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Mumbai: For at least 50 long minutes, the team commander of an army major rank – who led the operation in the Tiru-Oting area of Nagaland on December 4, 2021 – allegedly knew that the ambush laid by his team was on the wrong route. The officer, however, allegedly “wilfully suppressed” this crucial information and instead, knowingly directed the 29 army personnel of the sophisticated Alpha team of 21 Para Special Forces in the wrong direction. He then ordered his team to carry out an operation in Nagaland’s Mon district, which claimed six civilian lives and seriously injured two more.
These damning findings are now central to the six-month-long investigation carried out by the Special Investigations Team (SIT) set up by the Nagaland state government to investigate the firing and the subsequent deaths.
The SIT has accused the team commander of “deliberate omissions” and has alleged that his subsequent violent actions and cover-ups claimed the lives of 13 tribal men in two separate firing incidents that same evening. One paratrooper, Gautam Lal, was also killed in the incident.
The team commander, whose name The Wire has withheld following requests from Indian Army officials, has been named as a main accused in the firing incident. The chargesheet has also booked his 29 subordinate officers for murder (section 302 of the Indian Penal Code), attempt to murder (section 307 IPC), grievous hurt (section 326 IPC), destruction of evidence (section 201 IPC), common intention (section 34 IPC) and criminal conspiracy (section 120 (B)). This is perhaps the first time army men are facing legal consequences for their role in killing civilians in the Northeast.
The Nagaland state police is awaiting sanction since April from the Department of Military Affairs to go ahead with the prosecution. A senior officer privy to the SIT investigations said that a reminder was sent to the army in May. “However, we have not received any response from the army yet,” they said.
The army has maintained all along that the men were sent out on a “counter-insurgency operation” in the area following a tip-off on the likely movement of militants belonging to the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K-YA) group and they mistook the villagers to militants. The army’s counter-insurgency unit had later claimed that the scout team had mistaken the villagers’ hunting rifle and Dao, an indigenous sword, to be deadly weapons. The SIT has observed that, “The surveillance team has wrongly given the ‘positive identification’ (a crucial defence procedure before attacking) without proper application of mind.” The SIT further claims that the team of 21 PARA(SF) is entrusted with operations in the Northeast. “They are aware of the ground scenario. It is common in Nagaland for people to carry Daos with sling for work and they carry hunting gun/muzzle loading guns.”
A separate court of inquiry by the army has pointed to non-compliance with certain Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). The army has not initiated any substantiative action against the men. All army personnel, including the team commander, continue to be on duty, but restricted to their base, a senior army official has confirmed. The court of inquiry report is not public and the army is not mandated to make it public either.
Within two days of the firing incident, Union home minister Amit Shah had claimed in parliament that the incident was an outcome of “mistaken identity”. The army has now held on to this line of defence, hoping to have the special forces escape the civilian court of law.
The SIT, in a detailed chargesheet, running into over 300 pages, has given a blow-by-blow account of the two-firing incident that followed in the Tiru-Oting region. The copy of the chargesheet, accessed by The Wire, accuses the army personnel on multiple grounds. Each of these grounds, the chargesheet says, led to the death of labourers and villagers, all belonging to the Konyak tribe.
On December 4 last year, two firing incidents occurred in the Tiru-Oting region. The first incident – now established through statements of two survivors, who are also “star witnesses” in the case, and through forensic analysis of a phone recording by a villager – took place around 4:26 pm. In this incident six persons – Shomwang, Langwang, Thapwang, Khawang, Thakwang and Yenjong – were killed. Thapwand and Langwang, both 23 years old, were twins. In the second incident, which followed a few hours later around 9.55 pm, seven villagers – Wechu Pongchi, Bipul, Ngampho, Phaokam, Menpeih, Hokup and Langtun – were killed.
While the first incident was a part of the planned ambush operation, the second occurred while the army men were allegedly attempting to cover their tracks by secretly trying to dispose of the bodies of the six labourers. Many villagers, agitated by the killings of the innocent labourers, attacked the army men. In defence, the operation head had once again ordered firing, killing seven more.
All victims, the SIT claims, were shot at “with a clear intention to kill”. Almost all deceased persons were shot at multiple times, from close range, and suffered injuries to their upper bodies, the forensic report has ascertained.
The investigation has revealed that the second firing incident was more “extensive and indiscriminate”. The purpose, the SIT claims, was not just to “break contact and extricate”. The investigation, based on the post mortem (PM) reports of the victims, has claimed that “the intention was to kill”. “The PM reports of the victims Langtun and Phaokom have pointed out that they died because of brain injuries due to firearm. They were shot aimed at the head. The intention was to kill.” Similarly, “the PM report of the victim Wechu Pongchi has pointed out that he died because of Spinal Cord injuries due to firearm. He was shot aimed at the neck. The intention was to kill,” the chargesheet notes. These victims were all unarmed and the police have not recovered any arms from them.
The SIT has recorded statement of one crucial “human source” (whose identity has been withheld owing to the precarious condition they operate under) who had relayed information to one sepoy about the movement on the ground. The source, in their statement to the SIT, says that they had conveyed it to one of the sepoys that the militants planned to move towards Wapnyu, a location at least 10 kilometres away from where the ambush had been planned. The source had also shared a picture of the guide who was to lead the militants. It was 3:30 pm when the information was first communicated to the sepoy. The sepoy had then immediately informed the team commander about the information he had received and had requested that the ambush location be immediately changed.
In a crucial finding, the SIT further reveals that the team commander then told his technical support team to track the village guide, through his phone location. It was ascertained that the guide was indeed moving towards Wapnyu area. The team commander, the investigation finds, had later forwarded the photo and information about the village guide to some of his teammates on WhatsApp. It was 3:50 pm then.
