Can Nagaland-like ‘ambush blunder’ happen elsewhere in India?

That’s the top concern in several militancy-infested areas, but defence experts think it is highly unlikely; here’s why

Chhattisgarh
States such as Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar have battled Maoist militancy for years together. (Representational image)

The nation was shocked when, on Saturday, news came in of 13 civilians and a soldier dying of an attack by armed forces personnel in Nagaland. The armed forces termed it a ‘case of mistaken identity’. The next day, following a clash of the locals with the troops over the killings, one more civilian was killed.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah expressed ‘anguish’ over the killings. The Nagaland government has promised a high-level probe led by a Special Investigation Team (SIT).

Even as defence experts and human rights activists are discussing at length the reasons behind the ambush and its repercussions on Naga peace negotiations, the residents of ‘volatile’ regions in several parts of the country are reportedly getting anxious. Why are they worried; do they need to be so?

Why locals in Nagaland got killed

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In Oting village of Nagaland’s Mon district, soldiers from the Assam Rifles, an Army unit, opened fire on around 30 coalmine labourers who were returning home from work in a truck on Saturday. As the truck drove near the unit’s camp, the soldiers opened fire, allegedly mistaking the miners for militants. They said later they’d had intelligence inputs about militant movement in the area, which led them to be suspicious of the truck.

Also read: After firing incident, Naga peace talks tread a precarious path

The shooting killed six locals at first. As news of the killings broke out, hundreds of angry locals rushed to the camp, clashing with the jawans and burning their vehicles. In the firing that ensued, one soldier and seven locals got killed. Several got injured as well on both sides. The next day, as the clashes continued, one more civilian was shot dead.

What’s triggering anxiety in other regions

Jammu & Kashmir and north-eastern States such as Assam and Nagaland have witnessed militancy for decades now. This has changed the very political contours of the respective States. Apart from this, there are pockets of militant activity in several parts of the country that have seen bouts of violence claiming thousands of lives down the decades.

States such as Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar have battled Maoist militancy for years together. Central forces have been deployed in some places from time to time. Apart from that, the States have developed their own elite anti-Naxal strike forces such as the Greyhounds (AP and Telangana), the Special Operations Group (J&K), and the C-60 (Maharashtra).

Observers on TV news programmes and social media channels say the locals in these regions now fear that a Nagaland-like encounter could well happen closer home. Some of the Naxal operations, and the armed forces camps to fight them, are located close to cities and towns. Some of the regions are densely populated, such as Wayanad in Kerala. Civilians often cross paths with both militants and jawans. This has led to widespread anxiety in those regions, say the observers.

Why such an event is unlikely

Home defence experts say the Nagaland civilian killing itself is a one-off event, and the probability of a similar attack elsewhere in the country is very low. There are various reasons for this.

Nagaland has seen militancy almost ever since Independence, claiming tens of thousands of lives and destroying entire generations. It is termed as India’s oldest insurgency, and repeated attempts at ceasefire and peace negotiations have failed. There is deep-rooted suspicion on both sides — civilians and soldiers — which sometimes clouds judgments.

The Army has been fighting the militants in war mode and its units, such as the Assam Rifles, have been carrying out full-fledged counter-insurgency operations in the State. The Assam Rifles, whose men were involved in the ambush, is renowned for its ability to keep militancy at bay. It is India’s oldest paramilitary force, and today has a sanctioned strength of around 63,000 personnel and 46 battalions.

Though there are Army units deployed in other parts of the country too, the scale of armament and the militant situation are not as intense, say defence experts.

Power of AFSPA

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) is in force in Nagaland. The highly contentious law gives power to the Army to use force, including opening fire, at its own discretion.

AFSPA also provides the armed forces with impunity against any excesses committed by the men in uniform. Section 6 of the Act clearly says that “no prosecution, suit or any other legal proceeding can be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central government, against anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by the Act.”

In the absence of AFSPA or similar legal muscle in other regions, jawans are not likely to open fire on a truckload of men on the suspicion that they are militants. Therefore, while a mistake can happen anywhere, anytime, a repeat of the one that just happened in Nagaland appears remote.

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