Villagers in Oting, home to 12 of the 13 civilians who were killed in a botched counter-insurgency operation in Nagaland on December 4, have rubbished the official version of events in a strongly-worded statement. They have questioned Home Minister Amit Shah's statement in the Parliament and called it "unwarranted". They have also called the "heroic reports" about the operation "totally false and fabricated" and termed the botched operation a "massacre".
The special force personnel tried to pass off the six civilians as a group of militants by planting weapons and dressing them in camouflage and boots, the villagers allege. The angry letter uses strong language to describe the group of special forces, calling them "unprofessional, half-trained, psychopaths", and "cowards". The villagers also warn that they would be forced to return to the "head-hunting days", and add that "the target and enemy may vary this time" because of the events of December 4.
The state police had earlier alleged that the "intention" of security forces was to "murder and injure civilians". 21 Para Special Forces of the Indian Army "blankly opened fire" resulting in the killing of many Oting villagers in the Mon district of Nagaland near the Assam border, they said in the FIR against the special forces unit.
"There may be many varying reports from different medium about the massacre of 13 innocent civilians, who were all below the age of 40. We appeal all publicity and media houses not to be biased and twist the issue with misinterpretations," the statement issued by the Oting Citizens Office, representing Oting village, stated.
The civic body said that the people of Oting have banned all groups and parties of various factions, and the Indian armed forces, from entering the village's jurisdiction indefinitely, adding that the villagers will not be responsible for "whatever happens" if this directive is violated.
"We are warriors by blood and origin, and no forces can intimidate us. You have just witnessed how we stood against your most sophisticated automatic weapons and arms. We missed by an inch in obtaining one of your heads. We weren't prepared this time, for we thought you were the friends of the Hill people, but we shall not repeat the same error henceforth," the letter said.
The Oting villagers recounted that "on the fateful evening of 4th December 2021, around 3:30 PM, one pick-up truck loaded with 8 Coal miners were returning from (a) mining site as next day was Sunday, which we the Christians consider a day of rest... Around 4:30 pm, the security forces ambushed that very pick-up truck without ascertaining anything about the passengers."
The security forces then "blocked the road for all traffic and diverted all vehicles to the less frequented old Pioneer road. Meanwhile, villagers were anxiously waiting for the pick-up truck to reach the village, for they learned that there was a shootout" on that stretch, according to the Oting Citizens body.
The letter claimed that around 8 pm, the villagers went searching and found the empty pick-up truck, "with the bullet mark piercing through the windshield exactly at the driver's position, bloodstains covered with dust and mud, and the boys missing from the vehicle."
"The pierced windshield in the front by bullets clearly indicates that they first shot the driver of the pick-up truck to (bring it to a) halt and ambushed the remaining point-blank," the statement alleged.
The villagers claimed they chased three fleeing vehicles used by the security forces on motorcycles and intercepted them. "Though security men denied any knowledge of the missing boys, a search found six of the missing miners under a tarpaulin. These boys were half-dressed and lying dead," the letter added.
The letter accused the security forces of attempting "to brand the boys as militants by planting weapons and dressing them in camouflage uniforms and boots."
Soon after heated arguments between security forces and villagers broke out and turned into physical scuffles. Army men, according to the villagers, "started firing indiscriminately, abruptly killing and injuring few others on the spot."
Political parties, including the ruling BJP, have raised doubts about the official version of events of the day. BJP's Nagaland state president on Sunday said that the firing incident in the Mon district was "tantamount to war crimes during peacetime and amounts to summary execution as well as genocide." In a public letter signed by him, he said that it "can't be tolerated by anyone at any cost" and that simply putting the blame on intelligence failure was "the lamest excuse".
The botched operation has once again brought into question the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law that gives sweeping powers to the army in troubled regions. There has been widespread demand to revoke special powers granted to the armed forces in North East. Chief Ministers of Nagaland and Meghalaya have publicly demanded the same. The Nagaland government will write to the Centre calling for the repeal of AFSPA.
Nagaland has also called off the Hornbill Festival, an annual event that draws thousands of domestic and foreign tourists.