”Bullets were coming from all directions, not only from the jawans who were fleeing.”
Chongmei Konyak had seen it all before – his training as an Indian Army jawan instinctively kicked in.
Caught in the middle of the cross-fire, Mr Konyak hit the deck, crawling to safety. “I rolled down to a nallah to save myself.”
A few metres away, Army soldiers, all members of the elite 21 Para Special Forces, had opened fire after being surrounded by furious villagers who were reacting to the death of six men from Oting, the village that they lived in. Most of the men worked in a nearby coal mine.
Just hours earlier, this same unit of jawans fired on a pick-up truck, in an ambush meant to target militants. Except, the men they shot turned out to be innocent villagers, who worked in mines nearby.
As the situation grew more tense, dozens of villagers attacked the Army jawans with machetes. One soldier was killed. The others retaliated in self-defence. In this, they may have been supported by other commandos who were in concealed positions in the vicinity of the incident.
“I am trained in the Army, so even in that chaos, I could make out where the bullets were coming from,” says Mr Konyak, who left the Army in 2012. He had been commissioned into the Army Service Corps and was in uniform for fifteen years.
Sources in the Army have told NDTV that they are looking into all angles in their investigation, including the assertion that there was gunfire from areas beyond the immediate site of the faceoff. ”Any such allegations will also be brought under the ambit of the court of inquiry.”
NDTV has also reached out to the Nagaland government with queries. This report will be updated if there is a response.
Mr Konyak, who is now in hospital, is recovering from a gunshot wound that he received in the melee. He has a gaping hole near his left heel after being struck by a round from an Israeli-built Tavor automatic rifle, the standard issue weapon used by the Army’s Special Forces.
“I realised that there was gunfire also coming from the jungles. Para Special Forces jawans who had night-vision devices were firing. We could not see them but they clearly saw what was happening.”
Mr Konyak’s testimony is a crucial part of the evidence being collected by the Special Investigation Team looking into the tragedy in Nagaland. The SIT, headed by Inspector General of Police Limasunup Jamir, is probing charges of murder and attempt to murder, which was filed in a First Information Report against the Army soldiers on December 6.
In a statement to NDTV, the Nagaland Police says they will be able to conclude where the gunfire came from based on ”statements of the eye witnesses and the exhibits in the case” which are being used by the SIT ”to reconstruct the scene of the crime with an expert forensic team”.
While the SIT has been given permission to record statements from the jawans involved in the botched ambush, the soldiers cannot be prosecuted without clearance from the Home Ministry. Soldiers fighting militancy in parts of the Northeast are protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which provides immunity from arrest and prosecution. According to the Nagaland Police, permission to record statements of the Army jawans came after ”multiple summons” were sent ”to examine Army and Assam Rifes personnel between 18.12.2021 and 28.12.2021.”
The SIT’s investigation runs parallel to an inquiry headed by an Army Major General. Yesterday, the Indian Army inquiry team visited the site in the Oting village, bringing with them at least one of the jawans involved in the incident. In a press release, the Army says, “The Court of Inquiry is progressing expeditiously and all efforts are being made to conclude it at the earliest.”
For Mr Konyak, there is a lingering sense of disbelief at what he saw. ”I thought it was a firefight between the Army and militants. I never thought, even for a moment, that they were killing innocent people. I cannot imagine, even in a nightmare that the Indian Army could do that.”