Following a tip-off about a possible movement of insurgents, trigger-happy armed forces shot dead 13 innocent civilians in Mon district of Nagaland on December 4. Rahul Karmakar reconstructs the events of that tragic day which have soured relations between the villagers and the armed forces and led to protests against the AFSPA
Seven minutes before all hell broke loose, Kepwang Wangsa Konyak recalled handing over his phone to a soldier on the passenger seat of one of the three SUVs parked midway on the steep kutcha road between the hilltop Oting village and the coal mines of Tiru Valley close to Assam. The soldier, his face barely visible in the dark, appeared to be in command. He was the only one who spoke but in monosyllables.
Kepwang, the president of the Oting Students’ Union, was among scores of villagers who had converged past 10 p.m. on December 4 at the spot from where they had heard a volley of gunshots about six hours earlier. Some had come down from Oting village about 4 km uphill and some from Upper Tiru and the adjoining Lower Tiru villages a couple of kilometres downhill.
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Kepwang, based in Mon, the headquarters of Nagaland’s Mon district about 65 km away, was not supposed to be in Oting that night. The death of an elderly neighbour had brought him home on December 3, more than a fortnight before his usual trip to the village for Christmas.
He rode down to Tiru Valley the following afternoon to catch up with friends and relatives working in the coal mines. He was particularly interested in meeting his “richer” cousin Shomwang, owner of a coal mine, and extracting ₹500 from him for khana-peena (food and drinks).
“I was having tea and snacks with his money at Tamulbari (a junction from where the road to Oting snakes up from near the opencast mines) when Shomwang drove past in his pickup truck, carrying seven of my friends and cousins. He turned towards Oting,” Kepwang said.
Minutes later, at about 4:30 p.m, Kepwang heard gunshots in the direction where the pickup truck had gone out of view. The gunshots were unlike those produced by the ubiquitous muzzle-loading hunting rifles that almost every adult Konyak male villager carries as a habit, along with a machete.
It had been a while since the people of Oting and nearby hamlets had heard such gunshots. Members of two rival extremist groups had an exchange of fire in a jungle close to Oting in 2001. Three extremists and a soldier had died in two encounters over the past five years — one between Oting and Wangla village and the other at Lapa village. The shots of December 4 sent a chill down Kepwang’s spine; he knew something was wrong.
‘Night of madness’
“The mind said encounter, but the heart hoped not. There were 10 motorcycles at Tamulbari at the time the shots were fired. All of us headed uphill, with three of us who knew how to converse in Hindi and English leading the way. Some soldiers stopped us about 200 metres from where the presumed encounter happened and we took a detour to Oting as told to,” Kepwang said.
The villagers grew worried when eight of their sons did not reach home after more than three hours. A public announcement sanctioned by the Angh, the local king, was made about the missing men and the need to search for them. Messages were also sent to their brethren in Tiru Valley.
“The Army vehicles, all Assam-registered and driven by civilians, were ready to leave when we reached the spot. We saw in the near-darkness three soldiers jump onto the back of a pickup truck and try to cover something. I reached out and felt a head, a leg and a hand, cold and sticky. I withdrew my hand instinctively, asked the soldiers what was up. They did not speak,” Kepwang said.
He went to the vehicle where the soldier who seemed to be in command sat. “At 10:12 p.m., I called the DC (Deputy Commissioner of Mon district, Thavaseelan K.) and told him something bad had happened. I handed over the phone to the soldier and asked him to speak to the DC. I don’t know what they discussed, but the soldier handed the phone back to me after about two minutes when my sister called in desperation to know about our missing men,” Kepwang said.
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The sister’s call probably saved Kepwang’s life. As he moved away from the Army vehicle to speak, some villagers spotted the bodies on the pickup truck and charged at the soldiers, who exited the vehicles, snatched three motorcycles of the villagers and went towards the Assam border. “They were shooting on the run, as if we were enemies,” Wangnai, one of the 35 survivors of that “night of madness”, said from his hospital bed in Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub about 250 km southwest of Oting. He is recovering from two bullet injuries.
Before long, the spot turned into a battleground — sophisticated firearms versus machetes — leaving seven villagers dead and the Army vehicles in flames. When the local police arrived, there were 13 bodies, six of them coal miners killed at around 4:30 p.m. in what the Army called a case of “mistaken identity”. One of the slain coal miners was Shomwang, shot through the windscreen.
Missing among those who Shomwang was driving back to Oting were Sheiwang and Yeihwang. The soldiers, said to be from an elite commando unit, had reportedly evacuated and dropped them at the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh. On December 22, Sheiwang was shifted to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital for further treatment while Yeihwang was expected to be discharged from the Dibrugarh hospital soon after Christmas.
