By M.A. Athul*
An improvised explosive device (IED), weighing approximately seven kilograms, planted inside the premises of an under-construction coke plant at Bther village in East Jaintia Hills District, was recovered by Police on January 16, 2020.
The next day, Sainkupar Nongtraw, the ‘general secretary’ of the indigenous insurgent outfit, Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), stated, “After we read in the media about the opposition from three villages and pressure groups to the setting up of the coke plant, we tried to verify the fact. We found out that local traditional heads like the doloi (chief) of Sutnga Elaka and the headmen had used their power to issue a no-objection certificate to set up the plant.”
He claimed that though the outfit had planted the IED, “we decided not to explode the IED due to the presence of local indigenous people. The members of the outfit also decided not to attack the security of the factory”. Nongtraw, however, asked the doloi of Sutnga Elaka and the headman to take back the no-objection certificate that was given to the plant.
A writ petition against setting up of the plant in the area had been filed by Dame Wanhi Rymbai and others in the Meghalaya High Court. Vide an order on December 22, 2019, the Court had stayed the setting up of the coke plant. However, on January 15, 2020, the Court vacated the stay order and disposed of the matter.
Earlier, on May 17, 2019, Nongtraw had threatened Punjabi settlers of Harijan Colony in East Khasi Hill District stating, “We shall fire indiscriminately on non-tribals be they beggars or businessmen, be they high class or low class. The Police should not underestimate us. With an automatic assault rifle, we can shoot up to ten non tribal people in a minute. We are serious about it. Do not provoke us.”
Significantly, in 2018, an ethnic clash had occurred between the Punjabi settlers and indigenous Khasis at Shillong in East Khasi Hills District which had resulted in injuries to 100 Security Force (SF) personnel and 40 civilians.
On May 12, 2019, HNLC militants shot dead a civilian, identified as Romeo Lyngdoh, at Lapalang village in East Khasi Hills District. HNLC claimed that he was a ‘police informer’. The last civilian fatality linked to HNLC was back in December 23, 2009, when a trader was shot dead at Pomshutia village in East Khasi Hills District.
The other indigenous outfit in the State, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), failed to carry out a single violent incident through 2019. The last GNLA-inflicted fatality occurred on February 18, 2018, when four people were killed in an IED explosion in the Samanda area of East Garo Hills District.
Unsurprisingly, the trend of declining insurgency-linked fatalities established in the State since 2015 continued through 2019 as well. In 2014, there were 77 fatalities (19 civilians, five SF personnel, and 53 militants), which came down to 61 (19 civilians, eight SF personnel, and 34 militants) in 2015; dropped further to 30 (12 civilians, one SF trooper, and 17 militants) in 2016; to eight (two civilians and six militants) in 2017; and seven (two civilians, two SF personnel, and two militants) in 2018. In 2019, only one fatality (mentioned above) was recorded, the lowest ever in a year since 1992. The previous low of five fatalities was recorded in 2009.
The reason for the steep decline in insurgency-related fatalities in Meghalaya since 2015 is the success of the four phase Operation Hill Storm launched by the SFs in September 2014. The operation, which primarily targeted the GNLA, the then most lethal active group in the State, resulted in the decimation of the outfit. Since September 11, 2014, at least 37 GNLA militants were killed, 154 arrested and 176 surrendered (data till January 24, 2020). Those killed included the ‘commander-in-chief’, Sohan D. Shira (February 24, 2018); ‘deputy commander’, Matchallang Sangma aka Vietnam (January 11, 2018). The GNLA ‘second-in-command’, Baichung aka Nikam Ch Momin, surrendered on December 9, 2016. Earlier on May 9, 2016, 14 GNLA militants, including ‘finance secretary’ Belding Marak, surrendered in capital Shillong in the East Khasi Hills District. The last phase of the operation was launched in September 2016.
