Indian Army’s Special Forces Under Scanner in Killing Of Civilians

By Jayanta Kalita 13 December 2021

An anti-insurgency operation in northeast India’s Nagaland state bordering Myanmar went horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 14 civilians on Dec. 4. The incident sparked massive outrage in the region even as local organizations and human rights groups demand that the accused personnel from the Indian Army’s elite 21 Para Special Forces Battalion be booked.

The episode could cast a shadow over the federal government-initiated peace process with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), a major rebel group in the region.

The Nagaland police have registered a first information report (FIR) against the 21 Para SF, calling it a case of “murder”. Police have pressed charges against the Army unit involved in the incident under sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 34 (a criminal act committed with a common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

“It is to be noted that at the time of the incident there was no police guide nor security forces did make requisition to the police station to provide police guide for their operation. Hence it is obvious that the intention of security forces is to murder and injure civilians,” read the FIR filed by the state police, a copy of which has been reviewed by this writer.

“At around 1530 hours, coal mine laborers of Oting village were returning to their native village Oting from Tiru in a vehicle Bolero pick-up. On reaching Longkhao between Upper Tiru and Oting village, security forces blankly opened fire at the vehicle without any provocation resulting in the killing of many Oting villagers and seriously injuring many others [sic],” the FIR added.

It’s pertinent to mention here that several states in India’s northeastern region, including Nagaland, come under the purview of the Armed Forces (Special Powers Act), 1958, better known as AFSPA. The law guarantees maximum impunity to security forces involved in anti-insurgency operations.

The AFSPA initially was applicable only to the Naga Hills, then a part of Assam, and was later extended to the rest of the northeast to curb ethnic armed insurgency. There are two more versions of the same law enacted for Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir as well.

The issue of human rights violations as a result of excesses allegedly committed by security forces has long been highlighted by activists and legal experts, a reason why AFSPA is seen as one of the most draconian laws in India since independence.

“The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot to kill, make arrests on flimsy pretexts, conduct warrantless searches, and demolish structures in the name of ‘aiding civil power,’” the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in the aftermath of the Nagaland incident.

“Several government-appointed commissions in India have recommended repealing the law. But in the face of resistance from the army, the government has failed to implement the recommendations. Several United Nations human rights bodies have also called for the repeal of the law. A 2019 report on Jammu and Kashmir by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that the AFSPA ‘remains a key obstacle to accountability,’” HRW added.

Demanding the immediate arrest of the “accused personnel of Special Forces,” the New Delhi-based Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG) said, “Insurgents traveling in a pick-up truck is unheard of and it is nothing but plain massacre of the civilians.”

“Since the FIR names the accused for the mass murder of the civilians, the law must take its own course and the accused ought to be handed over to the police for the offense of murder. Otherwise, mere statements of anguish or formation of Special Investigation Team or Court of Inquiry are simply not adequate to assuage the outrage against the massacre. The law must be seen [as] being applied equally to all murder accused,” said RRAG director Suhas Chakma.

What army veterans say

In a statement to the media, the Indian Army claimed it received “credible intelligence of likely movement of insurgents.” It also said the “cause of the unfortunate loss of lives is being investigated at the highest level.” The Army has ordered a Court of Inquiry into the killing of civilians in Nagaland.

The 21 Para SF is a highly trained wing of the Indian Army with experience in operating in the northeast. Earlier, it was involved in the controversial surgical strikes in Myanmar in 2015, aimed at eliminating Indian insurgents holed up in the country’s border region.

Now, military veterans with experience in anti-insurgency operations in the northeast have taken strong exception to the manner in which 21 Para SF personnel handled the situation in Nagaland.

“The Nagas are very friendly people. So are the Mizos, Manipuris and all of NE [communities].  No harm should come to them. Our task is to neutralize the anti-nationals. That is why CI [counter-insurgency] ops are specialized ops. One foolish high-handed move of shooting down civilians has put the clock back several years in CI ops. Special Forces should only operate across the IB [international border],” said Brigadier BK Ponwar, a former commandant of the Indian Army’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, located in Mizoram’s Vairengte.

“21 Para is a special force for tasks across the IB. Not doing Police Nakas [police check-posts]. CI ops concept is ‘never open fire first.’ A civilian must never be killed,” he stressed.

Some allegations emerged that rebels from the NSCN (Khaplang) faction were traveling in the pick-up van, but there has been no proof of that so far.

“By the way, how many rounds were fired from the so-called NSCN (K) vehicle? Trigger-happy soldiers are very dangerous in CI ops. Now retaliation will follow. It will take many years to rebuild the confidence of the people,” Brig. Ponwar added.

Upon his superannuation from the Indian Army in 2005, Brig. Ponwar, a highly decorated officer, was tasked to raise the Counter Terrorism of Jungle Warfare College (CTJWC) at Kanker in Chhattisgarh. CTJWC trains security forces in combating left-wing extremists, often referred to as Maoists, in central India.

Commenting on the Nagaland incident, which was widely covered by media and sparked massive protests in Nagaland, Brigadier Pradeep Sharma (retired), a national security and strategic affairs columnist, made the point that India, being a democratic country, gives the media freedom to raise relevant questions.

“Here are some logical questions. Did the media fire the bullets at the mini truck? Did media ask the Nagas to protest violently. Did media lodge an FIR under section 302…media is [just] reporting it [the incident]. Again, we are not Pakistan, where Army is god,” Brig. Sharma said.

Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.


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