Oting, Mon: “It’s getting dark. Stay back for the night and don’t travel out of our village during the night. They will kill you like they killed our children,” Manpei Konyak, a village guard (VG) from Oting Village, said in distress as Team EastMojo prepared to leave Oting on Friday night. It had been almost a week since 13 civilians were killed by security forces at Yatong, a few kilometres away from the village in Nagaland’s Mon district. 

The grief-stricken, angry, broken, and traumatised residents of Oting village seem almost frozen in time as they struggle to recover from the horrific incident on December 4. 

December 4: The day Oting changed forever

Oting village, about two hours drive from Tizit under Mon district, has around 210 households. The locals historically depended on farming for their livelihood. But at present, only 50% of the population depends on agriculture for sustenance as there was a shift to coal mining and other commercial activities.

Village guards on duty at the Tizit-Oting-Tiru junction near Oting village.

“Earlier, nine fields were cultivated on a rotational basis. Now, the situation has changed. Due to road connectivity, some are into the timber business. Luckily, there is coal in our area. So we have been in the coal business for ten years now. We were working peacefully until that day,” Tahwang, Angh (village chief) of Oting said.

He informed that during the winter season, most of the villagers work at the coal mines in Tiru to earn a livelihood. The coal mining peaks around Christmas and during the start of the year, when residents work at the mines to make extra money for the festivities and pay the school fees.

The Angh said miners earned Rs 500 onwards per day, depending on the type of work at the mines.

Like the previous years, the lives of the residents continued this year. 

However, the village came to a standstill on December 4, when six out of eight miners returning home from work were killed by security forces over a case of “mistaken identity” during an ambush that was supposed to be an attack on insurgents. 

What happened on December 4-5?

According to the villagers, it was around 3:30 pm on December 4 when a pick-up truck carrying 8 coal miners was returning from the mining site to attend church service the next day.

When the villagers heard gunshots around 4:30 pm, they assumed it was a shootout with insurgents: little did they know that six of its residents had been killed. 

“We were told that our children had left in a pick-up truck, but when they did not reach home, we tried to contact them but in vain. We reached there around 9 pm and saw that the vehicle had bullet shots and was covered in blood,” Manpei Konyak, the village guard recalled, as he showed around the vehicle headed towards the direction of the village. The vehicle was now surrounded by a yellow tape that read: “Crime scene. Do not cross.”

The six killed were identified as Shomwang (21), Langwang (23), Thapwang (23), Yinjong (23), Thakwang (22) and Khawang (23). The other two who suffered injuries are 23-year-old Sheiwang and 30-year-old Yeihwang, both of whom were reportedly sent to a hospital in Dibrugarh under Assam.

About a minute’s walk away from the first crime scene, three vehicles headed in the other direction towards Tiru. They were surrounded by the same yellow tape, as the vehicles had been burnt down. 

Pointing to a fourth vehicle, a few meters away from the three vehicles, the village guard said, “When we asked them (security forces) where our boys were, they denied seeing them. But it was in this vehicle that one of our residents found the bodies.”

He recounted how the situation turned for worse. Two more residents, identified as Langtun (36) and Pongche (17), were killed. One security personnel also succumbed to injuries. The incident took place along the Foothill road in the area.

Around half a kilometre from the second crime scene at the Tiru mine, where the miners camped, five more locals: Manpeih (26), Hokup (37), Bipul Konwer (17), Phaokom (39), and Ngampho (32) were killed.

A coal mining site

“I saw the Army coming over in two bikes and a vehicle, and they were just shooting along the way. Seeing that, we tried to escape. They were chasing people and killing them. Even two locals hiding under an excavator machine were killed,” Nyawang Konyak, President, BJP Mon unit, told EastMojo.

A native of Oting, Nyawang said he and the local police were at a junction when the Army arrived. “They did not even respect those in khaki (police uniform). They were firing and then moved towards Assam,” he said.

Phonei Konyak, 27, a survivor, recounted the horrific incident. “I was hiding behind the excavator machine. It was dark, so when the army fired, I could see light and fire. According to the movement of the Army, I narrowly escaped from the machine, but I heard someone fall behind me,” he said.

Phonei then narrated that as he tried to escape, gunshots were fired towards him. “Bullets were pouring, but I ran and jumped into one of the open pits. For some reason, the Army did not come after me. I was stuck there for about 15 minutes. But they moved on to the other side and killed more people,” he recounted. 

Wangnei, 30, who was under treatment at the Mon district hospital, said, “When we got the news that our people were killed, the elders called all the men in our village to go and collect the dead bodies. Before some of us could even make it to the spot, the army shot at us. I was hurt in the leg and hand. I went blank. When I woke up, I was already in the hospital.”

A miner seen taking a nap at the coal mine at Tiru. Most locals work in coal mines during the end of the year to make some money for festivities and school admission fees.

On December 4, 13 people were killed, and many were left injured. A day later, protestors approached an Assam Rifles camp at Mon town and partially vandalised and burned down the camp. 

During the protest, one person, identified as Leiong Konyak (34), from Chi village was killed. As per Konyak Union (KU) vice-president Honang, the deceased was among a group of leaders trying to control the angry mob when he was shot. 

The death of Leiong Konyak brought the total death toll to 14. The Eastern Naga People’s Organization (ENPO), the apex body of the Eastern Naga tribes, has declared December 4-5 as a “Black Day” in the entire ENPO jurisdiction. 

Case of mistaken identity

In the parliament, Home Minister Amit Shah admitted that the killing of the civilians by security forces was “a case of mistaken identity.” 

Shah also made a controversial remark in the Lok Sabha as he mentioned that the “vehicle was signalled to stop, but it tried to flee.”

KU vice president Honang, who managed to speak to Sheiwang Konyak, one of the survivors admitted at Dibrugarh, said Shah’s statement was contradictory.

“We did not see anyone. They directly shot at us. We did not have arms with us. We were only there (at the coal mine) to earn a daily wage,” Sheiwang said in a conversation with Honang, an audio recording in possession with EastMojo.

Several tribal and civil society organisations and political parties have been demanding that the statement made by Shah be withdrawn. 

A permanent pain

We will never forget the pain,” Chingwang, Deputy Angh of Oting, said as he questioned if the Indian government trains its Army to innocent civilians. 

Manpei Konyak, the village guard, said, “We want our children alive.”

40-year-old Hingchk Konyak, the mother of Khawang Konyak, who left for work and never returned home, said, “My child is lost. Even if the government gives me lakhs and crores of rupees, I don’t need it. I want my son alive here. I want my son.”

“I only want my husband to be returned,” 30-year-old Eli Konyak, wife of Leiong Konyak, who is five months pregnant, said.

The common cry of the residents is that the Army be removed from their land. “We will only be at ease if AFSPA is revoked. We have barred security forces and Naga political groups from entering our village. We don’t want to see them, we don’t need them,” the deputy Angh said.

Nokyem, the pastor of Oting Baptist church said, “We are not in peace. Please explain to us why our children were killed. The church and our people long for peace.”

Uproar in demand for AFSPA repeal

Following the recent killing in the Mon district, there is a growing demand from Nagaland and the Northeast region to revoke AFSPA. Several protests and rallies are observed every other day demanding justice and repeal of AFSPA.

 Eastern Nagaland areas witnessed public rallies across its tribal headquarters on Thursday in protest against the killing of innocent civilians, further demanding that AFSPA be repealed.

The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) will host a massive rally demanding the repeal of AFSPA on December 17.

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