By M.A. Athul*
On January 11, 2018, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) ‘deputy commander in chief’ Matchallang M. Sangma aka Vietnam was killed in an encounter with Meghalaya Police at Bawe Duragre village in East Garo Hills District. No other insurgency-linked killing has been reported from the State in 2018 so far (data till January 28, 2018).
The State recorded eight fatalities, including six militants and two civilians, in 2017; as against 26 fatalities, including 10 civilians and 16 militants in 2016, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP). Year 2015 had recorded a total of 61 fatalities, including 34 militants, 19 civilians, and eight SF personnel; while there were 76 such fatalities (47 militants, 23 civilians, and six SF personnel) in 2014. Thus, the declining trend of overall fatalities established in 2015 continued through 2017. Overall fatalities in the State increased between 2010 and 2014. Significantly, 2017 witnessed lowest of fatalities (eight) recorded in a year since 2009, when such fatalities stood at five (four militants and one civilian).
More prominently, 2017 accounted for the lowest civilian fatalities in the State since 2009, when fatalities in this category stood at one. Civilian fatalities in Meghalaya had increased between 2010 and 2013, but have since been declining, with 23 in 2014 and 19 in 2015.
The security environment for civilians was further strengthened as SFs continued to consolidate their position on the ground through 2017. As in 2016, there were no fatalities among SF personnel. On the other hand, adding to the 16 militants killed in 2016, the SFs eliminated another six in 2017. In 2015, eight SF personnel had died in the State. The primary reason behind the SFs strengthened ground position was the successes achieved during the Counter Insurgency (CI) Operation Hill Storm, which continued from July 11, 2014, to September 2016, in which at least 75 militants were killed.
According to SATP, 31 militants were arrested in 2017 of which the affiliations of 27 are available. These included 10 GNLA cadres; five of the Saoraigwra faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S); three Achick Songa An’pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK) cadres; two each of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), Tiwa Liberation Army (TLA), and Achik Revolutionary Army (ARA); and one ULFA-I militant. Two militants of the lesser known Ki Khlur U Hynniewtrep, were also arrested in 2017, according to the SATP database, while SFs arrested 71 in 2016. However, according to a January 4, 2018, report, 77 militants were arrested in 2017, in addition to 229 arrested in the State in 2016.
Mounting SF pressure led to the surrender of another 41 militants (21 GNLA, nine ASAK, five NDFB-S, four HNLC, one AME, and one ULFA-I). In 2016, at least 197 militants had surrendered. In a significant incident of surrender, on June 22, 2017, five militants of NDFB-S and one ULFA-I militant had surrendered in West Garo Hills District.
These developments have had a cumulative positive impact on the security situation in the State. Apart from fall registered in overall fatalities, other parameters of violence also indicated significant improvement. On January 17, 2018, State Director General of Police (DGP) Swaraj Bir Singh stated that only 21 militancy-related incidents were reported in 2017, while there were 310 such incidents in 2013, 341 in 2014, 310 in 2015, and 118 in 2016.
According to the SATP database, in 2017 fatalities (eight fatalities) were reported from three Districts in the State: South Garo Hills (four fatalities), West Khasi Hills (three fatalities), and North Garo Hills (one fatality). In 2016, 31 fatalities were reported from 10 Districts: East Garo Hills (10 fatalities), West Khasi Hills (five fatality), West Garo Hills (five fatalities), South Garo Hills (four fatalities), North Garo Hills (two fatalities), West Jaintia (one fatality), Southwest Garo Hills (one fatality), Ri-Bhoi (one fatality), East Khasi Hills (one fatality) and Jaintia Hills (one fatality).
Nevertheless, some security concerns persist. Though incidents of abduction for ransom declined through 2017, they continued to cause fear among the people. Meghalaya recorded 10 such incidents in 2017 in which 31 people were abducted. Of the 31 people abducted in 2017, at least eight were released (no information about ransom paid or not) while fate of rest of the victims remain unknown. In 2016, the figures stood at 28 incidents in which 58 people were abducted. In the first 24 days of 2018, one incident of abduction has already been reported. The numbers of abductions are likely to be higher than those reflected in this data, as many incidents are not reported.
