Indian police charge 30 army soldiers for killing six tribal labourers in botched raid

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File photo: People attend a mass funeral of 14 civilians killed by Indian security forces in December 2021  (AFP via Getty)
File photo: People attend a mass funeral of 14 civilians killed by Indian security forces in December 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Police in India’s northeastern state of Nagaland have formally charged 30 army soldiers for killing six tribal labourers during a botched anti-insurgency operation last year.

The police said that the 21 Para Special Forces resorted to “disproportionate firing” and failed to follow standard operating procedures while carrying out the operation.

In an incident that sparked the deadliest violence in years in the insurgency-hit Nagaland region, Indian army troops opened fire at a pickup truck carrying eight local miners near Oting village in the state’s Mon district on 4 December.

Six people died on the spot and two were injured in the truck that was carrying more than 30 locals returning after completing a day’s work at the coal mine.

What was intended to be a counter-insurgency operation based on a tip, turned out to be a botched raid after the military acknowledged the deaths were a result of “mistaken identity”.

The civilian killings by the army triggered widespread anger and clashes after locals received bullet-riddled bodies of the labourers on an army truck.

Eight more people and a member of the security personnel died in the violence after troops shot at angry protesters who attacked the army’s camp.

“Investigation has revealed that the Op team had not followed the Standard Operating Procedure and the Rules of Engagement and resorted to indiscriminate and disproportionate firing,” the Nagaland Police said in a statement on Saturday.

Police filed the chargesheet based on the findings of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the state government. The chargesheet was filed in a court in Mon district on 30 May.

A man walks behind a placard posted at the venue of the Hornbill festival, which was shut after Indian security forces killed civilians in December 2021 (AFP via Getty)
A man walks behind a placard posted at the venue of the Hornbill festival, which was shut after Indian security forces killed civilians in December 2021 (AFP via Getty)

Investigators found that the army fired at the vehicle “without ensuring positive identification”, said the statement.

Villagers who reached the spot while searching for the missing locals “turned violent on discovering the dead bodies and a scuffle ensued between the villagers and the operation team members of 21 Para SF”, it added.

“One paratrooper succumbed to injuries and fourteen personnel from 21 Para SF team sustained injuries. This led the Major to order for opening firing at around 2200 hrs and the op team started to break contact,” said the police statement.

The 30 accused army personnel have been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including murder, criminal conspiracy and disappearance of evidence.

“The sanction for prosecution is still awaited,” Nagaland police chief TJ Longkumer said.

Supporters of Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) shout anti government slogans and carry an effigy of India's home minister Amit Shah as they protest the killing of 14 civilians (AFP via Getty)
Supporters of Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) shout anti government slogans and carry an effigy of India's home minister Amit Shah as they protest the killing of 14 civilians (AFP via Getty)

The botched military raid had sparked fresh anger among locals in Nagaland, where activists are already fighting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) – a controversial British-era federal law that gives the army sweeping powers, including shoot at sight under suspicion or protection from prosecution for soldiers who mistakenly kill civilians.

The Afspa has been in force in the state since it acquired statehood in 1963 as it grappled with insurgency and separatist activities, which is led by several tribal Naga groups. They accuse New Delhi of plundering their resources and have a longstanding demand for a separate homeland for Nagas.

Following the horrific killings in December, Indian home minister Amit Shah expressed “anguish” but justified the army’s actions by saying that the truck carrying the villagers tried to speed away when it was ordered to stop, prompting more outrage among locals.

The incident is also being investigated by the army’s Court of Inquiry, apart from SIT.

A separate complaint has also been registered to investigate the death of the paratrooper and the assault on the 21 Para Security Force and loss to the property of the government.

Last month, the Army’s Eastern Commander, Lt Gen Rana Pratap Kalita, said the probe by the Court of Inquiry was completed and was being examined. He promised that an “action will be taken irrespective of rank” if there was “any lapse or fault by anyone”.

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