Though HNLC has made feeble attempts to make its presence felt in the State since, as is evident from recent incidents, there is no denying that the outfit has weakened considerably. According to latest available estimates, the outfit has a strength of no more than 16 cadres, who were all based in neighbouring Bangladesh. HNLC had a cadre strength of 200 in 2003.
Indeed, on December 1, 2019, HNLC had stated that it was ready for peace talks within the ambit of the Constitution of India. HNLC ‘general secretary’ Sainkupar Nongtraw had stated, “We are ready for peace talks within the ambit of the Constitution of India or even outside the Constitution as per requirements. At this point, we express our faith in the government and we do believe that we could strengthen our relation after getting positive response from the Centre and Meghalaya government.”
Meghalaya Chief Minister (CM) Conrad Sangma in response to the HNLC overture, had stated on December 5, “We are ready for talks (with the HNLC) provided that the conditions are met. The three conditions are that arms must be laid down, there must be complete shunning of violence and surrender must be unconditional.”
But it will be unwise to assume that these outfits no longer constitute a threat and that they have given up their ‘movement’. Interestingly, in the same statement made of December 1, 2019, HNLC ‘general secretary’ Nongtraw also asserted,If the political dialogue does not materialize, we don’t mind continuing with our struggle because we neither lack manpower nor money power nor the firepower. This is not to be taken lightly, if we have the willingness to come forward to the negotiating table, we also have the dedication to further strengthen our armed movement, without even hesitating to press the trigger…
Moreover, Border Security Force (BSF) intelligence confirmed that GNLA was attempting to renew its activities. On October 13, 2019, GNLA ‘commander’ Nikrak M. Sangma was arrested from Rongara in South Garo Hills District. Police stated that he had crossed over to India from Bangladesh, and was arrested while he was returning to Bangladesh. Police added that he was coordinating with the Untied Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) and criminal elements in Bangladesh to revive the outfit.
Ex-GNLA militants also continue to be a persistent law and order issue for the State, with the surrendered militants engaging in extortion and abduction. On August 7, 2019, three individuals were arrested for abducting a school Principal from Tura in West Garo Hills. The three were part of A’chik Holistic Awakening Movement (AHAM) formed by Champion Sangma, the former ‘chairman’ of GNLA. Ex-GNLA militants are members of AHAM, formed as a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in November 2018.
In the meantime, the opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, transformed the environment in Meghalaya, as in other parts of the Northeast, and has the potential to motivate these many militant outfits to regroup and restore their strength. In the aftermath of the Government of India (GoI) passage of CAA, Meghalaya witnessed a series of massive protests and violence. The troubles are far from over: on January 22, 2020, an anti-CAA protest was held in Tura in West Garo Hills District during which the protesters demanded implementation of Inner Line Permit System (ILP) system in the State; on January 19, 2020, the Khasi Students Union (KSU) held a protest against CAA at Smit in the East Khasi Hills District.
Unsettled by these developments, the Meghalaya State Assembly on December 19, 2019, proposed to make necessary amendments to the Bengal Frontier Resolution, 1873, so that Meghalaya could be brought into the ambit of the ILP system, which regulates all visits by Indian citizens from other states. Despite the Meghalaya Assembly proposal to amend the 1873 resolution, the authority to implement the ILP system lies with GoI. The ILP system is currently not operational for Meghalaya, though Union Home Minister Amit Shah has informed the Meghalaya Chief Minister that discussions over ILP could only be held after Republic Day (January 26).
Meghalaya has experienced a substantial consolidation of peace over the past few years. However, the introduction of CAA has the potential to strengthen ethnic identity movements throughout the Northeast, and Meghalaya is no exception. Meanwhile, Meghalaya is still outside the ambit of ILP and is yet to get an assurance from the Government of India that it would be brought under ILP. Ethnic insurgent groups, prominently including GNLA and HNLC, while they have been decimated, still retain demonstrated capacities of executing isolated acts of violence. Nevertheless, there is no way to predict the advantages that may accrue to militant groups that seek to take advantage of the identity polarisation following CAA, to mobilize fresh cadres and push the State back towards turmoil.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management