Notwithstanding the rationale provided by the Union Government and the armed forces for the horrific killing of six coal miners and the deaths of nine civilians and a soldier in the aftermath of the incident in Mon district, the residents of Nagaland, and indeed many in North-east India, will only read this incident as an outcome of impunity accorded by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA . It is no wonder that two Chief Ministers — Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya and Neiphiu Rio of Nagaland — have immediately demanded its repeal; the Act remains in place in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, three districts of Arunachal Pradesh, and areas falling within the jurisdiction of eight police stations of the State bordering Assam, with the authority to use force or open fire to maintain public order in “disturbed areas”. The firing on the vehicle carrying the coal miners in Oting village, home to the Konyak Naga community, was carried out by soldiers of the ‘21 Para Commando Unit’, and attributed to a case of mistaken identity. This action should be problematic even within the purview of AFSPA, as soldiers who open fire can do so only after warning the person found in contravention of the law. The Army’s and later Union Minister of Home Amit Shah’s contention that the vehicle was shot at only after the miners refused to “cooperate” when asked to stop seems incongruous as this was not an action at the Myanmar border seeking to take on armed infiltrators but an operation well within the country’s boundaries. That an ambush was purportedly laid on insurgents of the NSCN (Khaplang-Yung Aung) faction following an intelligence input and yet a civilian vehicle which offered no hostility was fired upon, suggests that the armed forces were too trigger-happy and showed barely any intent in securing order, which is the purpose of their presence in the region.
The Government has promised an inquiry by a Special Investigation Team . It is clear that the continued reliance on AFSPA as a way to impose public order must be brought to a halt and the long-pending demand for its repeal acceded to. Unfortunately, the incident could put a spanner in the Naga peace talks between the Government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) and seven Naga National Political Groups for a solution that has been in the works. The secretive nature of the talks, largely due to the Government’s smoke and mirrors approach to the Peace Accord, has not helped matters either. An approach that shows genuine remorse for the actions, brings the culprits to book and seeks rapprochement with the Konyak Nagas through compensation for the violence, besides a renewed purpose to conclude the peace talks with the Naga groups, is now the only imperative.