In denying sanction to the Nagaland police to prosecute 30 Army men for the December 2021 killing of 13 civilians in a botched-up operation, the Union government has sent out a disconcerting message that it is unable or unwilling to do anything about impunity in insurgency-hit States. In what was later described as a case of mistaken identity, six workers returning home in a vehicle from a coal mine bordering Assam were gunned down by the security forces at Oting village in Mon district. Seven more villagers were shot dead later, following a scuffle with villagers who had found the bodies in an Army vehicle. Prior sanction to prosecute Army personnel is necessary under Section 6 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). A Special Investigation Team of the Nagaland Police completed its probe in March 2022, and filed a charge sheet in the case. It had sought sanction for prosecution from the Defence Ministry’s Department of Military Affairs. The police had claimed they had established the involvement of 30 personnel, who allegedly violated standard operating procedures and rules of engagement, and resorted to indiscriminate and disproportionate firing on the vehicle. Meanwhile, the Army also ordered a court of inquiry, but its outcome is not known. On petitions by the wives of the Army personnel involved, the Supreme Court of India stayed the criminal proceedings in July 2022.
The Centre has been quite keen on reducing the areas covered by the law giving special powers in disturbed areas to the armed forces. In recognition of the significant improvement in the security situation in the northeastern region, it has reduced the notified areas in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur in recent years. On the political side, it has been working towards peace accords and getting insurgents and extremists to lay down arms. However, it is quite incongruent with its overall policy of creating an atmosphere conducive for peace and development, and making partners out of those laying down weapons, for the government to disallow the prosecution of those suspected to be involved in an admittedly mistaken counter-insurgency operation. It would have redounded to the government’s credit had it allowed the criminal courts to decide on the extent of culpability of the Army men. Prosecution of armed forces personnel involved in excesses is quite rare, leading to the widespread impression that AFSPA is used to promote impunity. The government must demonstrate its commitment to peace in the region and justice for the victims by either granting sanction for their prosecution, or taking exemplary action based on the findings of the military court of inquiry.