On 4th December 2021, the Indian armed forces ambushed and killed 13 daily wage labourers who work in the coal mines of Tiru, bordering the state of Assam. These coal miners from the Mon district were on their usual journey home from the coal mine to spend Sunday with their families before returning for duty on Monday. Besides these 13 people who have died, another 11 persons are injured, while two are reported missing.
Is this an isolated incident, or has such a “mistake” happened for the first time in Nagaland? Unfortunately, that is not the case. In 1995, in Kohima, soldiers shot indiscriminately after mistaking the sound of a tire burst for a bomb attack. As a result, seven civilians, including two girls aged three and eight, were killed. A further 22 were seriously injured, including seven children.
Coming back to the December 4th incidence, in a statement expressing regret for the “unfortunate loss of lives”, the Army said its personnel had launched the security operation based on “credible intelligence of likely movement of insurgents”. On their part, all political organisations and leaders of different parliamentarian parties have condemned the incident. Union Home Minister, the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister of Nagaland have also joined the condemnation. The government of Nagaland has constituted a 5-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the incidence. But we are also aware that though the messages of condolences and assurance for justice flow from politicians’ lips and twitter feeds, nothing much may happen in reality. This is because the history of holding perpetrators of state violence in Northeast India is appalling. Hence, we need to look into the real reasons behind the incidence.
Before going into that, let us recall the experience of the BJP’s Mon district unit president, who had tried to go to the spot after the killing took place. He had reported that the soldiers had charged at them and had opened fire indiscriminately. All three persons accompanying him were wounded, and one of them eventually succumbed to the bullet injuries. He felt that “they (soldiers) were joyously firing at us (Khushi Khushi maar raha tha)”.
This statement brings out the true feeling of the Army and the impunity they enjoy. What allows the Army to act in such a manner? This power is provided to them through the Armed forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, (1958). Like many draconian laws of our country, this law also has its origin in a 1942 ordinance. While the foreign power had tried to contain the freedom struggle, in independent India, the AFSPA has been used to trample democratic rights in Nagaland and all the seven sister states of N.E. and the Kashmir valley. The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot to kill, arrest on a flimsy pretext, conduct warrantless searches, and demolish structures in the name of “aiding civil power.” Equipped with these special powers, soldiers have raped, tortured, “disappeared,” and killed Indian citizens for five decades without fear of being held accountable. The Act violates international human rights law provisions, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It also denies the victims of the abuses the right to a remedy. Such gross abuse of power was seen in the Manorama case in Manipur and in several cases in Jammu and Kashmir.
Faced by many such instances, in July 2016, the Supreme court had ruled out the “concept of absolute immunity” for the Army and police. In 2017, the top court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigation into 97 alleged cases of extrajudicial killings by the Indian Army, Assam Rifles and the Manipur Police in insurgency-hit Manipur. In August 2018, while seeking an update on the CBI probe, the bench had chastised the agency for not arresting the officers in murder cases. The court had also commented that CBI was letting “murderers” roam free. The Commission, headed by former judge Santosh Hegde with former Chief Election Commission J.M. Lyngdoh and retired IPS officer A.K. Singh as its members, was formed by the apex court to investigate alleged cases of extra cases judicial killings in Manipur. In its 100-page report, the Commission pointed out that the six sample cases of encounters it investigated found that they were “not genuine” and that “maximum force” was used to kill people. “Though the Act gives sweeping powers to security forces even to extend of killing a suspect with protection against prosecution, it does not provide any protection to the citizens against its possible misuse…Normally, the greater the power, the greater the restraint and stricter the mechanism to prevent its misuse or abuse. But in case of the AFSPA in Manipur this principle appears to have been reversed,” the report had added.
In response to the Supreme Court of India’s concerns about the existing impunity, the Union government had claimed that the soldiers responsible for human rights violations have to face military courts. Any dilution of the AFSPA will undermine the morale of the armed forces. Indian armed forces have also argued that the civil courts should keep off from the military justice system. Under the Army Act, the military may transfer a soldier from civilian to military custody for offences that can be tried through a court-martial. However, available information shows scant evidence that the Army is fully and effectively prosecuting soldiers and officers for abuses committed by them.
At the opening ceremony of the 2021 Hornbill Festival, the Governor of Nagaland Prof. Jagdish Mukhi had encouraged the young Naga generation to take pride in their tradition. As a mark of protest against the December 4th killing of innocent, unarmed civilians, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) have withdrawn from the state-sponsored Hornbill Festival of 2021. But it is also the right time for the people of Nagaland as also the people of other affected northeastern states to remind themselves that opposing the continuation of the AFSPA is also a part of their tradition.
CDRO firmly believes that killing innocent civilians is tantamounts to a war waged by the state against its citizens and amounts to summary execution. Thus, the lame excuse of intelligence failure cannot cover up the anti-people nature of the AFSPA. CDRO, therefore, demands that:
- The Government of India must repeal AFSPA immediately and without any prevarication
- A sitting judge should conduct an impartial inquiry.
- The guilty army personnel must be tried for premeditated murder in the court of law.
- Families of the deceased and the injured must receive maximum compensation as sought by the families.
Pritpal Singh, Tapas Chakrabarty, K. Kranthi Chaitanya, V. Raghunath
Constituent Organisations: Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR, Punjab), Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR, West Bengal); Asansol Civil Rights Association, West Bengal; Bandi Mukti Committee (West Bengal); Civil Liberties Committee (Andhra Pradesh);Civil Liberties Committee (Telangana); Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (Maharashtra); Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR TamilNadu);Coordination for Human Rights (Manipur); Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (Assam); Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights ; Peoples’ Committee for Human Rights (Jammu and Kashmir); Peoples Democratic Forum (Karnataka); Jharkhand Council for Democratic Rights (Jharkhand); Peoples Union For Democratic Rights (Delhi); Peoples Union for Civil Rights (Hariyana), Campaign for Peace &amp;amp; Democracy in Manipur, Delhi; Janhastakshep (Delhi)