The killing of over a dozen innocent civilians in a botched security operation in Nagaland has raised questions not only about the reliability of the intelligence network but also about the conduct of the army in the sensitive region. Though the Union Home Ministry swiftly acknowledged the grave error and instituted a probe by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to fix accountability and punish the officers responsible for the ambush that went horribly wrong, the tragic incident has dented the country’s image and cast a shadow on an already struggling peace talks between the Centre and the Naga groups. Based on inputs received by the Indian Army about the movement of the insurgents near Tiru village of Mon district, a team of 21 para-commandos of the Army laid an ambush but it turned out to be a tragic case of mistaken identity, leading to the death of innocent villagers. Corrective steps must be initiated urgently to ensure that such unfortunate incidents do not recur in future while undertaking operations against insurgents. The botched operation is bound to have an impact on the peace efforts in the northeastern region. The key Naga group negotiating with the Centre, NSCN(I-M), has declared it a “black day” for all Nagas and termed the incident unprecedented in recent history. It is likely to harden its stand and insist that an accord cannot happen until the Centre accepts the Naga people’s demand for a separate constitution and flag. The Centre has said it is in no position to grant these demands. The NSCN(I-M) has rejected all alternatives — such as a cultural flag instead of a national flag and dealing with issues of a constitution after signing the agreement.
Though the Centre had announced way back in 2015 that the talks had concluded with the signing of a Framework Agreement (FA), a question mark now hangs over the final deal. Given the public anger against the killings, there is a danger of the old wounds and anti-India sentiments being revived. It is also possible that the killings could be exploited by certain insurgent groups to recruit and even strengthen the hands of the NSCN(I-M), which will likely push for its demands with greater vigour given that the government is on the back foot. Even groups seen being in favour of signing the deal quickly will have to reflect the public anger to remain relevant. The incident has also rekindled the debate over the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that gives sweeping powers to the armed forces. Under its provisions, the armed forces have been empowered to open fire, enter and search without a warrant, and arrest any person who has committed a cognisable offence, while having immunity from being prosecuted. There is a growing demand for withdrawal of the special law in view of its widespread misuse.