By Veronica Khangchian
On June 4, 2011, three Policemen were killed and two others sustained injuries as Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) militants ambushed the Policemen at Thapadarenchi village in East Garo Hills District. The outfit claimed that the ambush was part of its “reverse operation” against the Police. Significantly, it was on December 7, 2008, when a Policeman was last killed by militants in the State.
Further, on June 3, 2011, a ‘friendly fire’ incident resulting from an error of identification resulted in two Police fatalities, when two teams of Police commandos, engaged in operations against the GNLA in East Garo Hills, at Dorengchigre area in Durama Hills, came face to face. The area lies close to the Simsang River, where GNLA has significant strength.
Earlier, on April 5, 2011, GNLA militants had killed five migrant coal miners, and injured another at the Goka coal dumping area in the South Garo Hills District.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, 11 persons, including five civilians, five Security Force (SF) personnel and one militant, have been killed in terrorism related incidents in the State in 2011 (till July 24), all in incidents related to GNLA. There were 20 fatalities, including 17 militants and three civilians, in 2010, of which four (two civilians and two militants), were related to GNLA.
The GNLA is emerging as the number one threat in the State, which was fast returning to peace prior to the outfit’s creation in 2009. GNLA was formed by its present ‘chairman’, a former Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Pakchara R. Sangma alias Champion R. Sangma. Former Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) leader, Sohan D. Shira, is the ‘commander-in chief’ of the outfit. The GNLA reportedly has 70 cadres, of whom an estimated 45 have received arms training, and has a strong presence in the East and South Garo Hills Districts. The Durama Hill Range near Dorengchigre area in East Garo Hills is believed to house the GNLA headquarters, where Shira resides. The other major camp of the militant group is at Nengmandalgri of the same District.
Fighting for a ‘sovereign Garoland’ in the Western areas of Meghalaya, GNLA has reported links with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Anti-talks Faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-ATF). The Police has not ruled out the possibility of NDFB-ATF helping GNLA in carrying out the June 4 ambush. The outfit has also forged an alliance with the Bangladesh-based rebel A’chik Special Dragon Party.
To sustain its activities, GNLA is engaged in extortion from coal-traders, petrol tank owners and local businessmen. On June 29, 2011, suspected GNLA militants opened indiscriminate fire on a Police outpost in the Dobu area of East Garo Hills District, an area which has been a prime target for extortion from coal barons. According to an April 24, 2011 report, most non-Garo Government employees working in Garo Hills have been abstaining from their duties due to the fear of GNLA militants, who have served demand notes to them asking for up to INR three million as “donation for the interest and upliftment of the Garo people of Garo Land and for making use of the resources of Garo Hills.” An Army source noted, on June 15, 2011, “Earlier ULFA was mainly carrying out extortion on the Assam-Meghalaya border. But after most of the ULFA cadres came over ground to participate in the peace process, the ‘extortion business’ was virtually taken over by other outfits such as the GNLA and Rabha Viper Army.”
Reports indicate GNLA’s nexus with politicians in the State. On April 29, 2011, dissident Garo Hills District Congress legislators claimed to have received “threatening” text messages from GNLA militants’, reportedly from Bangladesh, asking them why they did not support Chief Minister (CM) Mukul Sangma. “We have specific inputs which indicate GNLA has some political patronage allowing the outfit to carry out its activities openly,” an unnamed senior Police official said on December 10, 2010. A probe by the Meghalaya Government is currently on to ascertain whether politicians are “patronizing” the GNLA, and the CM has stated, “It would be disastrous if any sympathiser is found hand-in-glove with the group.”
Meanwhile, on February 6, 2011, it was reported that the GNLA was offering a ‘better package’ to attract Police constables in the State to its fold. Unconfirmed sources suggest that the GNLA was offering a monthly package of INR 400,000 to INR 500,000 to Police personnel to join the outfit, and there are increasing worries that this may tempt at least some Policemen to break ranks.
