By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On May 12, 2019, a civilian, identified as Romeo Lyngdoh, was killed by Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) militants at Lapalang village in the East Khasi Hills District.
Later on May 14, HNLC ‘general secretary’ and ‘publicity secretary’ Sainkupar Nongtraw claimed responsibility for the killing and stated, “Our army cadres were responsible for the death of Romeo Lyngdoh due to his involvement in activities against the outfit and the ‘Jaidbynriew’ (indigenous Khasi-Pnar people)”. He also alleged that Lyngdoh was a ‘Police informer’, and warned that the group would eliminate all those people who were responsible for the death of HNLC cadres: “We will hit first and then make our claims.”
Ironically, the last reported incident of the killing of an HNLC cadre was recorded on March 27, 2008, when two HNLC militants were shot dead by the Meghalaya Police during an encounter at Umkiang in the Jaintia Hills District. It is not clear, consequently, why Nongtraw was referring to the killing of HNLC cadres.
Since March 1, 2000, when South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) commenced compiling data on insurgency in Meghalaya, a total of 30 HNLC cadres have been killed by the Security Forces (SFs) in Meghalaya, till May 19, 2019, with the last such fatality in March 2008.
Again, on May 17, warning the Police to stop harassing HNLC members, Nongtraw stated,
The Police should not underestimate us. If they do, we shall fire indiscriminately at non-tribals be they beggars, businessmen, the high class or low class. 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.
Again, there were no reports in the open media to support any of his allegations.
In this context it is important to recall here that, on January 2, 2019, HNLC had reconstituted its ‘Central Executive Council’ (CEC). The CEC is headed by ‘chairman’ and ‘commander-in-chief’ Bobby Reagan Marwein, ‘general secretary’ and ‘publicity secretary’ Sainkupar Nongtraw, ‘vice chairman’ Khrawbok Jyrwa, ‘foreign secretary’ Alex Diengdoh, ‘finance secretary’ Wanshan Marwein, ‘organising secretary’ Riewpyrkhat Sun and ‘socio cultural secretary’ M Rynjah.
The latest killing (on May 12) can therefore be linked with an attempt by the HNLC to regroup and secure some attention for this new leadership.
HNLC, initially known as Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), was formed in 1987. In 1995, the trio of ‘chairman’ Julius Dorphang, ‘army chief’ John Kharkrang, ‘general secretary’ Cheritserfield Thangkhiew – founding members of HNLC – rechristened the group HNLC. HNLC operates from Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts of the State.
The principle demands of HNLC were separate statehood for Hynniewtrep (Khasi-Pnar) tribes, implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system to check the entry of outsiders into the State, and expulsion of illegal Bangladeshi and Nepali nationals allegedly residing in Meghalaya.
According to partial data compiled by the SATP, there have been a total of 44 HNLC-linked fatalities (eight civilians, six SF personnel and 30 militants) from March 1, 2000 (data till May 19, 2019).
The last incident involving HNLC was reported on February 13, 2018, when HNLC militants lobbed a hand grenade inside the residence of an individual named Than Khonglah. Nongtraw later claimed that it was a warning to all those ‘conspirators’ who aided in the operation to nab militants. The last civilian killing incident linked to HNLC was reported on December 23, 2009. A coal trader, Raja Khongsit (45), was shot dead by four suspected HNLC militants at Pomshutia village in East Khasi Hills District. His wife was injured in the attack. The last SF killing linked to HNLC was reported on November 7, 2007. On that day, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Raymond P. Diengdoh was killed when a team of Police personal attacked a HNLC hideout at Paham Umdoh Forest near Byrnihat area in the Ri-Bhoi District.
