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India’s militarized Nagaland demands that the army’s impunity end

OTING, India - Technically, there is no more war in Nagaland, but peace does not feel secure either. What the remote northeastern Indian state has is a lot of soldiers holding hands and provoking a growing anger among the residents who say change is long overdue.

These tensions boiled over in December near the village of Oting on a hilltop as Indian Army special forces confused ethnic Naga villagers with rebels and opened fire on a truck transporting them home after work in a coal mine.

Survivors say there was no warning before the bullets flew and killed six people. By evening, the death toll had risen to 13 civilians and one army soldier when an angry crowd of people - some armed with machetes - clashed with soldiers, who opened fire again.

Among the dead was C. Shomwang Konyak, president of the village church youth group, who did seasonal work in the coal mine for about $ 15 a day. He was 32 years old, his father said.

"The Indian Army killed my son," his father, Chemwang Konyak, said in an interview in his courtyard. "He was not an underground rebel, not an underground supporter. There is no movement of underground rebels here."

Nagaland, a state of more than two million people, was once a battlefield, the site of a separatist uprising that spanned more than five decades. But a ceasefire was signed 25 years ago, and it has mostly lasted since then. The area around Oting had been quiet for years, say local officials and residents.

But a heavy military occupation is left, allowed under a special law of power that the Indian government has been reluctant to roll back. Residents complain that the impunity for the soldiers has abused them, and that the military presence has hampered local law enforcement and governance - and led to deadly mistakes like the one in Oting.

The killings have sparked widespread protests and brought new awareness to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which was introduced in the 1950s when a newly independent India faced a wave of uprisings and uprisings, particularly in the north-east.

Most of them have been completed - or have, as in Nagaland, been quiet in recent years. But the law on special powers 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 government and pervasive fear.

"There is no logic to this kind of militarization in an area where one is supposed to have a ceasefire and where one pretends to have democracy," said Sanjay Barbora, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who has written. comprehensive on counter-insurgency efforts in the Northeast. "It strengthens everyone who wears 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 ceasefire set in between separatist rebels and the military, but left both sides armed and holding grass.

Negotiations on a permanent peace agreement began, but 25 years later there is no final solution. Rebel groups have not been put down, but have been allowed to control the county as long as they do not target soldiers. Depending on where they live, residents could be subjected to harassment from both the military and the rebels.

"There are many factions underground and they also run their own government with impunity," said SC Jamir, Nagaland's prime minister for 15 years over four terms. "The public remains silent on all issues because they are afraid of the gun culture."

In Nagaland and other areas under the Special Powers Act, the military is still allowed to search, arrest and open fire without a warrant or charge, and soldiers have almost complete immunity from judicial action.

While the armed forces in Nagaland have carried out significantly fewer raids and operations in recent years, residents say the refusal to do away with the special force measure maintains an environment of fear and daily harassment that only comes in the news when a fatal mistake is made. has happened. occurs. Many described a sense of humiliation by being treated as second-class citizens and constantly monitored by an external force that is not accountable to the local elected government.

"Random searches and searches are going on everywhere - without prior information they come, they attack," said K. Elu Ndang, secretary general of a group of local tribal groups in Nagaland. "It's very inconvenient for the public - it's mental torture."

The December killings in Oting sparked protests against the action, 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 prime minister. In late December, the Nagaland State Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the repeal of the law.

The site of the killings, a narrow stretch of gravel road with bamboo forests on each side, has at once become an exhibition of the dangers of militarization and a protest camp against it. Burnt down military vehicles are cordoned off by police. The assault truck is covered in bullet marks in the windshield and blood on the seats. The area is littered with protest posters: "STOP KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE," it said.

Chongmei Konyak, 43, said his left foot was hit by a bullet in the violence after the first ambush. He had served in the Army for 15 years and worked in the coal mine that day.

"Why is the Indian Army killing innocent people in the name of AFSPA?" said Mr. Konyak from his hospital bed. "They keep the uprising alive."

General Manoj Mukund Naravane, the Indian army chief, has called the episode "very regrettable" and said an investigation was underway.

"Based on the results of the investigation, appropriate measures will be taken," said Mr. Naravane to journalists this month.

There is disagreement as to why it has taken so long to reach a final peace settlement. One of the problems involves borders where Nagas wants the incorporation of parts of territory that have been added to neighboring states. Such territorial disputes between northeastern states have recently resulted in fatal clashes.

While the Nagas have withdrawn from their demands for full autonomy, willing to share sovereignty and allow the central government control over some issues such as defense and foreign policy, some analysts see the Indian state's slow response as a strategy to await the Nagas. The rebel factions continue to fight for resources and the older generation dies out.

GK Pillai, who was involved in negotiations while India's interior minister from 2009 to 2011, said he had repeatedly recommended lifting the army's special powers because Nagaland was "just as peaceful, or more peaceful perhaps, than many places, including Delhi . "

Distrust between the two sides can only grow if a final solution drags on, partly due to the actions of the Indian government elsewhere in the country, said Mr. Pillai.

Sir. In 2019, the Modi government unilaterally recalled the state of Jammu and Kashmir, another reluctant and controversial region with a large military presence, and brought it directly under the central government without engaging in the local elected assembly. The political leaders who for decades had taken the side of the Indian Republic against militants and separatist groups were imprisoned or placed under house arrest while the military further strengthened its grip.

The unilateral move in Kashmir is causing Nagas to worry that the Indian state could easily reverse any concession it makes, said Mr. Pillai.

"How can you make a decision that affects my sovereignty without my consent?" said Mr. Pillai. "They are re-evaluating this 'shared sovereignty'."

During the years of relative peace during the ceasefire, young people from Naga have sought jobs in other parts of India. Now the blow of the coronavirus pandemic against the urban economy has forced a reverse migration. In Nagaland, many young men return to a home where many years of tranquility have brought some development, but a delayed peace perpetuates the aggression of the military and rebels.

"People are very clear that this is not a military issue," said Mr Ndang, the tribal leader. "But if the current negotiations bring no solution and solution to the problem, then the next generation would be a different movement."

Hari Kumar | reported from Oting, India, and Mujib Mashal from New Delhi.

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