The GNLA rise has worried other, now peaceful groups, in Meghalaya. The Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), currently under a truce with the Government of India (GoI), has asked for its arms, which were deposited at the time of the ceasefire in 2004, to be returned, to protect themselves from the GNLA. In what could be an indication of intensified rivalry between the outfits, the ANVC accused the GNLA of trying to poach its cadres by offering up to INR 3 million. The ANVC also claimed that the GNLA was working with Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). An ANVC release stated, on July 7, 2011, “ANVC’s intelligence bureau has confirmed the GNLA’s connection with the ISI and that Champion R. Sangma is in Bangladesh channelising all other organisations of the North-East which are getting the support of the ISI for exploiting the Indian soil.” These questions had been raised earlier, and Champion Sangma had, in May 2010, denied any link with the ISI, declaring, “The ISI and several jihadi groups extended help to the GNLA but I refused.”
The SFs, meanwhile, have had a few successes against the outfit. Only three GNLA militants have been neutralized since the group was formed. On June 27, 2010, two GNLA militants were shot dead by a combined force of the Army and the East Garo Hills District Police during an encounter in Kharkutta area. In the latest incident, the Police shot dead one GNLA militant at Rongrekgre village in East Garo Hills on January 26, 2011. In a significant operation, on July 8, 2011, the SFs neutralised a GNLA camp, regularly visited by Shira, at Nengmandalgre, eight kilometres from Williamnagar town in East Garo Hills District. The camp was also giving shelter to GNLA’s West Khasi Hills’ ‘area commander’ Savio Marak, who arrived in the area with his cadres ostensibly for a briefing by Sohan D Shira. Earlier on June 15, 2011, the SFs neutralized a GNLA camp located in the foothills of Durama Forest in the same District. Meanwhile, on May 15, 2010, GNLA ‘general secretary’, Novembirth Ch. Marak was arrested from New Jalpaiguri railway station in West Bengal, followed by the arrests of ‘finance secretaries’, Solte Marak and Martin Sangma, from Williamnagar of East Garo Hills District. SATP data records the arrest of 20 GNLA cadres since its inception. Facing mounting SF pressure, 20 GNLA militants, led by the ‘chief training instructor’ of the outfit, Mingran T. Sangma alias Lodrin T. Sangma, surrendered on April 27, 2011. A total of 26 GNLA militants have surrendered so far.
Worried by the GNLA’s rise, two Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) units of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and five companies of the Border Security Force were deployed in the State on July 12, 2011. This force has been trifurcated, and a group each is to be based in each of the three District Headquarters in the Garo Hills – Tura, Williamnagar and Baghmara, with their area of operations extending up to the West Khasi Hills District. Earlier, 500 CRPF troopers were assisting the Meghalaya Police and its Special Weapons and Tactics commandos, to tackle the GNLA. The Meghalaya Police has a total strength of 10,064 personnel, yielding a strong Police-population ratio of 391 per 100,000.
However, on July 20, 2011, Champion Sangma warned “Such deployment will only strengthen our commitment to the cause of Garoland and unite all sections of Garo society… The jungles of Garo Hills shall be the graveyard for the so called CoBRA and BSF Special Forces. We will send them back in body bags.” On July 17, 2011, GNLA militants had threatened to carry out serial blasts across the State if the combing operations against the outfit were not immediately stopped. However, on July 21, 2011, the GNLA clarified that it had no intention of harming civilians and that their statement was intended to indicate their capability to execute simultaneous attacks on Government establishments in the State.
Meanwhile, heavy movement of GNLA militants from the deep jungles of the Durama Hill range and the Balpakram National Park range, where the group is also believed to have bases, has been reported. The Durama hill range is a tri-junction connecting the three Districts of Garo Hills — West, East and South Garo Hills. “As the operations have been intensified, we have learnt that GNLA militants have been forced to move to other safer places,” an unnamed Police official said on July 18, 2011, adding that before fleeing Durama, the GNLA militants destroyed six of their camps. There are apprehensions that the GNLA militants could escape into neighboring West Khasi Hills and Assam, while some of them could cross over into Bangladesh. In a significant development, however, BSF and Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), on July 8, 2011, agreed to share real-time information to capture trans-border criminals and militants.
The deployment of additional Force and aggressive operations against the GNLA, if sustained, will have inevitable impact on this group, and may well force it to the negotiating table, even if a quick end to its capacities cannot be secured.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management