Unsurprisingly, over the past decade and a half, HNLC was almost written off. The outfit lost a significant number of cadres, either to surrenders or arrests. According to SATP, since March 1, 2000, SFs have arrested 209 militants (all data till May 17, 2019). Another 175 HNLC militants surrendered during this period, due to sustained SF pressure. In the latest incident of surrender, on May 20, 2018, two HNLC militants, Aiborlang Thongni aka Bahbah Mawpud and his wife Rishalin Syiemlieh, surrendered before the Police at Shillong, the State capital, in the East Khasi Hills District.
Further, the India-friendly regime of Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh since 2009 led to the closing down of several HNLC camps in that country. According to media reports, there are now no camps of Indian militant groups in Bangladesh. Earlier, in February 2017, the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) had reported that HNLC had three camps in Bangladesh. There were seven HNLC camps in Bangladesh in 2015.
The outfit, which has been lying low for many years, suffered another blow on October 18, 2018, when HNLC ‘general secretary’ Cherishstarfield Thangkhiew surrendered before Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong and Director General of Police (DGP) R.P. Agarwal at Shillong.
There have also been intervening efforts by both the Government and HNLC to initiate peace talks. On August 21, 2014, HNLC declared that it was “ready for peace talks” and asked the Meghalaya Government to appoint an “interlocutor” if it was committed to peace. Sainkupar Nongtraw then stated, “The HNLC is ready for peace talks within the ambit of the Constitution of India or outside the Constitution as per requirements.” The move, among others, failed to fructify.
Most recently, on February 2019, the HNLC leadership and State Chief Minister Conrad Sangam both called for peace talks. However, the middle ground seems to be missing. Chief Minister Sangma had stated that the Government was open for unconditional talks with the militant groups for achieving long-term peace in the State. In response, Nongtraw asserted, “We are ready for talks, but peace talks should not compel us to take to the streets, stage blackflag protests or hunger strike in front of the Secretariat, which will eventually send us back to militancy”. No further reports on the status of the proposed peace talks are available.
However, the controversial and hurried proposed enactment of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2016, (subsequently introduced in Parliament as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019), did provide some ammunition to HNLC, to once again raise the issue of illegal immigrants and the costs they imposed on locals. After the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) on January 8, 2019, Nongtraw argued,
“…even after 72 years of independence, what the Government of India has given the minority communities is second-class citizenship and scheduled tribe status… Such statuses given to us only show that we (minority communities) are no less than the 21st century slaves… There was no repatriation of these Bangladeshi Hindus ever since 1970 and now the BJP [Bharatiya Janta Party] wants to grant them citizenship through the Citizenship Amendment Bill…”
Nongtraw further asserted that the Government of India should grant freedom to the States, if it could not ensure equality to every citizen.
CAB was allowed to lapse subsequently, when it was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha (upper House of the Parliament), and General Elections were announced, heralding the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. However, BJP,the leading party of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre, has promised to bring the Bill back again if voted back to power. The results of the on-going General seven-phase elections are scheduled to be declared on May 23, 2019.
Moreover, the 2014 ban on ‘rat hole mining’ in the State by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) is also opposed by the HNLC. A December 2018 report quoted HNLC ‘general secretary’ Nongtraw calling for alternatives for the poor, who lost their source of livelihood due to the ban. Rat hole mining is a primitive unscientific and hazardous method of mining for coal; many a times resulting in river pollution and death of miners extracting the coal. The tragedy of December 13, 2018, when 15 miners were trapped in one such mine at Ksan in the East Jaintia Hills District in Meghalaya. Elaborate search operations were eventually abandoned on March 2, 2019. Only two decomposed bodies were recovered. The remaining miners were presumed dead at this stage.
HNLC is trying to regain lost space in Meghalaya, taking up positions on a range of sensitive issues, in an effort to make up for its depleted strength. CAB has given the entire Northeast region, including Meghalaya, some causeonce againto rally around identity-based movements. These and other fault lines have been exploited by militant formations in the past. Despite the sustained decline in violence across the Northeast and in Meghalaya, there is no space for complacency, and no reason to believe that this long-troubled region cannot, once again, descend into crisis.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management