A signboard quoting Mahatma Gandhi greets people entering Nagaland’s Namsa from Assam’s Namtola across a rickety bridge spanning a stream that virtually demarcates the inter-State boundary. It reads: “The future depends on what we do in the present.” The signboard is close to a flex poster displaying the photos of the 14 civilians killed on December 4 and the resultant unrest in Mon town on December 5. Similar posters are strung at strategic points along the road to Mon and elsewhere in Nagaland, a reminder of the greater goal — the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) of 1958 that is believed to give the armed forces personnel the licence to kill — besides the fight for justice to the victims of the botched Army operation.
Tahwang Angh, whose kingdom comprises Oting and Tiru Valley, agrees with the Konyak Union that the future of the Nagas has to be protected by ensuring the present is answerable for the “cold-blooded murders in the name of counter-insurgency operations based on credible intelligence”. The union is the apex body of the Konyaks, one of Nagaland’s 14 principal Naga communities, that dominates the Mon district.
The Angh’s standout two-storey house is on the tip of the hill on which Oting rests, lording over 221 other houses. His house is barely 400 metres from the village cemetery where fresh graves are under shades made of bamboo and palm leaves. The freshest is the mass grave of 12 of Oting’s sons laid in a row, each — according to Konyak custom — adorned by his worldly possessions. The 13th victim is buried in his native village, Upper Tiru.
“That should have been me lying there instead of him,” 65-year-old Monyam said, pointing to one of the graves in which Langtun (36) lay buried. “God has perhaps punished me for some sin I may have committed.”
Monyam had grown used to his elder son, who joined the Nagaland Armed Police 10 years ago, staying away for months due to security assignments elsewhere in the State. “I will have to make it a habit to celebrate Christmas without Langtun for as long as I live,” he said, wishing the Lord would allow him enough time on earth to see Yingmai, Langtun’s two-month-old daughter, come of age.
Recovering in Dimapur, 30-year-old Wangnai would be away from his family for the first time during Christmas. “But at least I am alive unlike some of my saathis (friends),” he said. He will not be alone. The Konyak Union has issued an order asking all members of the community in Nagaland and elsewhere in the Northeast to refrain from merry-making, feasting and any kind of extravagance. “Only church services, special prayers and marriages have been exempted. We owe this much to our brothers who have died for no fault of theirs,” Wango Konyak, the union’s secretary, said.
T. Nokyem, the pastor of Oting’s Baptist Church, announced the quietest Christmas ever for the village during a special service for the departed on the evening of December 22, a day after all the villagers marched to the spot where the incident had taken place. They offered prayers near Shomwang’s bullet-riddled pickup truck and the burnt Army vehicles, cordoned off by crime scene tapes, and vowed not to relent unless the killers are punished and the people who matter in India offer an unconditional apology.
“In 12 years of my service as a pastor, I have never experienced a Christmas of grief. We will visit the graves of our men and pray for their souls and also for good sense to the trigger-happy,” the pastor said.
Village elders said the hill where Oting stands today was chosen in the late 1800s for its strategic location – close to the plains of present-day Assam and offering vantage points to keep a watch on enemies in case of a war. “Our people never ever joined the underground groups and we have at least 20 of our men in the armed forces, with whom we have had a cordial relationship for a long time. We never imagined they would do to us what even enemies may not,” Kepwang said.
“Why is it so difficult for the Army and the Government of India to admit their mistake and apologise without giving operational excuses? God forbid, what would have happened had our people killed 14 soldiers? Would we have been living in peace,” the pastor asked, recalling Operation Bluebird at Oinam village in Manipur’s Senapati district in 1987. An account by the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights said 27 people, including children, were starved or tortured to death in a counter-insurgency operation following an attack on a post of the paramilitary Assam Rifles by the Isak-Muivah faction of the extremist National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN (I-M).
A coal-powered local economy
Mon and the adjoining Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh have seldom been the domain of the NSCN (I-M) unlike its rival Khaplang faction. The NSCN (I-M) has been on ceasefire mode since 1997. The split-prone NSCN (Khaplang), now NSCN (K-Yung Aung), followed suit in 2001 but walked out of the peace process in March 2015.
The topography – dense jungles, difficult hills and poor roads – of these two districts offered passages for the Myanmar-based NSCN (K/K-YA) to carry out hit-and-run operations. The districts also became conduits for the members of the Assam-based United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent).
A dossier prepared by the Army before the December 4 incident said extremists of various shades use the tea, coal and oil belt from Nagaland’s Namsa in the northeast through Oting, Tiru and Naginimora in the southwest for extortion.
