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Mumbai: On December 6, just two days after Indian security forces – allegedly the 21 Para Special Force based in Assam – killed 13 unarmed civilians in Nagaland’s Mon district, Union home minister Amit Shah claimed in parliament that the incident was an outcome of “mistaken identity”. Shah’s statement attracted flak from all quarters for being insensitive and attempting a “hasty cover-up” of the killings.
But, over a month later, the army too has adopted Shah’s statement as its line of defence. The Wire has learned that the 37 security personnel who deposed before the Special Investigation Team – set up to investigate the firing and the subsequent deaths – have unanimously stuck to the version that the intelligence inputs they received proved to be wrong, leading to the killing of 13 tribal men.
Of these 37 army personnel examined, 31 were involved in the operation. The SIT has also examined another 85 civilians, mostly from Oting village where the incident took place. Of them, two statements have been recorded before a magistrate. These two witnesses, the SIT consider, are “crucial” to the investigation and they won’t budge from their statements.
The army officials involved in the operation – one brigadier, one colonel, a few subedars and other lower-rung personnel – were summoned on different dates and their testimonies were recorded between December 6 and mid January. A senior police official privy to the investigations carried out by the SIT has confirmed that the “half-baked alibi”, however, has “led to more questions than answers” – more particularly, why the army had ignored identical intelligence inputs received several times in recent months, but acted specifically upon the one received for December 4.
These inputs, the police officer confirmed, were received through the Multi Agency Centre (MAC), a common counter-terrorism grid under the Intelligence Bureau (IB) that was made operational post the Kargil war in 2001. “All agencies create a common pool of intelligence inputs on a regular basis and operations heavily depend on these inputs. If any input goes wrong, it has a serious bearing on the subsequent operations planned,” a senior police officer, privy to the SIT’s work, told The Wire. The SIT has found out that for December 4, intelligence inputs had been received from the Nagaland police, the IB, the military agency and also a few sister agencies. These inputs are now being closely scrutinised.
The officer also told The Wire that the team is now in the process of closely comparing the intelligence inputs that had been received in the past and on the day of the event. “The army receives such inputs on a daily basis. Each one indicating movement of ‘extremists’. But we don’t see such operations on a daily basis,” he said. He further added that the team had prepared an ambush and had waited at the spot in the Tiru valley’s Oting village when they saw eight villagers return in a compact pickup van. “So, it clearly was not a sudden confrontation and it wasn’t like the special forces were caught unaware.”
The villagers, all belonging to the Konyak tribe and working as labourers at a coal mine, were shot at without provocation. It was just a little after 4 pm, and in broad daylight. “The army officials at the ambush have claimed they saw something “weapon like” on the villagers,” the senior police official said. Six were killed on the spot, two were seriously injured. All were unarmed.
Although the villagers were killed around 4 pm, the armed forces stayed at the spot beyond 9 pm. These five hours spent by the armed force at the spot raises serious questions, the police officer said. “And around 9 pm, when the villagers reached the spot, they found that the bodies of their relatives were all wrapped in a tarpaulin. It is possible that the armed men wanted to move the bodies out of the spot to their camp base. This angered the villagers and they set the army vehicles on fire,” the officer further added. The army then again opened fire on the villagers and another seven were killed in the second incident that happened post 9 pm.
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 this too ought to be closely scrutinised and challenged, the police official told The Wire.
The SIT is now probing several crucial aspects of the case. One: Can the army resort to firing as its first response? Two: even if the civilians were militants, as “wrongly identified” by the armed force, can they be fired upon with the intention to kill? The police official who spoke to The Wire said that the SIT is basing its investigation on the principle of “minimum use of force”.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) lays down the basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials. Minimum damage and injury, and respect and preservation of human life, are crucial to the approach it promotes. The police official speaking to The Wire said even if AFSPA is operational in the region, the army can’t escape by claiming mere “apprehension”.
While the SIT’s investigation has focused on the reasons behind the immediate deaths of 13 civilians, the army officials, in their statements, have claimed that they observed “restraint”. Some accused army personnel are believed to have told the SIT that they observed restraint and “in fact, they ensured that two civilians were only injured and not killed in the ambush”. Those two men were seriously injured and had to be later moved to Assam for further treatment.
The 21 Para Special Force that was involved in the Myanmar “surgical strike” of 2015 is considered one of the most sophisticated battalions of the Indian forces. An error in their judgment reflects poorly on the preparedness of the Indian Army to handle volatile situations. The alibi of mistaken identity projected by the army is not a new one. “But perhaps this is the only time when they are being subjected to such close scrutiny,” the police officer told The Wire.
The Wire contacted Nagaland Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Sandeep Tamgadge and presented the information gathered. He refused to confirm or deny the information, and said that the report will soon be submitted to the court. “It will then be a public document and available to access.” Tamgadge also added that the team is awaiting forensic reports from the Central Forensic Science Laboratories in Guwahati and Hyderabad. “Once that is obtained, we might have to go back to all the witnesses and accused persons and confront them with the new set of evidence,” Tamgadge said.
The SIT, set up soon after the incident, was initially a much smaller team with just a handful senior officials. But when Tamgadge was roped in to head the investigation, he decided to expand the team and now, 21 officers are working in eight smaller groups handling different aspects of the investigation. Before the SIT was formed, the case was handled by the Tizit police station. But the special crime branch, with state-wide jurisdiction, was soon roped in and the SIT was handed over the investigation. The Tizit police station in its FIR had noted that the army had flouted the Standard Operating Procedure by not taking a local police guide along for the operation.
The SIT, including Tamgadge, comprises seven IPS officers and several officials belonging to the Konyak tribe, like the victims. Tamgadge, speaking to The Wire, said that the team had to be expanded keeping in mind the serious nature of the crime. “We have several aspects to cover – from recording witnesses statements to collecting crucial forensic evidence. Also, most witnesses don’t speak Nagamese or Hindi and communicating with them would have been a challenge. So, we decided that the team should have adequate representation from the community to be able to build trust and have their statements accurately recorded,” Tamgadge told The Wire over a phone call.
The SIT’s work is closely monitored by Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio. After the incident, Rio’s government sent a letter to the Centre seeking immediate repeal of AFSPA from the state. A special assembly was commenced and a resolution was again passed to push for the repeal of AFSPA. Alongside, the future course of the investigation was discussed too. Rio also took to Twitter saying that the draconian law must go.
In the past few years, the Nagaland government has written to the Centre every six months seeking repeal of the oppressive law. “The state is mandated under section 3 of AFSPA to opine over the use of the special law in the region and the Nagaland government has echoed its people’s sentiments and demanded immediate repeal of the law. But each time, the Centre has overlooked the demand,” a bureaucrat in Rio’s government claimed.