The death of 14 civilians in firing by security forces in Nagaland has sparked outrage not only in the Northeast but all across the country. Six civilians were killed when Army personnel mistook coal mine workers returning home in a pick-up van for insurgents. It’s obvious that the tip-off about the likely movement of insurgents was half-baked, if not downright misleading. Eight civilians lost their lives in the ensuing protests as the troops opened fire, purportedly in self-defence. The killings need to be condemned in the strongest terms and those responsible for the intelligence lapses should not be spared. Expressing ‘deep regret’ over the deaths, the Army has ordered a Court of Inquiry, while the Nagaland government has set up a Special Investigation Team headed by an IGP. The onus is on the investigators to unravel the truth, no matter how unpalatable.
The civilian deaths have reignited the demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from the Northeast, a trouble-torn region plagued for decades by insurgency as well as inter-state border disputes. The legislation gives sweeping ‘search and arrest’ powers to the security forces; they also have the licence to open fire, if deemed necessary, to maintain public order in places designated as ‘disturbed areas’. However, a knee-jerk reaction might prove to be counter-productive. Any major decision on this Act should be taken only after thorough deliberations with various stakeholders.
Violence and instability in the Northeast have important implications for national security and territorial integrity. That’s why the Centre should go the extra mile to prevent things from spinning out of control. The Union and state governments need to work in tandem to cool frayed tempers and counter misinformation and fake news with a firm hand. In the wake of the Nagaland tragedy, the twin challenges will be to restore the civilians’ faith in the security forces and stop insurgent groups from exploiting the sensitive situation. Various agencies face the onerous task of ensuring that such shocking incidents don’t occur during action against insurgents.
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