India: Towards Concord In Meghalaya – Analysis
By Oyindrila Chattopadhyay*
On March 11, 2022, Meghalaya Government, following Government of India’s (GoI’s) nod, initiated the process to hold formal talks with the banned Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). An unnamed senior official of the Meghalaya Home Department disclosed that the State Government has appointed retired Indian Administrative Service officer Peter S. Dkhar, and A.K. Mishra, adviser to Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), as interlocutors to facilitate the talks. HNLC, the militant group operating in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills and purportedly fighting for ‘Khasi interests,’ remains active in the State. HNLC is a product of a 1992 split in the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), the first militant tribal outfit in Meghalaya.
In its response to the Meghalaya Government’s initiative, HNLC ‘general secretary-cum-publicity secretary’, Sainkupar Nongtraw, stated, on March 13, 2022,
Keeping in mind the various factors that would pave way for a peaceful solution, the HNLC leadership has authorised a representative to meet the interlocutors and simultaneously initiate and form a Hynniewtrep Peace Committee, whereby stakeholders, Church elders, citizens and NGOs shall be a part of the Committee so as to ensure a smooth functioning of the peace process.
Earlier, on February 8, 2022, HNLC had expressed its willingness to hold talks with the State and Central Governments without any preconditions. In a statement, Nongtraw noted,
After many consultations with some elders recently, we have decided to come into a peaceful agreement with the GOM [Government of Meghalaya] and GOI [Government of India]. As of now, we are ready to talk within the ambit of the Indian Constitution and we are ready to have talks without any preconditions.
Prior to this, in a letter sent on January 16, 2021 to the State Government, HNLC expressed willingness to enter peace talks with GoI only on the condition of a review and re-examination of the Instrument of Accession and the Standstill Agreement signed in 1948. According to HNLC, the promises made under the Standstill Agreement were not honoured. On August 9, 1947, all 25 ‘Khasi States’ signed the Standstill Agreement with the Governor of Assam, which confirmed that the agreements and administrative practices that existed between a princely state and the British Government would continue in independent India. According to the agreement, ‘Khasi States’ ceded only some governance rights to India, while the rest were to be exercised by the Khasi chiefs. HNLC also wanted to revisit and review the Instrument of Accession treaty signed between the 25 ‘Khasi States’ and the Government of India between December 15, 1947- March 19, 1948, as HNLC believed that the Khasi Syiems (Khasi Chiefs representing the traditional authorities) had signed the Instrument of Accession at “gunpoint.” On August 14, 2021, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma shared the Government’s position in public saying,
These two conditions should not be there and this has been communicated to them and after the communication we were told they would submit a letter without those conditions and remove all those conditions and move in the line we have prescribed that it should be within the constitutional framework and without any conditions besides shunning of violence.
One of the major reasons which accelerated the talks process was the August 13, 2021, killing of Chesterfield Thangkhiew, former HNLC ‘general secretary’, and the subsequent violent reactions. Significantly, a combined Police team of East Khasi Hills and East Jaintia Hills had gone to the Mawlai-Kynton Massar locality in Shillong (East Khasi Hills District) to arrest Thangkhiew from his home, but the latter resisted and pulled a knife forcing the police to shoot in self-defense, leading to his death. Significantly, the Police was investigating the surrendered militant leader for two Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks claimed by HNLC:
August 10, 2021: Two civilians were injured in a low-intensity IED blast in the parking lot of Laitumkhrah market in Shillong of East Khasi Hills District.July 14, 2021: An IED explosion occurred at one of the Police reserves at Khliehriat in East Jaintia Hills District. One policeman was injured in the blast.
After the Thangkhiew killing, Director General of Police (DGP) R. Chandranathan asserted that the Police had “clinching evidence” of his involvement in the August 10 attack and a tip-off that another blast was being planned.
Despite the Police’s clarification, violence erupted and stone pelting, vandalism and arson rocked several areas of the State. Curfew was imposed and internet services were blocked. To pacify the protestors, State Home Minister Lahkmen resigned on August 15, stating, “I propose judicial enquiry be conducted.”
While the probe is still on, it was expected that the Government would initiate some other measures to pacify the protestors. Indeed, one of the political observers told The Telegraph, “Since the knives are out, the NPP [National People’s Party]-led State Government has to act with tact to douse the fire triggered by the encounter death.”
State Government data indicates that, out of seven IED explosions that took place in the State between February 2018 and January 2022, at least five were suspected to be linked with the HNLC, clearly indicating that the outfit remains a major threat in the State, where militancy was considered to be over in the aftermath of the February 24, 2018, killing of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) ‘commander-in-chief’ Sohan D. Shira.
Between November 2009, when GNLA was formed, and February 24, 2018, Meghalaya recorded 126 civilian fatalities, among which at least 94 were attributed to one or the other terrorist group, while 32 remained unattributed. GNLA was found to be involved in 77 of the 94 (i.e., 82 per cent) ‘attributable’ civilian killings. Similarly, during the same period, Meghalaya recorded 36 SF fatalities of which 35 were attributed. GNLA was involved in 30 of the 35 ‘attributed’ SF killings, i.e., 85.7 per cent. Since the killing of Sohan. D. Shira, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Meghalaya has recorded just four fatalities, including three militants (one in 2018 and two in 2021) and one civilian (in 2019), data till March 20, 2022.
It is consequently expected that the Government would deal with HNLC to consolidate the peace. The beginning of the talks process is a major step in this direction.
Further, the phase wise resolution of the Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute is also in sight. On March 14, 2022, Chief Minister Sangma announced that a tripartite agreement between the Centre and the State Governments of Assam and Meghalaya to resolve disputes between the two states in six areas, was likely to be signed on March 27, 2022. Six of the 12 areas of difference have been taken up for resolution in the “first phase.”
Further, Chief Minister Sangma informed the State Assembly that the MHA was examining the demand for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in the State. After the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a sense of ethnic insecurity prevails in the tribal groups. The introduction of the ILP system, its supporters believe, has become necessary to safeguard the ethnic identities of the tribal communities.
Peace has been established in Meghalaya, and the negotiations with HNLC should be handled in way that ensures that the ethnic balance between the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia tribes is not disturbed. There is also a need to maintain vigil on the ground to stop militants from regrouping and disturbing the hard-earned accord.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management