By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
The Supreme Court on September 1, 2017, dismissed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) moved by the Meghalaya Government for the cancellation of bail granted to Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) founder ‘chairman’ Pakchara R. Sangma aka Champion Sangma. The Apex Court rejected the plea arguing that, since Sangma was already in jail under other charges, the plea was infructuous.
The Court of the District and Sessions Judge in Shillong had granted Pakchara Sangma conditional bail on February 22, 2017, on the surety of INR 100,000, in one of the cases in which he had been charged. Further, on May 5, 2017, the Meghalaya High Court had upheld the decision, rejecting the Meghalaya Government’s plea for cancellation of bail.
The GNLA ‘chairman’ was booked under the Meghalaya Preventive Detention Act (MPDA) by the District Administrations of East and West Garo Hills after his reported arrest on July 30, 2012, from the Umkrem-Pyrdiwah axis area by the Special Cell of Meghalaya Police, along the India-Bangladesh border in the East Khasi Hills District.
Though no one has replaced Sangma as ‘chairman’ since his arrest, the outfit has since been led by its ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira. Shira, who was earlier with Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), broke away after the ANVC entered into negotiations with the Government and, along with Sangma, formed GNLA in 2009. Sangma had joined the Meghalaya Police in 2004, but reportedly deserted the Force in 2009 to join the insurgency.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since its formation GNLA has been involved in at least 184 fatalities (74 civilians, 28 Security Force (SF) personnel, and 82 GNLA cadres, data till September 10, 2017). In the current year, thus far, the outfit has been involved in at least seven incidents of killing resulting in seven fatalities (two civilians, and five GNLA cadres). In the most recent incidents, on August 2, 2017, suspected GNLA militants killed a farmer, identified as Olget R. Marak (53), at Oripur in the Dambuk Aga area of South Garo Hills District. Overall insurgency-related fatalities in the Meghalaya stand at eight (two civilians and six militants) in the current year.
In the corresponding period of 2016, GNLA was involved in at least 10 incidents of killing leading to 10 fatalities (three civilians and seven GNLA cadres). Overall insurgency-related fatalities in the state stood at 20 (eight civilians, one SF trooper, and 11 militants) in the corresponding period of that year. Group identities of the assailants of the lone trooper and the remaining five civilians could not be ascertained.
The menace of GNLA violence, though it persists, has seen significant decline. In particular, the Garo Hills region – consisting of East Garo Hills District, West Garo Hills District, North Garo Hills District, South Garo Hills District and South West Garo Hills District – where the GNLA has been more active and has been the epicenter of insurgency in Meghalaya, is now experiencing relative peace.
In 2017, out of eight fatalities (two civilians and six militants) recorded in the Meghalaya; at least five (two civilians and three militants) were reported from the Garo Hills region, accounting for 71.4 per cent of total fatalities. GNLA was confirmed to be involved in seven (two civilians and five militants) out of these eight fatalities.
In the corresponding period of 2016, out of 20 fatalities (eight civilians, one trooper, and 11 militants) recorded in the state; at least 12 (two civilians, one trooper, and nine militants) were reported from the Garo Hills region, accounting for 60 per cent of total fatalities. GNLA was confirmed to be involved in seven (two civilians and five militants) out of these 12 fatalities.
Indeed, the reign of terror unleashed by the GNLA has been brought under significant control by SFs. The major reason for this dramatic improvement in the security situation has been the sustained multi-phase counter insurgency (CI) campaign codenamed Operation Hill Storm (OHS) launched by SFs on July 11, 2014, and which is still continuing. The fourth and latest phase, OHS-4, was launched on September 22, 2016, to flush out the last remaining leaders and cadres of GNLA in the five Garo Hills Districts and adjoining West Khasi Hills Districts. Six militants (five GNLA cadres and the ‘chairman’ of the disbanded United Achik Liberation Army) were killed in 2017. Also, during this period, four GNLA militants were arrested and 15 GNLA militants surrendered. At least 10 GNLA militants were killed, 37 were arrested and 94 surrendered through 2016. Under sustained pressure, the entire ‘northern command’ of GNLA consisting 13 militants surrendered on May 5, 2016. These operations have drastically affected GNLA, with an estimated strength of just 30 cadres remaining.
Top security officials confirm that GNLA’s influence is fast disintegrating. Chief Security Advisor to the State Government, former Director General of Police (DGP) Rajiv Mehta, asserted on August 2, 2017, that GNLA was ‘well past its prime’ and it was just a matter of time before it is ‘totally obliterated’: “We are getting to sort out the GNLA very soon… I think the Police are giving final touches to their plan to sort these militants.”
Indeed, the vast improvement of the security situation in the State, particular in dealing with GNLA, has principally been due to SF successes. There is, however, little room for complacency as the GNLA commander-in-chief’ Sohan Shira remains at large. Shira had fled to Bangladesh due to SF pressure, following an encounter at Rongsu in South Garo Hills on June 27, 2017, during which his personal ‘bodyguard’, Lukseng Ch Marak, was killed. He has reportedly returned to the Garo Hills.
Meghalaya is augmenting its capacities to deal with militant formations by raising and deploying Special Forces of the Meghalaya Police. The second batch of the Meghalaya Police’s Special Multi-Task Force (SMTF) better known as Special Force-10 (SF-10) commando force was inducted on August 4, 2017. SF-10 is a leading force in the counter insurgency operations in the State and its first batch of 223 commandos and 115 rangers entered the service on October 6, 2016.
Sustained CI operations against GNLA have considerably weakened the militant group though its elusive ‘commander-in-chief’, who remains at large and continues to regroup his cadres, remains an issue of concern. Some 90-kilometres of the Indo-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya are yet to be fenced, and gaps in border management need to be plugged in order to deny the rebels an easy escape into neighbouring Bangladesh. Nevertheless, the gains of recent years have been dramatic and there appears to be a sense of commitment to consolidating operations and operational capabilities among the State political and SF leaderships.
* Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
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