“Enforced Error”: Inside Story On Why Indian Army Commandos Could Have ‘Ambushed’ Civilians During Nagaland Ops

OPED By: Col. Rajinder Kushwaha

Anti-army media are up in arms against the mistaken shooting of civilians, the other day, at a village called Oting, in the Mon district of Nagaland. The media claims that the shooting was deliberately done and was an act of mass murder. This is far from the truth.

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The noise for removal of AFSPA is definitely a mischievous call. It does point towards the likelihood of planted false information to engineer such an incident. Soldiers have no grudges against the common man of Nagaland. They do their duty as asked by the authorities.

AFSPA, though needing an overhaul due to changed conditions, is the shield of soldiers against such self-defense acts, going wrong.

According to reports available, the unit, 21 SF (Special Forces) had got definite and confirmed information from official and unofficial sources, about the move of NSCN (K) insurgents in the area.

After due surveillance and reconnaissance, a calculated ambush was laid on the fateful road. There were three sites at which the ambush party was located in a linear fashion on the road. When a vehicle came it was signaled to stop —- some people were seen with rifles. The vehicle did not stop at the first two sites. At the third site, it was fired upon and casualties took place.

I think a mistake had occurred due to non – stoppage of the vehicle when signaled to stop. Thus, suspicion grew and firing was warranted. I do not think it was the fault of the ambush party. Such things do happen during CT (counterterrorism) ops.

Para SF contingent marching on the occasion of Republic Day Parade 2020.

In January 1991, while conducting operations against ULFA in Jorhat, my own battalion ambush party (headed by Lt Piyush Mukhopadhya) shot an Assam Rifle Brigadier (ALPHA Range Commander) who did not stop the vehicle, when signaled to do so, while passing through the ambush site. At the third site, he was shot by our boys —- three rounds fired from the hip position and all three hits.

While GOC 57 Mountain Division wanted to court-martial the officer and the boys, 3 Corps Cdr, Lt Gen Jameel Mehmood, tore off the COI and asked me to praise the boys for excellent shooting. He was eventually awarded a COAS commendation card. You need Jameel Mehmood-type Generals to stand by the soldiers when things go wrong.

In hindsight, I do feel the Mon district shooting was a deliberate trap by ANEs strategists, at the behest of their foreign bosses. Mon district is notorious for NSCN activities. I had operated in that area in 1981. I am sure, some concocted information was fed to soldiers on the insurgent movement.

It could have been as well a trap or deliberate “misinformation”. Terrorists do not move around with headbands. Since they had weapons, it did lead to confirmation of information on Anti National Elements ( ANEs).

Civilians or Hunters

Who says that civilians were “Hunters” with weapons? Why couldn’t they be insurgents in the garb of hunters/ civilians? Local police are misguiding under the local pressure.

It happens in Counter-Terrorist (CT) operations. Local police are always compromised. I have seen it in my deployment in Punjab, J&K, Nagaland and Assam. Even Police and IAS officers used to request me for Army security. They never trust local policemen.

Even if I assume that they were really coal mine “laborers/ hunters”, in CT ops, allowance for such human errors has to be accepted. I have conducted CT ops in J&K, Punjab, Assam and Nagaland for 23 years out of my 34 years sojourn in the army.

File Image for Representation

Journalists and “classroom academicians”, in uniform or out of it, those who sit in AC rooms or those who have never operated in such areas, have brains in their knees. One ought to have served in these areas to know how crucial it was to make a decision in a split second.

CT ops are not a joke. This is why AFSPA is enforced to protect soldiers. What happened when in Manipur a few days back, a colonel and his escort were ambushed? Where were all these armed chair critics then?

I expect Army commanders and others to stand by their soldiers. Let us stop saying that it was “ a Mass Murder”. Generally, overground supporters of insurgents/terrorists do give such twists to the incidents. It could have been very much a group of insurgents, masking themselves amongst Civilians laborers.

The question arises why the vehicle did not stop when signaled to do so? Was the driver forced to rush through by some top NSCN (K) leader in the vehicle who might have escaped? Who was the man with the rifle? Was he the bodyguard? These questions need answers by a proper but dispassionate inquiry.

Let us remember when one plays with fire, fingers will be burnt. Such incidents are normal by-products in the fog of disturbed areas. Do not expect “zero-defect” conduct from soldiers.

A candlelight vigil and prayer session at Phek Town, Nagaland on December 6. (via Twitter)

What is significant is the intention behind the incident, which was not malafide. It was an error of judgment. What was to be noted as to what spurred this error of judgment? Definitely, it was non – stopping of the vehicle, when asked to stop.

The answer to this lies in understanding the “Enforced Error”, deliberate or otherwise. The violent reaction of “Oting villagers” does suggest that insurgents were present in the village. Note the speed with which they gathered on the scene of the incident.

It definitely suggests that they had been egged on to do so. The Incident does not seem to be purely “mistaken” but a “manipulated enforced error”. There is a need to look below the surface, which might not be visible to the naked eye.

  • Col. Rajinder Kushwaha is an ex-NDA, commissioned into 3 Bihar. He is a battle-hardened veteran who served in ’71 War & has operated extensively in various insurgency environs across the country. He is a renowned author, and a highly respected defense & national security expert writing for several reputed publications such as ‘Defence and Security Alert’ (DSA), the ‘Indian Defence Review’ (IDR) among others. You can reach him on Twitter: @RajeeKushwaha, Email ID: rajee749@yahoo.com