The deaths of two teenagers in eastern Nagaland during a shooting incident in mid-July has sparked an outcry among human rights groups and pushed the state government to order an enquiry into the incident. The shooting also injured a woman and a soldier from the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force that operates along the Indo-Myanmar border.

A fact-finding team of human rights groups has said that security forces had shot at civilians. But Assam Rifles has neither taken responsibility nor outright denied culpability, saying only that its members had fired in defence after being provoked by members of an armed group. Assam Rifles has nevertheless ordered an internal enquiry into the incident.

The incident took place on the night of July 16 on a road running past two adjacent villages in Phek district, Phor and Wuzu. An army convoy was passing by the villages with the dead bodies of two members of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), one of the main armed groups seeking political sovereignty for the Naga people.

The army had killed the men early the same morning in an encounter at the Indo-Myanmar border in the state’s east. Although a ceasefire has been in place between the Indian government and NSCN(K) since 2001, hostilities between the two resumed after the armed group abrogated the ceasefire in March. NSCN(K) justified its decision by saying that even after all these years the Indian government had not addressed the issue of sovereignty for the Naga people.

Dark night

Following the encounter at the border, the army convoy was heading to the nearest town, Meluri, to hand the two bodies of the NSCN(K) men over to the Nagaland police there, as required by law.

One of the men was from Phor village, and news of his death had reached its residents well before the army convoy arrived there. The convoy consisted of five vehicles carrying members of Assam Rifles as well as the para-commando, a specialised anti-insurgency unit of the Indian army.

As the convoy passed Phor village, at about 7 pm, elders from that village and Wuzu, a bit further ahead, gathered on the road mid-way between the villages. They signalled the convoy to stop so that they could speak with the commanding officer, Major Surinder Singh, who is known to people in the area.

The villagers, who are Christian, like most people in Nagaland, requested Singh to transfer the bodies into coffins that they had arranged for. He agreed to take the coffins but the transfer did not eventually take place because of what subsequently unfolded.

Until this stage, there is little dispute about the course of events. After this, however, the picture becomes blurred, with contesting versions about what happened. With Indian security forces and the villagers differing on key points, the state government was pushed on July 19 to appoint a magistrate to inquire into the circumstances of the shooting.

The shooting once again highlights the challenges that the Indian government faces in Nagaland. Since Independence, the Indian state has been in continuous conflict with peoples’ movements in Nagaland. The Naga people have been seeking political self-determination even before India got independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

In order to deal with these movements, the Indian state clamped the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act on the Naga Hills in 1958 and retained it after Nagaland state was created in 1963. The law, which allows security forces a wide berth to search and imprison people, is a major source of local resentment against the Indian state.

Assam Rifles' version

MS Jaswal, inspector general of Assam Rifles (north), told an informal gathering of journalists on July 17 that members of the NSCN(K) had fired at the convoy first from the general direction of Wuzu, and that the security forces had fired back in defence but not in the direction of "the village",  referring to Wuzu. The convoy then immediately left the area, he said.

The armed group had planned the ambush and had probably “coerced” villagers into stopping the convoy, Jaswal said. “The NSCN(K) used villagers as human shields,” he said, stopping short of saying against whom or what the villagers were being shielded. However, he said that he would order an internal inquiry.

Earlier, a spokesman for Assam Rifles claimed that the shots had come from automatic machine guns, which civilians could not have access to. A 13-year-old girl, Aso, from Wuzu, and a 14-year-old boy, Tüzali, from Phor, died in the shooting, while a 24-year-old woman named Esther from Wuzu and a rifleman named Ojha were injured.

Fact-finding report

An inquiry by members of the Naga Students’ Federation and the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights, conducted from July 17 to July 19, contradicts the official version. The team interviewed eyewitnesses, including the heads of three villages and the victims’ families. They also spoke to Major Surinder Singh, the commanding officer.

According to the team’s report, three of the convoy’s five vehicles, which were all moving in a single file, had not stopped where the villagers had gathered. Instead, the three vehicles had proceeded and stopped ahead near Wuzu village’s community hall, located about 120 metres further along the road. The other two vehicles stopped when the villagers signalled to it, and the commanding officer, Singh, who was in the first of these vehicles, got out to speak with the villagers.

“The conversation lasted for about two minutes, when they [the villagers] started hearing gunshots [coming] from the direction of…the community hall [in Wuzu village]…followed by indiscriminate firing from the vehicle of the major and the vehicle behind [that],” the report said.

Both the fact-finding report and the army version concur that there were two rounds of firing and that the first shots came from the general direction of Wuzu. But the army says that the first round of firing was by armed groups, while the second round of firing by the convoy was in defence.

In contrast, quoting eye-witnesses, the report says that both rounds of firing came from the military vehicles. The first round came from the three vehicles that had gone ahead and stopped near Wuzu’s community hall but did not lead to any deaths or injuries, it says.

The second round of firing came from the two vehicles that had stopped to speak with the villagers and that was what led to the deaths, it concludes. These shots, the report says, “were aimed directly at the civilians” and “lasted for about 20 minutes.”

The report also says that members of the team saw bullet marks on several houses and trees and that villagers had shown them about 140 empty shells.

The fact-finding team said no members of the NSCN(K) had been present at the village that night. The two villages, Phor and Wuzu, have also released statements saying that there were no members of armed groups that night in and around the villages.

The fact-finding team also met Major Surinder Singh at his camp near Meluri. The report claimed that he had told the team that that he was not sure who had shot the teenagers and had asked its members to approach the inspector general.

“These murders are no accident but pre-meditated and duly sanctioned by the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act,” the report said. The Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights has called for a United Nations inquiry.