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The army operation that resulted in the tragic death of 14 civilians in Nagaland must lead to quick and credible investigation. And justice must be seen to be done. It’s established that commandos acted on faulty intelligence. While it can be no one’s case that counterterrorism operations are easy, bad intelligence gathering can’t also be any justification for deaths of innocents. The Yung Aung faction of the proscribed NSCN(K) is a dangerous outfit. But those home-bound miners who died were non-combatants – that has to be the driving point of both the army’s court of inquiry and the Nagaland government’s SIT probe.
Let’s remember that past inquiries haven’t inspired confidence because no soldier operating under the AFSPA has been charged, far less put behind bars, for killing civilians. The draconian law that gives security forces sweeping powers of arrest and counterinsurgency continues to be in operation in J&K, Nagaland and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. For example, in over 20 years the Centre has denied prosecution sanction under AFSPA in all cases recommended by the J&K government against army men. Hence, many argue that AFSPA actually allows security forces to be less circumspect, leading to tragedies like the Manipur Malom Massacre in 2000, which had prompted Irom Sharmila to begin her hunger strike.
Anger in Nagaland has already led to violent protests, costing more lives. Neither New Delhi nor Kohima would want to see Nagaland and the wider Northeast hosting another round of militancy. This is a sensitive time in NE. With Myanmar reverting to a military junta earlier this year, refugees and weapons have been flowing into NE. This gives regional insurgent groups unwilling to join the peace process elbow room to manoeuvre, as tragically demonstrated by the ambush carried out by militants in Manipur on November 13 that killed a colonel, his family and four other soldiers.
There’s also the matter of ongoing talks between Naga groups like NSCN(I-M) and the Centre, aimed at ending insurgency. If these talks break down, it could have worrying fallouts at a time India is locked in a standoff with China. Therefore, there are plenty of reasons for the Centre to ensure that Nagaland’s civilian deaths get serious official attention. This includes granting permission to prosecute soldiers, if there’s a good case for this, and reviewing AFSPA.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.