By Nijeesh N.*
On October 17, 2016, a large group of heavily armed Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) militants, allegedly led by its ‘commander-in-chief (C-in-C)’ Sohan D. Shira, shot dead the outfit’s former ‘finance secretary’, Rakkam D. Shira aka Bilding Ch Marak aka Rikchie at his residence near Williamnagar in East Garo Hills District. Rakkam, a surrendered militant, was confined inside the Goeragre camp in West Garo Hills District under a rehabilitation process, and was killed shortly after he visited his house in the afternoon. Rakkam, along with the entire ‘finance wing’ of the outfit had surrendered before the then State Home Minister Roshan Warjri in Shillong on May 9, 2016. According to the District Police, “He (Rakkam) was supposed to be inside the Goeragre camp. He did not inform anyone about his sudden trip to Williamnagar. Even the police were unaware of his visit to his home.” Surrendered GNLA militants are housed in two transit rehabilitation camps located at the Second Meghalaya Police (MLP) Battalion headquarters at Goeragre and Baljek Airport at Jengjal in West Garo Hills District.
In the night of September 20, 2016, a group of GNLA militants killed a former cadre, identified as Tiangsil G. Momin at Rongsakgre in West Garo Hills District. According to reports, more than 20 militants entered the village at night and chased Tiangsil till they caught and executed him. Tiangsil, who was in the fourth batch of recruits in the outfit, had quit GNLA to join A’chik Matgrik Elite Force (AMEF), which was formed by Jack Marak in 2014. Tiangsil, along with other cadres of the new group, had surrendered in December 2015.Tiangsil’s body, which had multiple bullet wounds and a disfigured face, was found in the morning of September 21.In this case also, Police suspect that GNLA ‘chief’ Shira was present at the time of the killing.
In September 2016, through the social media, Sohan D. Shira had made clear his intentions to target leaders and cadres who had abandoned his outfit. He had also announced the formation of an ‘eraser unit’ to target GNLA deserters.No further details about the outfit’s ‘eraser unit’ are available in the open source.
Shira’s announcement followed an operation by the Security Forces (SFs) on September 27, 2016, when Shira was nearly apprehended when a GNLA camp near the Jakopgre village in East Garo Hills District was located and neutralized. Though there were no casualties, Police sources confirmed that some militants might have been injured in the fire fight, as blood stains were found near the site of the encounter. D.N.S. Marak, Superintendents of Police (SP), East Garo Hills, disclosed, “There was a heavy exchange of fire between our men and the 20 odd militants before they escaped with incriminating weapons”, adding that one of the fleeing militants was suspected to be the GNLA ‘chief’.One Chinese-made carbine rifle, 80 detonators and an improvised explosive device (IED) remote control detonator was recovered from the abandon make-shift GNLA camp.
Significantly, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, at least 185 GNLA militants have surrendered since its formation in 2009. There were five surrenders in 2010, 27 in 2011, nine in 2012, three in 2013, 27 in 2014, 23 in 2015, and 91 in 2016 (data till October 23). Almost 48 per cent of the total surrenders thus took place in the current year alone.Most recently, on October 7, 2016, the ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ of GNLA, Zen Roberth Ch Marak aka Toding aka Rupanto, along with another cadre identified as Armindo B. Marak aka Rangdat surrendered before East Garo Hills Police. Rupanto was the senior-most member in GNLA ‘chief’ Shira’s inner circle and was privy to most of Sohan’s decisions.
Meanwhile, since the announcementin September 2016, at least twoattacks targeting surrendered GNLA cadres (by GNLA militants) have taken place, and two surrendered militants were killed. Since its formation in 2009, GNLA has targeted its ‘deserters’ on at least eight occasions, killing at least eight surrendered cadres.
Sohan D. Shira’sdirect involvement in the recent killingshas reportedly generated fear among surrendered GNLA cadres residing at different rehabilitation camps in the State. In a joint statement released on October 18, 2016, the surrendered GNLA cadres stated, “We chose to surrender as we all wanted peace and an end to the bloodshed. We have no issues with our former chief, Sohan D. Shira, and his struggle for Garoland, but killing someone who had laid down his arms to lead a peaceful life is extremely condemnable.” The surrendered rebels added, “This saga of retribution for leaving the organisation must stop, or else there will only be more bloodshed. If we continue to be targeted, we will be compelled to take steps to defend ourselves. We urge GNLA to let us live in peace.” There have, however, been no retaliatory attacks by surrendered cadres reported till now.
Meanwhile, there were reports which indicate that somerunaway militants or those who deserted the outfit have formed their own splinter groups to perpetrate crime like extortion and abduction in the Garo Hills region.These include Sohan D. Shira’s former bodyguard Salman, who is now believed to be operating in the Chokpot Zone with his own group of rebels, independent of GNLA.Clashes among the splinter groups and the parent outfit cannot be ruled out.
Meghalaya has registered tremendous improvements in the insurgency situation. The level of violence declined considerably. According to the SATP database, the State recorded 27 insurgency-related fatalities (13 civilians, one trooper and 13 militants) in 2016 (data till October 23), as compared to 51 fatalities (14 civilians, seven SF personal and 30 militants) recorded in the corresponding period of 2015.
The decline in violence coincides with the decline of GNLA, which had emerged as the deadliest outfit, accounting for almost 66.6 per cent of civilian and SF killings recorded in the State since the outfit’s formation in 2009. Apart from losing its cadres in surrenders, GNLA has also faced increasing heat from SFsin a sustained anti-insurgency operation, ‘Operation Hill Storm’ conducted by Meghalaya Police commandos along with the Central Forces, that had neutralized and arrested several GNLA militants. After the successful completion of three stages, SFs started the fourth, ‘Operation Hill Storm – 4’, on September 22, 2016, in a more covert and intensive manner, to neutralize the remaining GNLA cadres who are virtually on the run. According to SATP data, at least 75 GNLA militants were killed and another 254 militants have been arrested by SFs till date (data till October 23) since its inception in 2009. According to reports, the outfit’s current strength has reportedly been reduced to around 40 cadres from an estimated peak at 300 in 2012.
Though GNLA “has regrouped and reorganize itself after a series of setbacks in the past seven to eight months with some other cadres filling the spaces left by the surrendered GNLA senior members”, according to Meghalaya Director General of Police (DGP), S.K. Jain’s statement of October 18, 2016, it is certainly worried about rising desertions. The retaliatory killing of surrendered cadres is a desperate measure to check thelosses.
Operational pressures on the GNLA and its leadership must, of course, continue to be exerted. It is crucial, however, that the surrendered cadres also be protected and that they maintain a modicum of discipline, restricting themselves to the designated camps, where such protection is available. These latter steps are necessary to mitigate any probability of clashes and bloodshed between surrendered cadres and active GNLA militants, as well as to contain the punitive strikes currently being executed by Shira’s gangs.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management