Disclaimer: This piece is neither meant to justify the recent killing of civilians by security forces in Nagaland, nor find fault in a particular news portal. Au contraire, the sole objective is to highlight how truth and logic are ruthlessly trampled by the malaise of sensationalism which afflicts Indian media.
The lead photograph of three torched vehicles in the article [“Nagaland Civilian Killings: Police Report Also Hints at Cover-Up Attempt by Security Forces,” The Wire, December 6, 2021] states “Angry villagers allegedly burned vehicles belonging to security forces in Nagaland’s Mor district after the civilian killings on December 4.”
Two things about this caption. One, no place named “Mor” exists in Nagaland [it should have been ‘Mon’], and two, it states that “Angry villagers allegedly burned vehicles….” Misspelling name of the place where this incident occurred is immaterial and given the ‘breaking-news’ syndrome prevalent in media, it’s understandable that probably the hurry to publish this piece inadvertently allowed the ‘printer’s devil’ to creep in. However, the non-committal statement that the vehicles were “allegedly” burnt by “angry villagers,” is indeed perplexing as it clearly suggests that there could well be the possibility of someone else having torched the army vehicles.
Since the only other people besides villagers present at the incident site were army men, how could there be any doubt in anyone’s mind as to who set the army vehicles ablaze- unless, the Wire Staff [which has compiled this report] has reasons to suspect that those in uniform could have done so. Yet, there’s nothing wrong in being cautious while reporting, especially when one hasn’t witnessed the incident. However, in keeping with journalistic ethics, the same yardstick of implied ambiguity while reporting preliminary findings should have also been applied to other aspects related to the incident.
In journalistic parlance, ‘lede’ is the first sentence or paragraph of a news story that immediately grabs the reader’s attention. In this article, the lede reads, “Nagaland Police, in its preliminary report on the civilian killings has hinted at a possible cover-up of the gruesome action by security forces.” It goes on to say that “This police report accessed by The Wire comes in the aftermath of BJP’s Mon district president Nyawang Konyak’s statement to the press that Special Forces personnel were seen removing the clothes of the unarmed civilian victims at the scene of the December 4 Oting firing and were trying to dress them up in “khaki” clothes.”
What’s really odd is that despite enumerating various conflicting accounts which expose serious incongruities, those who authored this report have acted as mere messengers and not discerning journos. Let’s take for example, BJP’s Mon district president’s above-mentioned claim that army men “were seen removing the clothes of the unarmed civilian victims at the scene… and were trying to dress them up in “khaki” clothes.”
Since never in the known history of insurgency in North East have militants ever donned khaki uniforms, two questions arise- One, would army men be so naïve as to think that they could pass-off the deceased civilians as militants just by dressing them up in khakis? Two, from where on earth did the army men get hold of khaki uniforms?
However, in the very next paragraph, there’s mention of the ‘brief report’ [purportedly prepared by Nagaland Commissioner and State Director General of Police] mentioning that “On reaching the spot [incident site], they found the pick-up truck and the Special Forces personnel trying to hide the dead bodies of the six villagers by wrapping and loading them in another pickup truck (Tata Mobile), apparently with the intention of taking the dead bodies to their base camp.”
So, if one believes what the BJP leader has to say, then it emerges that the army men had no intention of ‘disappearing’ the dead but instead wanted to conceal their wrongdoing by dressing them in khakis to portray the dead civilians as militants. However, if the district administration and police report is true, then army men were “trying to hide the dead bodies of the six villagers by wrapping and loading them in another pickup truck (Tata Mobile), apparently with the intention of taking the dead bodies to their base camp.” Could there be a more brazen contradiction of what is being touted as eye witness accounts?
Yet, the news report states that “The details in the state government’s preliminary report matched the statement made by the local BJP leader”!
Furthermore, the news report quotes two unnamed “senior state officials” disclosing that “Two of the seriously injured persons were taken to the Assam side by the Security Forces themselves and are now admitted in the ICU at Dibrugarh Medical College and Hospital.” Now, if the army men really intended to either pass-off the dead civilians as militants by dressing them up in Khakis or wiping out all trace of the killings by taking away the bodies from the site, then would they be so inane as to take all the trouble of saving the lives of injured civilians by rushing them to the hospital, knowing fully well that being eye witnesses to this incident, they would surely implicate the army men?
While the article details all civilian deaths, it inexplicably doesn’t mention the fact that one army man at the incident site was killed by a dah [Naga sword] wielding local. Here the point to ponder is that if the army men had actually “opened fire indiscriminately,” would a local armed with only a dah be able to come within striking distance and inflict a lethal blow to an army man who was armed with a sophisticated automatic rifle and supposedly firing indiscriminately?
Similarly, the news report cites “confusion about the Konyak Union holding a mass funeral” as the trigger for a mob setting ablaze three buildings of the Assam Rifles camp at Mon the next day. While this may be the state government’s view, but it doesn’t sound very convincing since the Assam Rifles weren’t involved in the previous day’s incident. Furthermore, after the December 4 incident, the probability of the law-and-order situation going out of hand the next day was extremely high and so, security arrangements in Mon should have been beefed up as per the standard operating procedure [SOP].
That’s exactly why the district administration’s contention that the local police tried to pacify the crowd, but were “outnumbered” is not tenable and they must be held accountable for failing to prevent the Assam Rifles post at Mon from being attacked. In fact, the failure of the district administration and police to disperse the mob left Assam Rifles personnel with no other option but to use force in self-defence and for saving government property.
Had the district administration and law enforcing agencies taken appropriate riot control measures to disperse the mob instead of abdicating their professional responsibility, Assam Rifles troops would not have had to use force themselves. Thus, the moral responsibility for death of one protester and injuries to six others is squarely that of the district administration and state police. Regrettably, this aspect has been covered rather perfunctorily in The Wire report.
The news item mentions that “After almost an hour into the melee, the second round of continuous firing by the Assam Rifles resulted in the mob running for safety and protection. After the firing ceased, one protestor by the name of Leong of Chi village was confirmed to be dead on the spot and six others sustained bullet wound injuries.” This statement [attributed to the state government’s version] brings out two important aspects that most certainly deserved at least a passing reference in the news report.
Firstly, there were two rounds of firing with a gap of “almost an hour” between the two, and this admission completely negates allegations of “continuous firing by the Assam Rifles.” On the contrary, it clearly indicates that despite its buildings being torched, Assam Rifles personnel at Mon camp exercised exemplary restraint by firing warning shots that caused no casualties whatsoever and thereafter ceased firing to give the mob a fair chance to disperse.
Secondly, while even a single death or injury is an irreversible human tragedy, the fact that only one person died due to gunshot wounds while six protesters were injured clearly indicates that the Assam Rifles personnel implicitly adhered to the cardinal principle of using ‘minimum force’ when exercising the right to self-defence and for saving government property. Thus, the resilience of Assam Rifles personnel of Mon camp despite grave provocation and physical harm is indeed worthy of appreciation!
Tailpiece: While the December 4 incident is being investigated, it would do the media a lot of good to avoid the temptation of being lured by speculation or sensationalism. Most importantly, let’s not see those who died on December 4 and subsequently as someone belonging to the Naga community or the Indian Army. What’s happened is indeed a national tragedy of gargantuan proportions because all those killed and injured in this incident and its aftermath, were Indians first!