INDIA: A botched up counter insurgency operation and murders most foul

Fifteen people including one soldier were killed in Mon district of the North Eastern state of Nagaland in India in what the security forces are calling a botched up operation that unfolded in several batches. Though the details of the botched up encounter are still hazy and contested, the gravity of the incident was lost on none.

As details of the wanton killings trickled in, it was clear that not only the special unit involved in the operation had killed the seven unarmed civilians returning from work in cold blood, it had also flouted the standard operation procedures mandatory for carrying out such operations. Despite their claim of the specific intelligence input of movement of suspected militants in the area, let alone getting local cops as scouts to thwart exactly the same botch up of mistaken identities, they had not even informed the local police. Further, and again, despite the later ‘the van carrying the civilians did not stop spin by the Union Home Minister,’ the first details coming out of the area had made it clear that the unit had opened fire without any warning. A Special Forces unit, set out to ambush suspected militants, would at least ensure to immobilize their vehicles instead of waiting for them to get into point blank range!

In any case, even after the first batch of civilians, miners going home after the daylong work, were killed, both the local media reports and the civilian police reports hint at the unit members rushing the injured to hospitals and taking the dead to the police.

When the kith and kin of the miners set out to look for them once they did not return in time ,the second round of gory killings unfolded. As reported by media houses, when the villagers spotted the vehicles of the unit, they were told that they were being taken to hospital. On checking themselves, the villagers found dead bodies and it was there that all hell broke loose, ending in a repeat firing and killing of a soldier.

In a rather rare instance, Assam Rifles had deeply regretted the killings and ordered inquiry despite the impunity it enjoys like other security forces under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in areas where it is enforced. The state government, of which the Bhartiya Janata Party that is leading party of the coalition that is ruling the union government of India and has majority of its own in the Lok Sabha or the lower house of the parliament, had already strongly condemned the incident and ordered to book the units responsible for murder. By the afternoon, the Union Home Minister of India Mr. Amit Shah was forced to make a statement in the parliament regretting the killings coupled with the announcement of a special investigative team probe.

At a cursory glance, the quick response seems to be caused more by the rather serious consequences these killings could have on the Indian government’s peace talks with the Naga insurgent groups than any serious rethink of its security policies and the use of draconian Acts like the AFSPA. The Act, a colonial relic, gives the security forces deployed in ‘disturbed areas’ to “take any action”- that includes even causing death of the unarmed civilians, under the Section 4 of the Act. It further reinforces the special powers, in effect impunity to the members of security forces with the section 6 which prohibits any action, including “prosecution, suit or any other legal action” against such officers, “except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by the Act.”

Evidently, the Special Powers are just another name of impunity for the security forces deployed in ‘disturbed areas’. To add insult to injury, under the Section 3 of the Act, the central government, the governor or the administration of a union territory can declare any area disturbed where they think that “the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary”.

The killings have only rekindled the debate on draconian acts like AFSPA as evidenced by the debate after the killing. The killings have also brought to the fore the question of the prosecution of those responsible with a focus of the government of India not saving them by using the impunity under AFSPA and allowing their time bound and impartial prosecution. As a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice (retd.) Madan Lokur pointed out, ‘the armed forces proactively did whatever they did. So, it would certainly qualify as an ‘intention to kill’… depending on the investigation it could, perhaps, be called ‘intention to kill’.” This is exactly what the Nagaland Police too is saying and has filed the first information report for. Justice Lokur, though, was not so certain of the permission by the centre. “I don’t know how they (Nagaland Police) are going to investigate.” He told the New Delhi Television, an Indian electronic media channel.

The only ray of hope in this long tunnel is that the pressure has only been mounting since as along with the civil society, two of the chief ministers of the seven North Eastern states, both part of the ruling BJP led alliance, have repeated the demand of repeal of the AFSPA. Maybe this time the government of India tries to understand not only the illegality of such a draconian act in its rule books but also the sentiments of the people, including its political allies and shows the political will to repeal it. This can be only tribute to those killed- both the civilians and the soldiers caught in a war of others’ making.