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Monday, May 29, 2023

Visit to Naga hamlet Oting: Harvest of love, mutual trust amid suspicion & despair

Hlaing Konyak, 22, says he is a changed man since the last two years. But he hastens to add that, “I have also befriended some strangers I never liked in the past but now share black tea with them every evening.”

Oting in Mon district had courted ill-fate and controversy in December 2021 when in a botched up operation 21 paratroopers from neighbouring Assam had killed innocuous coal mine workers from the hitherto little known village.

To Hlaing (name changed to be precise), ‘strangers’ are Assam Rifles officers and jawans.

To Hlaing’s friends and parents the ‘change’ is welcome as he was a victim of alcoholism for years. On ground friendship with Assam Rifles personnel have been able to bring out the talented volleyball player in him.

Now on ground Oting offers a different picture and there is a “modest” bonhomie between Assam Rifles and the local villagers. Village Council chairman, Longwang Konyak, also endorses the neo-friendship. But he is a man with pain in his heart.

“Difficult to forget what happened on Dec 4, 2021. It was a nightmare for us. But I believe in Jesus Christ and so I say, let us forgive and move ahead. The family who suffered of course cannot forget nor forgive.”

A visit to the village in circa 2023 gives one a pensive experience with melancholy. The victims of the December 2021 catastrophe included a graduate too; and the sad part of the tale is that he has lost his ‘thumb’.

“Raasta beya asey, kopal toh besi beya asey (You are saying the road to my village is bad. It is true, but our luck is worse),” laments Village Council chairman Longwang recalling some of these nightmares.

But Longwang, 61, wants the villagers to get back to normalcy. This is why he refers to the ‘experience’ of Hlaing.

I tried to interact with a few Assam Rifles personnel posted in the small camp at the village gate. One of them — also a tribal soldier — agrees with the story of ‘black tea (or fika cha) of Hlaing. But the soldier says Hlaing is not alone. There are many Naga youth in the Oting village now who have developed a ‘taste’ for black tea offered by soldiers after the regular volleyball match they play every afternoon.

The soldier adds other information. “Nagas are very hospitable people and Konyaks will probably top the list. They relish our black tea and whenever we are in the village compound for regular development projects like establishing the water tanks, we get mugs full of milk tea,” he says.

On the return journey from the village, our vehicle got stuck up for a while just outside the village area — thanks to the pathetic road with potholes and a bed of stones. One was little surprised to find two sets of people — the Assam Rifles soldiers accompanied local boys rushing in to our ‘rescue’. Some of them looked thirsty and tired, smouldering in the heat but they spotted that infectious smile Nagas are famous for.

One was convinced, friendship has set in between two sets of people — who were probably identified by each other as ‘rivals if not enemies’ even a few months back.

However, all these did not come easily. The powerful Eastern Nagaland Public Organisation (ENPO) had given a clarion call for boycott of “non cooperation” with all central security forces operating in Nagaland in December 2021.

But in April 2022 — that is after almost four months, the ENPO withdrew their non-cooperation policy. And yet again despite several welfare projects being taken up by Assam Rifles, the villagers “offered land for an AR company operating base” only in December 2022.

“The Government of India also admitted the major lapse in army operation during the December 4, 2021 incident. Now they say the Standard of Operations for the army has been reviewed. Home Minister Amit Shah has agreed to grant us the Autonomous Council. So, we are giving land to Assam Rifles. Moreover, Assam Rifles reports directly to Shah, we can always share our grievances to him,” says one villager on the condition of anonymity.

Deputy Angh of Oting Village, Chengwang konyak, clarifies: “Do not mix up matters. The Frontier Nagaland is something we want, and about security forces what went on in December 2021, people still cannot forget the agony. Now Assam Rifles is doing some good developmental work. We did not ask for it.”

Official sources say the Assam Rifles through Military Civic Action Projects under Operation Sadbhavana worth Rs 45 lakh will be taken up from time to time.

“This is in addition to construction of two reinforced concrete cement reservoirs of 1,50,000 litre capacity for Rs 35 lakh,” says one AR personnel adding that a similar quantum of Rs 45-50 lakh development works are planned for the upcoming year as well.

Locals say various development projects are probably not enough to bridge the gap that got engulfed recently. I posed this question to Assam Rifles personnel. Initially they did not have any answer or did not want to respond without clearance from their bosses. At the later stage one was told that the Assam Rifles choir team has befriended locals and even performed during a Sunday service.

One particular Assam Rifles man’s performance was unique and so impressive that at the end of the programme, several locals congratulated him warmly.

The top guns in Assam Rifles in Kohima and Dimapur have also taken note of the December 4, 2021 incident and the subsequent efforts being made by one of their battalions to rebuild the bond. One Naga woman in nearby Wangla village sums up the story of Assam Rifles’s friendship with locals very well.

“You must be aware that Indian army people say Assam Rifles are like friends of the hill people. Now these friends are trying to re-establish the bond”.

Nevertheless, local Nagas still have their complaints and apprehensions. A number of youths one interacted at district town Mon said, the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) is a draconian law and should be withdrawn from all civilian areas in Nagaland and especially from the Tuensang-Mon region.

Maj Gen Vikas Lakhera, GoC – Assam Rifles in Nagaland, was out of station when a brief interaction was sought.

“The Assam Rifles is investing in building new bonds with the youth of tomorrow by training selected local boys from Oting and nearby areas for various employment opportunities including those for Agniveers,” one junior official said speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The directives to us from the Defence ministry and Army headquarters are clear, even a single instance of human rights violation is totally unacceptable. Oting was a really bad thing to happen. If villagers lament it as a nightmare, for the forces the agony was deep. A few Assam Rifles jawans wept that night trying to conceal their emotions from senior officers.”

In Delhi, sources have stated that the government is fully committed to uphold human rights at all times.

In fact, the source went on to add, respecting human rights for Assam Rifles is not simply a moral and a legal necessity, but also a crucial strategic imperative.

There is already a policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ towards any instance of human rights violation, the men in uniform only ought to ensure that such a policy exists in letter and spirit, and not merely on papers.

(The story has been published via a syndicated feed.)

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