On 4 December, 2021, six civilians, all coal miners, were killed by Indian Army in Mon district of Nagaland. Home Minister Amit Shah claimed in Parliament that the vehicle carrying the miners was asked to stop but instead it tried to flee. This version has been rejected by one of the two survivors. It was cold blooded murder. In the aftermath unable to handle the outrage of people, the Army fired again killing seven more people. Even if we believe the version of Indian Army that it was a case of mistaken identity, taking the miners for insurgents, how can the later killings be justified? Is one not supposed to fire below waist even if it becomes absolutely essential to use gun? Another civilian was killed the next day in protests and the Army lost one personnel. Total number of civilians killed was 14. The incident was a violation of ceasefire by the Indian Army, an agreement which has been in place for the last over 24 years between the Indian Army and Naga insurgents.
On 8 December the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat along with wife and 12 other Army personnel were killed in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu. The shocking incident drowned the entire nation in grief. People were so overwhelmed that they almost forgot about the incident 4 days back. True, public memory is short.
While the first incident could have been avoided if Army had acted more judiciously on intelligence inputs about movement of insurgents, the second, being an accident, was beyond anybody’s control. Still the helicopter accident dominated the national grief.
The first incident invites a number of troubling questions which probably the government doesn’t want to face. This publicity conscious government would not like the incident to occupy too much media space as it paints the image of government as inept and insensitive. The helicopter accident has come handy for it as emotions have surged in sympathy of families of Bipin Rawat, his wife Madhulika and other Army officials and have successfully diverted the attention of people from what could have been an uncomfortable situation for the government.
Anyway, we don’t expect any humanity from the current government but even the civil society seems to have got carried away by the helicopter accident tragedy. People can be seen all over the country condoling the death of Army officials but not the Naga civilians. It is almost as if the Nagaland killings have not taken place. It definitely reflects the class bias among people, a feeling of being distant from Nagaland which has been responsible for the alienation of people in Northeast in general and a dangerous trend in which military personnel are put on a higher pedestal in comparison to ordinary citizens of this country, glorifying a culture of war and war mongering.
Ideally the citizens is a democracy ought to be treated equally. The value of life of the coal miner was equal to that of General Bipin Rawat as the miner’s wife, mother of a 9 months old baby, would have felt as much grief as the daughters of Rawat. But we’re a feudal society in which we look for hierarchy based on class, region, ethnicity, caste, gender, social and political status even if in reality there might be none.
The really unfortunate incident of Nagaland probably deserves more sympathy because people of Northeast have faced discrimination at the hands of government of India. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in force at several places throughout the Northeast which has resulted in human rights violations. Who can forget the ignominious protest by a group of naked women outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal in the aftermath of rape and murder of Manorama in 2004? And who’ll equal the feat of Irom Sharmila who fasted for 16 long years demanding repeal of the abovementioned black law? After 24 long years of peace process the resolution of Naga issues still eludes us. Leader of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isac-Muivah) Thuingaleng Muivah has negotiated with half a dozen Prime Ministers of India. Narendra Modi had approved a Framework Agreement which agreed to a concept of shared sovereignty but when it comes to implementation the government of India does not want to give in to the demand of a separate flag and constitution for Nagas. There is a feeling of let down among the Naga camp.
Had the peace process culminated in a solution according to the spirit of Framework Agreement probably the Mon incident would not have taken place as Nagas would have been in-charge of their own security. The more the government of India procrastinates in arriving at a solution, possibilities of conflict between Indian Army and locals will remain alive. The long presence of Army has not helped the situation anywhere, whether in Jammu and Kashmir or in Northeast.
While the bravery of Generals like Bipin Rawat is acknowledged in protecting the integrity of the country when similar armed acts target the innocent local population they draw condemnation. It is not Army’s jobs anyway to maintain internal law and order. The government is fooling itself if it thinks that Army can be used to control the dissidents. Political problems require political solutions through dialogue.
The Nagaland incident should generate a sense of urgency in resolving the Naga issue by concluding the peace process between NSCN(IM) and government of India. This is the only guarantee that incidents like those of 4-5 December will not be repeated, as our Home Minister has desired in the Parliament. This will also be a fit tribute to General Rawat and his colleagues killed in helicopter crash as it’ll not unnecessarily stretch the capacities of Army to deal with local insurgents.
Sandeep Pandey is General Secretary of Socialist Party (India).