“In 12 years of my service as a pastor, I’ve by no means skilled a Christmas of grief. We are going to go to the graves of our males and pray for his or her souls and in addition for good sense to the trigger-happy,” the pastor mentioned.
Village elders mentioned the hill the place Oting stands at the moment was chosen within the late 1800s for its strategic location – near the plains of present-day Assam and providing vantage factors to maintain a watch on enemies in case of a battle. “Our individuals by no means ever joined the underground teams and we have now not less than 20 of our males within the armed forces, with whom we have now had a cordial relationship for a very long time. We by no means imagined they’d do to us what even enemies might not,” Kepwang mentioned.
“Why is it so troublesome for the Military and the Authorities of India to confess their mistake and apologise with out giving operational excuses? God forbid, what would have occurred had our individuals killed 14 troopers? Would we have now been residing in peace,” the pastor requested, recalling Operation Bluebird at Oinam village in Manipur’s Senapati district in 1987. An account by the Naga Folks’s Motion for Human Rights mentioned 27 individuals, together with kids, have been starved or tortured to loss of life in a counter-insurgency operation following an assault on a publish of the paramilitary Assam Rifles by the Isak-Muivah faction of the extremist Nationwide Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN (I-M).
A coal-powered native financial system
Mon and the adjoining Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh have seldom been the area of the NSCN (I-M) not like its rival Khaplang faction. The NSCN (I-M) has been on ceasefire mode since 1997. The split-prone NSCN (Khaplang), now NSCN (Ok-Yung Aung), adopted swimsuit in 2001 however walked out of the peace course of in March 2015.
The topography – dense jungles, troublesome hills and poor roads – of those two districts provided passages for the Myanmar-based NSCN (Ok/Ok-YA) to hold out hit-and-run operations. The districts additionally turned conduits for the members of the Assam-based United Liberation Entrance of Asom (Impartial).
A file ready by the Military earlier than the December 4 incident mentioned extremists of assorted shades use the tea, coal and oil belt from Nagaland’s Namsa within the northeast via Oting, Tiru and Naginimora within the southwest for extortion.
In keeping with the Nagaland Coal Coverage, 2005, by the State Directorate of Geology and Mining, Nagaland has a complete coal reserve of 150 million metric tonnes. Borjan and Tiru Valley in Mon district, Konya in Tuensang district and Changki-Merakeyong in Mokokchung district have a complete confirmed reserve of 11 MMTs.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee (2020-21), tabled within the 60-member State Meeting, mentioned 44 out of 49 coal mining models recognized by the Nagaland Air pollution Management Board had no authorisation. The coal mining practised within the State is generally rat-hole however some districts have opencast mining, the report added.
The coal mines of Tiru Valley, on one financial institution of the Teyep River snaking in the direction of Assam, are about 20 years outdated. Mining on the opposite financial institution past which Oting is located is domestically prohibited for attainable harm to the panorama sustaining the tea, broomstick and betel web growers of the world. These have been the prime sources of earnings for the villagers earlier than they struck coal to make thrice the cash in every day wages.
The Military report mentioned the valley has 51 coal mines owned by as many or fewer individuals. Every mine produces a mean of 10,000 tonnes of coal every year, every tonne fetching a mean value of ₹1,00,000. Whereas a landowner will get ₹800-1,000 per tonne as royalty, the extremists reportedly extract not less than ₹5 lakh per coal mine a yr.
“Aside from Tiru, the unlawful coal mines within the Mon district are at Nokzang, Wakching and Pogong… A number of native mine house owners favour the presence of the Assam Rifles, because the rebel teams who run parallel methods of taxation typically demand cash from them. The Assam Rifles gives a deferent in these areas,” a senior Military officer acquainted with the world mentioned.
There’s a idea that the particular commando unit may have been taken for a experience with planted details about the motion of NSCN (Ok-YA) members on December 4 in a automobile just like the one Shomwang drove, in a bid to maintain the armed forces away from the coal belt. “After the incident, many villagers concern that it could take ages for the connection with the armed forces to fix,” the officer mentioned.
The Oting villagers trash the “presumption” that mining is managed by the extremists. They level to Article 371A that ensures particular rights to the Nagas with regard to the possession of land and pure sources. “There isn’t any query of the mining actions being unlawful for the reason that authorities has little to do with it. Mining is finished via correct agreements with contractors from Assam and elsewhere within the nation, they usually embody some Bharatiya Janata Occasion MLAs,” a villager mentioned, declining to be quoted.
However the Oting Citizen, a discussion board of the villagers, admitted they’ve been charging ₹500-1,000 as “tax” per dumper carrying 15-16 tonnes of coal at a verify gate opening into Assam the place the coal is often bought. “We’ve got been utilizing the cash collected since 2019 to construct pathways and different public facilities as a result of the federal government hasn’t finished that for us. A shortcut to Mon and the monitor to Tiru, which saves time for our individuals going to Assam, are examples of such tasks,” a member of the discussion board mentioned.
The villagers hope the cash from the coal mines – their lifeline – would sometime assist them carry piped water to Oting; tankers employed by them make a number of journeys to a spring 15 km downhill every day. And restore the “principal highway” to Namsa that was paved within the Nineties.
No to AFSPA
An answer to the “Naga political problem” has been as elusive as Oting’s want for a correct highway. Whereas the Naga Nationwide Political Teams, a conglomerate of seven rival organisations, mentioned the Oting bloodbath may taint the peace course of, the NSCN (I-M) upped the ante towards the AFSPA.
The 60-member Nagaland Meeting adopted a decision for the repeal of the AFSPA and demanded an apology from the “acceptable authority” for the botched Military operation on December 4. “The incident was a misuse and abuse of the AFSPA that merely must go,” the State’s Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio mentioned, insisting on efforts to strengthen the peace course of dented by the “senseless operation”.
Nagaland’s ache has been felt by its north-eastern neighbours and the nation past. As an illustration, Kohima-based poet Beni Sumer Yanthan’s poem titled ‘Oting’ has been translated into the Tamil.
The individuals of Oting hope the December 4 case, initially registered on the Tizit police station and being probed by the Particular Investigation Staff headed by Inspector-Common of Police, Limasunep Jamir, would supply justice to the victims. Additionally they hope a probe constituted by the Military would for as soon as repair duties.
The households of the victims had initially declined to just accept the compensation of ₹16 lakh every provided by the Central and State governments. They’ve all accepted the compensation though it “can’t actually fill the vacuum of their lives,” Mon’s Deputy Commissioner Thavaseelan Ok. mentioned. “We can’t carry the useless again to life, however the authorities can set an instance by displaying nobody can kill with impunity, with or with out a protecting defend,” Nenwang mentioned. His youthful twin brothers Langwang and Thapwang have been among the many 13 who have been gunned down on December 4.
Alem, Langtun’s widow, recounted how passionately he had uttered “until loss of life do us half” throughout their wedding ceremony on the village church a bit greater than a yr in the past. “He had so little time to dwell…” she mentioned, preventing again the tears, additionally recalling how Langtun would kiss their daughter Yingmai goodbye on Monday mornings and would caress her after returning on Saturday evenings.
“I would like Yingmai to develop up in a world the place individuals pursuing a livelihood don’t depart residence endlessly,” she mentioned.