In the message, the army team commander is believed to have told his teammate that the person in the photo was carrying food for the militants. The team commander later asked his teammates to “be alert”. However, at this point, he drops one crucial piece of information from his retelling. He doesn’t tell them that the guide was headed towards Wapnyu, several kilometres away from where the army’s team was gearing up to lay the ambush. The SIT, however, has not delved into the reasons behind this omission.
The Wire has emailed a detailed questionnaire to the army’s III corps and has already sent out two reminders. A message was also sent to Nagaland Director General of Police (DGP) T. John Longkumer. No response has been received from either side so far. The story will be updated as and when the army and the Nagaland police respond.
The two survivors – Sheiwang Konyak and Yeihwang Konyak – on recovering from their injury had participated in the police inquiry. They have deposed before a magistrate under section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and their statements are admissible in court. In the statement, they say that they had gone to Tiru area to work at a coal mine. On December 4 last year, they were returning with the six persons who were killed in the Bolero pickup vehicle. “We were just coming by the pick up when we were shot at from the front and the back. I even heard three blasts. I could hear some people shouting in Hindi. We tried to hide for cover,” Sheiwang says in his statement.
Both Sheiwang and Yeihwang had suffered several bullet injuries and underwent treatment at the hospital for many weeks. It is important to note that both survivors were moved to the hospital by the army. The army has harped on this aspect to build its defence. “If our men were out there with a sole intention to kill, do you think these men would have been spared? Our men moved them to the hospital, putting their own lives into risk,” shared an army official.
Sheiwang and Yeihwang’s statements, along with the chronology of the incident, is also crucial for ascertaining the time when the firing incident occurred. And substantiating their claims, another independent witness, Thonwang, a master’s student, has come forth with electronic evidence. Thonwang was on a call when he first heard the firing. He says in his statement that he immediately disconnected the call, pointed his phone in the direction of the firing noise and began video recording it. He continued to record for 48 seconds. After that, he says in his statement, the firing continued for the next 30-35 seconds. His phone was sent for forensic examination and the report has ascertained the time as 4:26 pm. This belies the army’s claim that the firing lasted for less than five seconds.
Thonwang’s recording has also captured the noise of burst firing. Burst-mode firing enables the shooter to fire a predetermined number of rounds – normally two or three – at a target with a single pull of the trigger. The team commander in his statement claimed that his team had indulged in only “controlled firing and that the firing happened for 4/5 seconds”. This, the SIT claims, is a lie. Further, the forensic analysis has also established that the army personnel had used an Under Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL) which led to a massive explosion. Over 250 rounds of ammunitions (out of the total 911 rounds) were fired in the first incident. Over 600 were fired during the extrication in the second incident.
After the firing incident, the officer and his jawan had stayed back at the place of the incident for close to five hours. This, the SIT says, was done to “clean up their tracks”. But the army source has claimed that “the team had stayed on ground with the hope that the local police would reach there and help them in the further (handling of bodies) process”. “Had the police reached on time, the villagers would not have attacked the army men,” the army source claimed.
While the army now blames the local police, it had kept the Nagaland police in the dark about the operation. The army has for long taken refuge in the draconian provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that gives them blanket permission to open fire in the region. But the same special law makes it mandatory for the army to keep the local police informed about the operations. The SIT notes that it was a “failure on the part of Commanding Officer of 27 Assam Rifles and Commander, Sector 7, Assam Rifles in whose area of responsibility the operations was carried out to clearly communicate about outcome of the operations to the local police.” Every minute detail of which wing is indulging in the operation, the exact location, whether the operation is completed, the outcome of the operation in terms of casualties, the survivors, the recoveries made, the likely preliminary observation on carrying out the search and finding out the identities of the persons ambushed, has to be clearly communicated to the local police.
Before the ambush, the ambush party should have “ascertained the positive identity of the persons ambushed before execution. However, after the operations, the team was waiting for the police to come and establish the identity of the persons ambushed,” the chargesheet notes. The SIT has blamed the army for withholding the information on civilian casualties from the local police for a long time. In the chargesheet, the SIT also holds the Tizit SDPO responsible for the delay in proceeding to the spot with his team.
An army official, who spoke to The Wire under the condition of anonymity, claimed, “Informing the local police before an ambush can work against the army, as information will invariably leak out, thus compromising the security. Although it is a part of the SOP, it is an impractical expectation in volatile areas like the North East or Kashmir.” The source further said that the non-disclosure of information mostly happens because of trust deficit in the local police.
In the second firing incident, that killed seven and seriously injured many more villagers, army men were injured too. Of them, two were in the intensive care unit (ICU) for many weeks. The army source claims that the second firing would not have happened if the villagers had not violently attacked the army men. The villagers were highly agitated; they had blocked the way of the army men, demanding that they remove the magazine loaded on their rifles. The men did just as directed, just to pacify the villagers. They villagers, the source claims, had later snatched their weapons. This claim is also a part of the FIR filed by the army soon after the incident. The FIR notes that three ‘Tavor rifles’ and one ‘Tavor rifle with an UBGL’ had been snatched from the army.
During the course of the investigation, the commanding officer of 21 PARA(SF) claimed that his ambush plan was approved by the General-Officer-Commander (GOC). However, the commanding officer was not able to furnish any written orders to support his claim. The SIT has termed this as a serious lapse. “It is difficult to comprehend that the operations of sensitive nature involving the citizens of the country (even though they are UGs) are being carried out by the Indian Army without maintaining any written records (either pre-facto or post-facto). This amounts to misuse of the discretionary powers that have been granted to operate in the disturbed area under the provisions of AFSPA,” the chargesheet observes.