According to the Nagaland Coal Policy, 2005, by the State Directorate of Geology and Mining, Nagaland has a total coal reserve of 150 million metric tonnes. Borjan and Tiru Valley in Mon district, Konya in Tuensang district and Changki-Merakeyong in Mokokchung district have a total proven reserve of 11 MMTs.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee (2020-21), tabled in the 60-member State Assembly, said 44 out of 49 coal mining units identified by the Nagaland Pollution Control Board had no authorisation. The coal mining practised in the State is mostly rat-hole but some districts have opencast mining, the report added.
The coal mines of Tiru Valley, on one bank of the Teyep River snaking towards Assam, are about two decades old. Mining on the other bank beyond which Oting is situated is locally prohibited for possible damage to the landscape sustaining the tea, broomstick and betel net growers of the area. These were the prime sources of income for the villagers before they struck coal to make thrice the money in daily wages.
The Army report said the valley has 51 coal mines owned by as many or fewer people. Each mine produces an average of 10,000 tonnes of coal per annum, each tonne fetching an average price of ₹1,00,000. While a landowner gets ₹800-1,000 per tonne as royalty, the extremists reportedly extract at least ₹5 lakh per coal mine a year.
“Apart from Tiru, the illegal coal mines in the Mon district are at Nokzang, Wakching and Pogong… Several local mine owners favour the presence of the Assam Rifles, as the insurgent groups who run parallel systems of taxation often demand money from them. The Assam Rifles provides a deferent in these areas,” a senior Army officer acquainted with the area said.
There is a theory that the special commando unit could have been taken for a ride with planted information about the movement of NSCN (K-YA) members on December 4 in a vehicle similar to the one Shomwang drove, in a bid to keep the armed forces away from the coal belt. “After the incident, many villagers fear that it may take ages for the relationship with the armed forces to mend,” the officer said.
The Oting villagers trash the “presumption” that mining is controlled by the extremists. They point to Article 371A that guarantees special rights to the Nagas with regard to the ownership of land and natural resources. “There is no question of the mining activities being illegal since the government has little to do with it. Mining is done through proper agreements with contractors from Assam and elsewhere in the country, and they include some Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs,” a villager said, declining to be quoted.
But the Oting Citizen, a forum of the villagers, admitted they have been charging ₹500-1,000 as “tax” per dumper carrying 15-16 tonnes of coal at a check gate opening into Assam where the coal is usually sold. “We have been using the money collected since 2019 to build pathways and other public amenities because the government hasn’t done that for us. A shortcut to Mon and the track to Tiru, which saves time for our people going to Assam, are examples of such projects,” a member of the forum said.
The villagers hope the money from the coal mines – their lifeline – would someday help them bring piped water to Oting; tankers hired by them make several trips to a spring 15 km downhill daily. And repair the “main road” to Namsa that was paved in the 1990s.
No to AFSPA
A solution to the “Naga political issue” has been as elusive as Oting’s wish for a proper road. While the Naga National Political Groups, a conglomerate of seven rival organisations, said the Oting massacre could taint the peace process, the NSCN (I-M) upped the ante against the AFSPA.
The 60-member Nagaland Assembly adopted a resolution for the repeal of the AFSPA and demanded an apology from the “appropriate authority” for the botched Army operation on December 4. “The incident was a misuse and abuse of the AFSPA that simply needs to go,” the State’s Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said, insisting on efforts to strengthen the peace process dented by the “mindless operation”.
Nagaland’s pain has been felt by its north-eastern neighbours and the country beyond. For instance, Kohima-based poet Beni Sumer Yanthan’s poem titled ‘Oting’ has been translated into the Tamil.
The people of Oting hope the December 4 case, originally registered at the Tizit police station and being probed by the Special Investigation Team headed by Inspector-General of Police, Limasunep Jamir, would provide justice to the victims. They also hope a probe constituted by the Army would for once fix responsibilities.
The families of the victims had initially declined to accept the compensation of ₹16 lakh each offered by the Central and State governments. They have all accepted the compensation although it “cannot really fill the vacuum in their lives,” Mon’s Deputy Commissioner Thavaseelan K. said. “We cannot bring the dead back to life, but the government can set an example by showing no one can kill with impunity, with or without a protective shield,” Nenwang said. His younger twin brothers Langwang and Thapwang were among the 13 who were gunned down on December 4.
Alem, Langtun’s widow, recounted how passionately he had uttered “till death do us part” during their wedding at the village church a little more than a year ago. “He had so little time to live…” she said, fighting back the tears, also recalling how Langtun would kiss their daughter Yingmai goodbye on Monday mornings and would caress her after returning on Saturday evenings.
“I want Yingmai to grow up in a world where people pursuing a livelihood do not leave home forever,” she said.