Moreover, the most violent and active group , the GNLA despite facing reverses, continues to operate, though at significantly diminished strength. GNLA was responsible for both the civilian killings (in two separate incidents) in 2017. Of the six militants killed in the State in 2017, five belonged to GNLA, while one was the ‘commander in chief’ of then recently disbanded United Achik Liberation Army (UALA), identified as Singbirth N. Marak alias Norok X. Momin. [UALA was disbanded on June 9, 2016.] on January 17, 2018, Meghalaya DGP Dr. S.B. Singh also disclosed that Sohan D. Shira, ‘commander in chief’ of GNLA, was active and was shuffling between West Khasi Hills and South Garo Hills District of Meghalaya. The DGP stated that there were only nine or 10 trained GNLA cadres and four or five untrained cadres following Shira. Earlier, on December 19, 2017, the DGP had observed that although HNLC was a spent force; GNLA was still a matter of concern.
Indeed, according to an August 7, 2017, Shira had fled to Bangladesh in June 2017, but had returned to the Garo Hills. A October 8, 2017, report indicated that GNLA was ‘tying up’ with ULFA-I, which is a member of United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESA)’. ULFA-Is ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Dristi Rajkhowa was reportedly trying to import ULFA-I cadres from neighboring Assam and even Bangladesh and put them up in GNLA camps.
Civil unrest persisted in the State through 2017. In May-June 2017 the Khasi Students Union (KSU), a civil societal organization of the Khasi tribe, was involved in widespread violence while protesting a railway project at Byrnihat in the State’s Ri-Bhoi District on the premise that the railways will bring unwanted immigrants to the State. Between May 29 and June 1, 2017, seven incidents of arson by the protesters were recorded, four in the East Khasi Hills District and three in Ri-Bhoi District. No fatality was recorded in these incidents. On May 27, 2017, KSU activists attacked a railway construction site at Ronghona village in Ri-Bhoi District.
Meanwhile, the State Government continued to strengthen security apparatus. The second batch of SF-10, a Special Force of the Meghalaya Police, with 152 commandos and a Unit of 50 recruits in Law and Order Riot Control were formally inducted on August 4, 2017. The first batch was inducted after completing six months of basic training and a three-and-a-half month special commando counter-insurgency course on October 5, 2016.
Further, fencing of the border continued through 2017. India in total shares a 4,096.7 kilometers long boundary with Bangladesh, of which 443 kilometers fall within Meghalaya. Out of the total India-Bangladesh border, fencing has been completed along a 3,000 kilometer stretch. Of the remaining unfenced 1,096.7 kilometers, about 90 kilometers remain in Meghalaya. The average annual progress of fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border has been 26 kilometers over the past eight years.
Separately, on December 21, 2017, the State Government decided to extend the rehabilitation package to 28 surrendered militants of the Breakaway factions of Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC-B) and 10 UALA. The rehabilitation package had earlier been extended to 363 ANVC cadres, 135 ANVC-B cadres, and 50 UALA cadres.
Despite the dip in insurgent violence, Meghalaya continues to struggle to find lasting solutions for its security and societal issues. The hurdles faced by the State on the infrastructure and security fronts remain unresolved, and the absence of a sustainable solution to various insurgent movements continues to haunt the state. Additional security steps such as finishing the fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh Border and better border management are some of the pre-requisites to mitigate the residual threat of insurgency in the State. The civil unrest regarding immigration is also likely to continue, with the Government unlikely to meet the demands of the agitators. Significant developmental deficits aggravate ethnic tensions and have long been a source of potential violence. In this light the remnants of insurgent formations, coupled with the possibility of civil unrest, continue to keep Meghalaya in a state of disquiet.
* M.A. Athul
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management