Nagaland civilian killings: Vital lessons army needs to learn from the Mon ambush

The killing of innocent civilians in Nagaland’s Mon by a squad of the Special Forces gives an occasion for introspection to prevent the same mistakes from being repeated

Rajeev Bhattacharyya December 15, 2021 08:44:08 IST
Nagaland civilian killings: Vital lessons army needs to learn from the Mon ambush

A man walks behind a placard posted at the venue of the Hornbill festival which was shut after Indian security forces killed 13 civilians in Nagaland firing. AFP

The killing of innocent civilians in Nagaland’s Mon by a squad of the Special Forces is reminiscent of similar episodes in the Northeast over the past several decades. An interplay of many factors peculiar to every situation triggers such disasters but they give an occasion for introspection to prevent the same mistakes from being repeated.

The actual sequence of events leading to the botched operation by the Special Forces in Mon may never be known as the Army will not reveal the findings by the court of inquiry. But, in the given circumstances, the government may disclose if any punishment is meted out to the guilty officers. The fallout notwithstanding, certain vital lessons can be gleaned from the unfortunate incident.

That the mishap was the outcome of an intelligence failure is beyond any doubt. Such incidents are not infrequent wherever counter-insurgency operations are in vogue across the country. They snowball into a storm if the collateral damage is more as it happened in Mon. Such episodes would court greater controversy now with the advent of the digital media. The question is why do such fiascos happen.

Security forces are invariably dependent upon human intelligence for operations in disturbed zones. There are informers who earn their livelihood by selling information. Very often they tweak the same information for different agencies and forces. In many instances, they have been killed by the militant outfits. But there have been occasions as well when such agents are made use of by the rebels to plant flawed information among the security forces. Insurgency and counter-insurgency are as much a war of information as it is a battle with guns in the jungles.

In Mon, there is a high possibility that the militants might have pulled a fast one with the Special Forces through the local agent(s) who provide information. How all this might have been executed is still a matter of speculation. But it must be mentioned that some rebel groups are adept in these tactics and special sessions are held to train the functionaries. In the late ’90s, some batches from different rebel outfits from the Northeast were imparted specific lessons on such tactics during the training sessions held in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

Therefore, security forces need to exercise extra caution while receiving intelligence inputs from informers. It is easier for the police to verify the information from alternative sources but not always for the Army, Assam Rifles or other paramilitary organisations engaged in combating militancy. And this holds particularly true for Nagaland for reasons which are known to the officers of the Army and Assam Rifles who have served in the state. The same state-of-affairs was prevalent in Mizoram when the Mizo National Front had raised the banner of revolt in the 1960s and ’70s.

A former army officer who had served in the Northeast is of the view that the infantry could be better suited for such operations than the Special Forces. “This is because a larger force would be more effective than a small squad of commandos. Ideally, I would have preferred to camp at the nearest establishment of the Assam Rifles from Oting where the killings took place and operate from that centre,” he said.

Since the situation could take a tricky turn in such zones, the trigger ought to be pulled by the security forces only when they are absolutely certain about the target. In the Army’s parlance, this would mean ‘neat kills’ instead of ‘kills’ but such a policy could allow militants to escape sometimes. Still, innocent lives would be saved and repetition of the same errors prevented.

In the case of Mon, the Special Forces should have been thoroughly briefed about the sensitivities of the situation by the 3 Corps headquarters at Rangapahar (Dimapur) which gave the green signal for the operation. Although the peace process is deadlocked, there is no gainsaying that the constituency of peace has broadened in Nagaland since the ceasefire agreement between the government and the NSCN(IM) in 1997. The recent killings could strengthen the hardliners on both sides of the border who are either engaged in negotiations with the government or determined to carry on with the separatist campaign.

And finally, it is doubtful if the Special Forces would have executed the operation in the manner they did without the special powers granted to the security forces under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA). Predictably, there is a demand again from different states in the Northeast for repeal of the draconian law. A special assembly session will be convened in Nagaland on 20 December to discuss the issue and is likely to pass a resolution supporting the demand.

The Army’s opposition to the repeal of AFSPA is unlikely to wither anytime soon. There are reports of regrouping across the border in Myanmar which could denote a renewed phase of intermittent insurgent activity in some parts of the Northeast. At the same time, the Army would do well to remember that its ground force is reportedly the largest in the world with 1.4 million personnel. And last year the Indian military was the third highest spender after the US and China.

The Army is battling separatist militants in the Northeast whose numbers would not exceed 7000, and many of whom are not well equipped in terms of weaponry. But they are certainly more adept in mountain and jungle warfare than the army and paramilitary. More importantly, in the Maoist affected region, the police and CRPF have been combatting the militants without any special powers. It is true that human rights violations have also been reported from these areas which goes to prove that lifting the AFSPA from the Northeastern states cannot be a guarantee that incidents like Mon would not recur.

Still, burying the law would go a long way in assuaging the sentiments of the Northeast and especially Nagaland, Manipur and Assam that have been reeling under disturbed conditions continuously since independence. Certainly, such a step would not result in the separation of the region from the country but only cement the bonds of integration.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati

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