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In India’s militarised regions, calls for ending impunity

Those tensions boiled over in December near the
hilltop village of Oting, when Indian army special forces mistook ethnic Naga
villagers for rebels and opened fire on a truck carrying them home after work
at a coal mine.

Survivors say there was no warning before the bullets
flew, killing six people. By nightfall, the death toll had climbed to 13
civilians and one army soldier, as an angry crowd of people — some armed with
machetes — clashed with soldiers, who opened fire again.

Among the dead was C Shomwang Konyak, the 32-year-old
president of the village church’s youth group, who was doing seasonal work at
the coal mine for about $15 a day.

“The Indian army killed my son,” his father, Chemwang
Konyak, said during an interview in his courtyard. “He was not an underground
rebel, not an overground supporter. There is no movement of underground rebel
cadres here.”

Nagaland, a state of more than 2 million people, was
once a battleground, the site of a separatist rebellion that stretched for more
than five decades. But a cease-fire was struck 25 years ago, and has mostly
held since then. The area around Oting had been calm for years, local officials
and residents say.

But a heavy military occupation remains, allowed under
a special powers act that the Indian government has been reluctant to roll
back. Residents complain that the act’s impunity for soldiers has made them
abusive, and that the military presence has stunted local law enforcement and
governance — and led to deadly mistakes like the one in Oting.

The killings have prompted widespread protests and
cast new attention on the measure, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which
was put in place in the 1950s when a newly independent India faced a wave of
uprisings and insurgencies, particularly in the northeast.

Most of those have ended — or, as in Nagaland, have
been calm in recent years. But the special powers act remains the law of the
land in two full states and one territory, and in parts of two other states
where there are similar complaints of hampered local governance and pervasive
fear.

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“There is no logic for this form of militarisation in
an area where you’re supposed to have a cease-fire and where you pretend that
you have democracy,” said Sanjay Barbora, a professor with the Tata Institute
of Social Sciences who has written extensively on the counterinsurgency efforts
in the northeast. “It empowers everyone wearing the uniform and allows the army
to do as they please.”

The people of Nagaland have been in a kind of limbo
since 1997, when the cease-fire set in between separatist rebels and the
military, but left both sides armed and holding turf.

Talks for a permanent peace deal started, but 25 years
later, there is no final settlement. Rebel groups have not been quashed, but
allowed to control fiefs as long as they do not target soldiers. Depending on
where they live, residents can face harassment from both the military and the
rebels.

“There are many factions in the underground, and they
are also running their own government with impunity,” said SC Jamir, who was
chief minister of Nagaland for 15 years over four terms. “The public remains
mute on every issue because they are afraid of the gun culture.”

In Nagaland and other areas under the special powers
act, the military still has permission to search, arrest and open fire without
a warrant or charge, and soldiers have near-complete immunity from legal
action.

While the armed forces in Nagaland have been carrying
out significantly fewer raids and operations in recent years, residents say the
refusal to do away with the special powers measure perpetuates an environment
of fear and daily harassment that makes it to the news only when a deadly
mistake occurs. Many described a sense of humiliation in being treated as
second-class citizens, and constantly watched by an outside force not
answerable to the local elected government.

“There is random frisking and searching taking place
everywhere — without prior information they come, they raid,” said K Elu Ndang,
the general secretary of a body of local tribal groups in Nagaland. “It is very
inconvenient to the public — it’s mental torture.”

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The December killings in Oting reignited protests
against the act, commonly referred to as AFSPA. Calls for its repeal have come
from activists and peace marchers, but also from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s
allies in Nagaland, including the state’s chief minister. In late December, the
Nagaland State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for the
repealing of the act.

The site of the killings, a narrow stretch of dirt
track with bamboo forests on each side, has at once turned into a display of
the perils of militarisation and a protest camp against it. Burned army
vehicles are cordoned off by police tape. The ambushed truck is covered with
bullet marks in the windshield and blood on the seats. The area is peppered
with protest placards: “STOP KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE,” read some.

Chongmei Konyak, 43, said his left foot was struck by
a bullet in the violence after the initial ambush. He had served in the army
for 15 years and was working in the coal mine that day.

“Why is the Indian army killing innocent people in the
name of AFSPA?” Konyak said from his hospital bed. “They are keeping the
insurgency alive.”

Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane, the Indian army chief, has
called the episode “highly regrettable” and said an inquiry was underway.

“Based on the findings of the inquiry, appropriate
action will be taken,” Naravane told reporters this month.

There are disputes over why it has taken so long to
reach a final peace settlement. One of the sticking points involves boundaries,
with the Nagas wanting the incorporation of parts of territory that have been
added to neighbouring states. Such territorial disputes between northeastern
states have recently resulted in deadly clashes.

While the Nagas have backed down from their demand for
full autonomy, willing to share sovereignty and allow the central government
control over some matters such as defence and foreign policy, some analysts see
the Indian state’s slow response as a strategy of waiting the Nagas out. The
rebel factions continue fighting over resources, and the older generation dies
out.

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GK Pillai, who was involved in negotiations while
India’s home secretary from 2009 to 2011, said he had repeatedly recommended
the repeal of the army’s special powers because Nagaland was “as peaceful, or
more peaceful perhaps, than many places, including Delhi.”

Mistrust between the two sides could only grow if a
final settlement drags on, in part because of the Indian government’s actions
elsewhere in the country, Pillai said.

Modi’s government in 2019 unilaterally revoked the
statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, another restive and disputed region with heavy
military presence, and brought it directly under the central government without
engaging with the local elected assembly. The political leaders who had over
decades sided with the Indian republic in the face of militants and separatist
groups were jailed or put under house arrest, while the military further
strengthened its grip.

The unilateral move in Kashmir has the Nagas worrying
that the Indian state could easily reverse any concession it makes, Pillai
said.

“How can you take a decision which affects my sovereignty
without my concurrence?” Pillai said. “They are re-evaluating this ‘shared
sovereignty.’”

During the years of relative peace under the
cease-fire, Naga youth have sought jobs in other parts of India. Now the
coronavirus pandemic’s blow to the urban economy has forced a reverse
migration. In Nagaland, many young men are returning to a home where years of
calm have brought little development, but a delayed peace perpetuates military
and rebel abuses.

“People are very clear that it is not a military
issue,” Ndang, the tribal leader, said. “But if the present talks do not bring
any settlement and solution to the problem, then the next generation would be a
different movement.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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