By M.A. Athul*
For the last seven months and seven days (at the time of writing), Meghalaya has not recorded a single insurgency-linked fatality. The last fatality was reported on August 3, 2018, when a National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Saraigwra (NDFB-S) militant was killed by Security Forces (SFs) at Tarasin in the East Garo Hills District
The declining trend of fatalities established since 2015 continued through 2018 as well, with Meghalaya recording seven insurgency-linked fatalities, including two civilians, two Security Force, SF, personnel and three militants in the year, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). In 2017, the State saw eight fatalities (two civilians and six militants), as against 26 in 2016 (10 civilians and 16 militants). There were 61 fatalities (19 civilians, eight SF personnel and 34 militants) in 2015. Meghalaya recorded the highest of 76 fatalities (23 civilians, six SF personnel and 47 militants) in 2014. A previous high of 64 fatalities was recorded way back in 2002 (29 civilians, 18 SF personnel and 17 militants).
The fatalities recorded in 2018 were the lowest in the State since 2009, when there were five killed (one civilian and four militants). However, fatalities increased between 2010 and 2014: with 20 in 2010; 29 in 2011; 48 in 2012; 60 in 2013; and 76 in 2014.
Other parameters of violence have also progressively decreased.
On January 17, 2018, State Director General of Police (DGP) Swaraj Bir Singh disclosed that there had been 341 incidents of violence in in 2014, which declined to 310 in 2015, and further down to 118 in 2016 and 21 in 2017. According to the SATP database, there were a total of four violent incidents in 2018.
Indeed, insurgency-linked fatalities have been on a constant decline since 2015, particularly after the launch of Operation Hill Storm on July 11, 2014, which has almost wiped out the most potent insurgent group of the region, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). Since the launch of the operation, at least 37 GNLA militants were killed (two in 2018, five in 2017, 10 in 2016, 13 in 2015 and seven in 2014); 153 have been arrested (two in 2018, 10 in 2017, 37 in 2016, 56 in 2015 and 48 n 2014); and 176 have surrendered (18 in 2018, 21 in 2017, 94 in 2016, 20 in 2015 and 23 in 2014). The end of this insurgency was marked by the killing of GNLA founder ‘commander’ Sohan D. Shira on February 24, 2018, at Dobu A’chakpek in East Garo Hills District.
After Shira’s death, the remaining GNLA militants also surrendered. Significant incidents of surrender include:
March 11, 2018: Eight GNLA militants surrendered at Akelgrein East Garo Hills District. The surrendered militants were identified as Klubirth Sangma aka Keke, Chonbirth Ch Marak, Rahul S. Sangma alias Nikam, Sujit G Momin alias Roben, Hendison M Sangma alias Newak, Barningstone S Sangma aka William, Thangkam Ch Momin aka Bilwat, Pinbil Ch Marak aka Churik. The militants also deposited two AK 56 rifles, one Sub Machine Gun, one INSAS, one .303 rifle, one .22 pistol, one 9 mm pistol, two wireless sets and an unspecified amount of ammunition.
March 15, 2018: The last batch of GNLA militants surrendered at an unspecified location to the authorities. The surrendered militants handed over two AK 56 rifles, an INSAS rifle, a foreign made Glock pistol, one semi machine gun (SMG), a .303 rifle, one mm pistol and a large quantity of ammunition.
According to a militant identified as Bhim Bahadur Chetry aka Kancha, who surrendered on February 16, 2018, the remaining GNLA strength was 18 at the time of his surrender. Formed in 2009, GNLA had a cadre-strength of about 300 in 2012.
Subsequent, to the GNLA surrenders, SFs carried out search operations and recovered huge stockpiles of the group’s weapons. Some of the significant recoveries include:
April 11, 2018: During a search East Garo Hills Police along with villagers recovered a GNLA ammunition cache. The recovered items include 2,038 rounds of bullets, 60 rounds of 9 mm pistol, 1,087 rounds of 7.7 mm bullets, 320 rounds of Heavy Machine Gun (HMG) ammunition, 10 remote circuits for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and two remote controls.
