Here’s something about double-edged swords. Less than a week after he took office as the director general of police of Nagaland on 27 June, T. John Longkumer visited the headquarters of the state’s 9th India Reserve Battalion. On 3 July, as colleagues watched, he praised the “Daring Ninth" and paid homage to its martyrs.
It’s a mixed legacy of a policy that permits gross collateral damage in the scrum of training and combat experience. And it happened on Longkumer’s watch as the deputy inspector general of police in Bastar Range of southern Chhattisgarh. Indeed, Nagaland Post quoted the present commandant of the battalion James Kinghen as saying how Longkumer was the “guiding force and inspiration" during the battalion’s deployment between 2005-2007 in Bastar and other districts such as Dantewada, to combat Maoist rebels. Several Naga troopers lost their lives to battle with Maoists, through ambush and landmine attacks.
Longkumer, a much-decorated officer of the Indian Police Service’s Chhattisgarh cadre, wasn’t the only guiding force or inspiration for the security policy in play at the time, or the only patron of collateral damage to non-combatants. Chhattisgarh’s long-time chief minister, Raman Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party was chief minister at the time when Naga troopers joined hands with the police, other paramilitaries and vigilantes of Salwa Judum—a state-sponsored horror created to contain Maoist influence.
I was in the area at the time, researching my book Red Sun. To inspire terror, Chhattisgarh’s administration spread rumours about the Nagas, among others, that they “are not above cutting off heads and eating human flesh", a leading human rights activist told me. “They say, ‘listen to us, or we’ll send the Nagas,’" another claimed.
Here are some examples of cold fact, not scary fiction. On 25 October 2005, near the small town of Bhairamgarh, the Nagas and Salwa Judum toughs ran through a tribal village called Mukavelli. They burnt down huts, demolished others, and shot dead two women, wives of suspected Maoist sympathizers. One of the ladies was pregnant. A stray bullet grazed a child’s head—he lived. A few days earlier, near Usoor, further west, they smashed through Pangodi village, burning it down, though not any people—as had happened in some instances—as inhabitants escaped into the surrounding jungle.
In Mankeli near Bijapur, Nagas and Salwa Judum smashed and burnt huts, and came by a suspected Maoist sympathizer and his pre-teen son, who were farming at the time. They first beat the man, then axed and knifed him, gouged out his eyes, cut open his chest, cut off his limbs and, for good measure, smashed his head. His wife and two younger children were made to stand and watch. The older boy disappeared. This happened on 2 October 2005.
Nagas were part of the groups enforcing Salwa Judum meetings, mostly to coerce residents to leaving their villages, to be herded into what were effectively concentration camps—in an eerie replay of what Indian Army did in Naga homelands for several years. Those that refused were attacked, beaten, raped and, sometimes, killed. Nagas routinely slaughtered forcibly confiscated cattle—and once actually within sight of a civil rights fact-finding mission.
“The Naga forces have done a damn good job here," Prabir Das, superintendent of police of Dantewada at the time, told me. “They talk about how Naga forces are doing nothing but headhunting. There’s not a single case…there may have been an excess here and there, but when you’re talking about operations in an area of 30,000 square km, you can’t avoid a few cases."
That chilling understatement apart, there must be reasons why citizens of Nagaland asked for Naga troopers to be recalled from Chhattisgarh. And, in later years, why civil society groups in Nagaland petitioned their government to ensure such deployment didn’t recur. Perhaps they had heard, as I did, the drunken boasts and traumatized confessions of some troopers of their time in Chhattisgarh.
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