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Caught in the crossfire

Unarmed and innocent civilians always suffer the most in an armed conflict situation and when the conflict remains unresolved for a prolonged period their sufferings become endless.


Sentinel Digital Desk

Unarmed and innocent civilians always suffer the most in an armed conflict situation and when the conflict remains unresolved for a prolonged period their sufferings become endless. The tragic death of 14 civilians and a security personnel in the Mon district of Nagaland in indiscriminate firing by security forces, apparently in a case of mistaken identity, and in the aftermath has established it again. Ordering a Court of Inquiry by the Army and the setting up of a Special Investigation Team by the Nagaland Government have indicated that the incident was the fallout of an overhasty act by some Army personnel to get quick results. Ensuring that the inquiry and the investigation are carried out in an impartial manner and without delay will be critical to dousing the flame of anger and preventing the disruptive elements from exploiting the situation. Those guilty for the irresponsible act of killing innocent civilians must be meted out exemplary punishment to prevent such recurrence. The 3 Corps of the Army issuing a statement that a specific operation was planned based on "credible intelligence" of the likely movement of insurgents has only triggered the question over the standards for evaluating the reliability of the source and information. The Army authorities have deeply regretted the incident and the aftermath but ensuring that no one in the force exceeds their briefing is extremely important to prevent such aberrations. Union Home Minister Amit Shah rushing to express his deep anguish, Nagaland Governor Prof. Jagdish Mukhi condemning the incident of the firing on innocent villagers in the "strongest possible words" and Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio describing it as "highly condemnable" and announcing the formation of the SIT demonstrated the disapproval in unequivocal terms by the Central Government and Nagaland Government of any irresponsible act by anyone in uniform. The incident has revived the demand for withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and the chorus is expected to grow louder beyond the boundaries of Nagaland. It has also shattered the hopes of the common Naga people who are yearning for permanent peace to return through expeditious resolution of the armed conflict in the Naga-inhabited areas. It is unfortunate that the peace talks between the Central Government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) -- which resumed after a long gap -- have reached a dead end once again. The government must remain alert that when such negotiations are in a critical stage, an irresponsible act of killing innocent civilians during a special counter-insurgency operation only provides a handle to the forces inimical to India.

Deft handling of the situation by the government and the security agencies is required so that the anti-India forces cannot exploit the situation in Nagaland and in the Naga-inhabited areas. The government dealing swiftly with any violation of human rights by the security forces is critical to winning the support of the people for the counter-insurgency operations. Choosing between the military justice system and the civil courts for deciding the cases has remained the unsettled question due to which AFSPA and the excess committed by security forces during counter-insurgency operations under it keeps returning to the centre stage of conflict discourse in Northeast. Ignoring this question has done no good and only allowed occurrence of incidents of violation of human rights which also adversely affect the image of Indian security forces. Sustained dialogue between the Government and the NSCN(IM) is a must to remove the bottlenecks in signing the final peace accord with all the Naga insurgent groups. The negotiators from both sides must return to the negotiation table at the earliest to hammer out a permanent solution in a spirit of give and take so that the civilians are not held hostage to a long drawn and endless armed conflict. The progress made after 24 years of negotiations must not be allowed to be negated by differences that have cropped up. A mechanism needs to be worked out to ensure that both the sides continue to sit across the table despite the differences and make the best of efforts to find acceptable solutions. Lessons must be learnt from Assam and Mizoram that the return of permanent peace with the signing of peace accords makes the deployment of the Army or the central paramilitary forces on internal security duty redundant. The government owns the larger responsibility of providing adequate compensation and justice to the families of those killed and the injured to restore the trust and confidence of the people. The civil society organisations taking up the cudgels for the victims need to alert the peace-loving Naga people that allowing a state of lawlessness will only delay the investigation and deprive the families of the victims from getting justice. The onus also lies on the Nagaland government to ensure that justice is delivered to the families of the victims. It must take effective measures to prevent the violation of human rights by anyone.

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