On the night of June 14, troopers of Indian Army’s 21 Para (Special Forces) gunned down 35-year-old Thingtu Ngemu in Kongsa village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district during purported anti-terror operations. The village lies on India-Myanmar border.

The next morning, the Army issued a statement saying it had erroneously killed Thingtu Ngemu, calling it a case of “mistaken identity.” The statement said:

“The Army troops had laid an ambush in this particular area based on hard intelligence with regards to movement of a group of hardcore terrorists. It was during this time the individual who has got killed, came into the ambush and on being challenged he made very suspicious movements and rushed towards the ambush party, which forced them to open controlled fire resulting in the individual suffering fatal injury. It is a case of mistaken identity.”

While the Army’s version implied that there was some provocation on Thingtu Ngemu’s part and that he had made “suspicious movement and rushed towards the ambush party”, the deceased’s relatives and other residents of Kongsa contested the claim.

Rajesh Singpho, a relative, said Thingtu Ngemu had set out at night to look for one Tuwang Ngemu, an elderly man from the village who had stepped out to work on his plantation in the afternoon and had not returned since. He claimed Thingtu Ngemu was accompanied by seven other people when he was gunned down. The rest survived and narrated the sequence of events upon their return, he said.

Thingtu Ngemu's wife and children.

Roitun Taikam, a member of the village panchayat, corroborated this. He said: “Since it was a Wednesday, the day of the weekly haat [local market], Tuwang had gone in the morning to pluck paan [betel] leaves. When he didn’t return till late in the evening, his family was worried and these boys were sent to look for him.”

The jhum plantation where Tuwang Ngemu worked, Taikam said, was a 15-20 minute hike from the village. When he was leaving the plantation, he was stopped by the Army’s paratroopers, who did not let go despite repeated requests, Taikam alleged.

The eight men then set out to look for Tuwang Ngemu around 10 pm. “They approached the area, calling out his name loudly,” said Singpho. “They made it amply clear that they were civilians from the village looking for a lost old man but the soldiers opened fire without warning.”

Taikam said Thingtu Ngemu died on the spot. “Even after the bullet struck Thingtu, they didn’t stop firing,” he alleged. “The other boys were lucky to survive.”

He added, “Thingtu was shot from barely 30 metres away. The paratroopers have night-vision glasses and all the boys had torch lights, yet they opened fire. Is this how a professional army functions?”

What next?

The Army, however, stood by the statement issued the day after the incident. Speaking to Scroll.in, its public relations officer in Guwahati Lieutenant Colonel Suneet Newton said: “The original statement is based on empirical facts and the actual sequence of events on the ground.” He said an internal inquiry has been commissioned by the Army into the incident.

On being asked if the Army planned to compensate the bereaved family in any way, the officer said it was not in the force’s mandate to do so. The Changlang police Amit Sharma chief said a case has been registered in the local police station in Namtok based on a complaint filed by Thingtu Ngemu’s wife, but refused to reveal the charges the police planned to press. “It will be not right for me to reveal that at this stage,” said Sharma.

However, according to the First Information Report, which Scroll.in has reviewed, the police has pressed charges for murder under Section 302 read with Section 34 of the Indian Penal Code, which means the charges have been applied to all the troopers present.

The district administration of Changlang has promised the bereaved family monetary compensation and a government job for Thingtu Ngemu’s wife.

The Armed Forces Special Power Acts – which gives the military sweeping powers and immunity from prosecution in conflict-hit areas – is in effect in parts of Arunachal Pradesh, including Changlang. The district, owing to its proximity to Myanmar, is used by insurgent groups like the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) and the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) as a transit point to cross over to training camps in Myanmar, security officers say.

Under the AFSPA, an Armed Forces official can only be prosecuted after permission is taken from the central government. In the present case, if the police investigation finds enough grounds to press with the murder charges, they will first have to approach the Centre. Since 1991, when the Act was enforced in parts of Arunachal Pradesh to 2015, 38 requests have been made to the Centre for prosecution of Army personnel, of which 30 have been rejected and eight put under review. There has not been a single conviction.