By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On March 21, 2021, three local youth from Wahkaji in the South West Khasi Hills area were assaulted in the Golf Links area of Shillong city in East Khasi Hills District. On March 28, one of the victims succumbed to his injuries.
Since the assault, several pressure groups in the State are demanding actions against the culprits who, according to them, were non-locals.
On March 30, 2021, the Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC), general secretary, Roy Synrem, alleged that since the victims of the March 21 incident were locals and belonged to the Khasi community, the Police was not ‘serious’ in finding out the culprits.
He asserted, “We are sorry to say that in any assault on non-tribals, the police department and state government are proactive in finding the assaulters or anyone involved in the crime. Even when they don’t have proper suspects, the police go door to door to nab the culprit. When our people are victims, they [Police] don’t have any suspects at all. There is a kind of hypocrisy on the police’s part.”
On March 31, 2021, the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) took out a protest in Mawkyrwat, the District headquarters of South West Khasi Hills District, to condemn the attack on the three local youth and to seek justice. KSU banners during the March 31 protest read, “If you can arrest a Khasi, why not arrest a non-Khasi? Or are you merely dogs with tails between their legs in front of non-tribals?”
Meanwhile, on March 26, 2021, East Khasi Hills Superintendent of Police Sylvester Nongtnger claimed, “They [the attackers] belong to a tribal community of Meghalaya as per their language and accent.” However, no arrest has taken place thus far. Indeed, KSU president Lambokstar Marngar declared, “What surprises me is the fact that it has been more than a week since the Golf Links incident occurred and the police are yet to make an arrest.”
On February 24, 2021, a labourer from Assam, identified as Raju Mondal, was killed and seven others injured when a group of about 15-20 masked assailants attacked them while they were sleeping in their place of stay on the St. Xavier’s College campus in Shait-Shait Umoid village in South West Khasi Hills District. Among the arrested suspects, two were members of the KSU while the third was a former member.
Lately, the ethnic pot (illegal immigrants, locals and outsiders) in the State has been simmering. Tensions gained momentum during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act/ Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA/CAB) agitation in end-2019 and during 2020. The demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system is adding fuel to the fire. On March 8, 2021, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma informed the State Assembly that the State Government had urged the Union Government to examine and consider the application of the ILP system to the State. The ILP system regulates all visits by Indian citizens from other states.
Despite the rising ethnic tensions, the situation relating to insurgency continues to improve rapidly. For the first time since 1992, no insurgency-linked fatality was recorded in the State through 2020. There was just one fatality (civilian) in 2019.
Fatalities have been on a steady decline since 2015, when fatalities came down to 61 from 77 in 2014. There were 30 fatalities in 2016, eight in 2017 and seven in 2016. Significantly, 77 fatalities in 2014 were the highest fatalities recorded in a year after 2000, when there were 246 fatalities.
At the peak of the insurgency in 1997, there were 495 fatalities – 233 civilians, 111 Security Force (SF) personnel and 151 terrorists.
The reason for the rapid improvement in the security situation since 2015, after a surge between 2010 and 2014, is the decimation of the Garo Hills-based militants. SFs had launched the four-phase Operation Hill Storm in September 2014, primarily targeting the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), the then most lethal active group in the State, resulting in the decimation of the outfit. Since September 11, 2014, at least 37 GNLA militants have been killed, 154 arrested and 176 surrendered (data till April 4, 2021). The entire leadership of the outfit has been wiped out.
Some insurgency-linked worries, nevertheless, persist.
In Meghalaya, the areas that falls along the Indo-Bangladesh border remains vulnerable. On October 20, 2020, an encounter took place between the Police and United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I) militants at Bolchugre village under Rongara Police Station in the South Garo Hills District, bordering Bangladesh.
Further, the Hynñiewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), the militant group operating in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills and purportedly fighting for ‘Khasi interests,’ remains active. HNLC carried out three explosions in the State in 2020.
December 12, 2020: One civilian was injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion that took place at the residential Krishna Colony, inside the premises of Star Cement, at Lumshnong, in East Jaintia Hills District. Two rooms were also partially damaged in the explosion. HNLC claimed responsibility for the blast. In its statement, HNLC ‘general secretary’, Saiñkupar Nongtraw, stated that the blast took place due to non-payment of ‘tax’ by the owner of the cement factory.November 26, 2021: A low intensity IED blast occurred at Soo Kilo in Sutnga Elaka, East Jaintia Hills District. Though no casualty was reported, one shop was completely destroyed in the blast. HNLC claimed responsibility for the attack.February 20, 2020: HNLC detonated an IED that caused partial damage to a coke factory located at Kyllon Mathei Pyndeng Jalong near the Riangdo area of the West Khasi Hills District. HNLC claimed responsibility for the blast, stating that the factory was a “benami unit” (a unit owned under false identity). HNLC added that the blast was a warning to the Government.
Further, the introduction of CAA has the potential to strengthen ethnic identity movements throughout the Northeast, and Meghalaya is no exception. As Meghalaya is outside the present ambit of ILP and is yet to receive any assurance from the Government of India that it would be brought under ILP, the situation is likely to fuel further ethnic polarisation. The insurgent groups are likely to exploit these conditions to regroup and regain strength.
Meghalaya has experienced a substantial consolidation of peace over the past few years. The substantial peace from militancy in the State has to be followed up with addressing the issues of ethnic insecurity. The prolonged ILP movement along with ethnic polarisation if not handled appropriately can give oxygen to low lying militancy to recreate trouble in the Hill State.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management