July 13, 2018: SFs recovered 347 HMG rounds, four pistols, six pistol magazines, six shotgun cartridges, one Chinese grenade, 57 rounds of ammunition of 7.62 Self Loading Rifle (SLR), four IED remotes, one walkie talkie, nine remote IED circuits, 28 electronic detonators, two Smooth Bore Breech Loading (SBBL) shotguns, 485 AK 47 bullets, 104 rounds of .303 rifle and 2,659 rounds of 7.7 mm rifles from Dorengkigre and Bawegre in East Garo Hills District.
Nevertheless, given the cyclic trend of violence witnessed in the State, the risk of regression persists, as the ‘ingredients’ that fed past insurgency remain abundant.
Significantly, the State recorded an episode of ethnic clashes between Khasis and local Sikhs after a Khasi bus handyman was allegedly assaulted by a group of residents of the Them Metor locality (also known as Punjabi lane) on May 31, 2018, in Shillong. Trouble escalated when rumours spread on social media that the helper had succumbed to his injuries, prompting a group of bus drivers to converge at Them Metor. At least 40 people and 100 Policemen were wounded in the clashes and 15 companies of Central Armed Police Forces were deployed to contain the violence. Curfew was imposed on June 1, 2018, in localities such as Jaiaw, Mawkhar, Umsohsun, Riatsamthiah, Wahingdoh, Mission, Mawprem, Lumdiengjri, Lamavilla, Qualapatty, Wahthapbru, Sunny Hill, Cantonment, Mawlong Hat localities, and was subsequently extended to cover the whole of Shillong. Though the curfew was relaxed from June 6, 2018, it was completely removed from the city only on August 21, 2018.
Moreover, given the opportunistic nature of the political class, both within the State and at the Centre, and the pattern of polarizing politics that now dominates, it is not unlikely that the insurgents looking for revival will not get such issues to exploit for their own benefit. One such provocative issue is the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). Like other States in the region, Meghalaya has witnessed an uptick in political mobilisation after the passing of CAB on January 8, 2019, in Lok Sabha (Lower House of India’s Parliament) as well as occasional incidents of violence. On January 10, stray incidents of burning tyres on the roads were reported from across the Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts during a “stay off the road protest” called by the Confederation of Hynniewtrep Social Organisation (CoHSO) in protest against CAB. On January 30, 2019, a protest rally attended by thousands of people (exact number not available) was organised by the Northeast Students Organisation (NESO) at Shillong in East Jaintia Hills District. The rally was also attended by members of other organisations such as the Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo People (FKJGP), Ri Bhoi Youth Federation (RBYF), Garo Students Union (GSU), All Janitia Youth Organisation (AJY). More worryingly, just a day before the passing of CAB in the Lok Sabha, on January 7, 2019, unidentified people lobbed a Molotov cocktail (petrol bomb) at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office at Shillong in East Khasi Hills District.
CAB was scheduled to be tabled before the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Indian Parliament) on February 13, 2019. However, it was not put up for discussion and the Bill is set to lapse on June 3, 2019, as the term of current Government of India (GoI) ends.
Incidents of violence related to CAB have subsided for now, but any attempts to revive the Bill will, in all likelihood, generate much more opposition across the region, including Meghalaya.
Given the cyclical nature of insurgent violence in Meghalaya, the authorities have to ensure that they are able to capitalize on the ‘peace dividend’ resulting from the very effective counter insurgency campaign. While the insurgency in Meghalaya has now been comprehensively defeated by the law enforcement agencies, socio-political tensions persist. These issues have not been effectively addressed by the State administration. Moreover, ethnic identity movements have received a shot in the arm due to the attempt to introduce CAB, and agitations and civil unrest have become more likely, as mistrust and apprehension with regard to alleged ‘outsiders’ are likely to be amplified. The danger of losing out on the counter-insurgency gains of the past years can only grow, if the politics of destabilization persists.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management