Year 2006 saw a consolidation of the trend, discernible since 2002, of decreasing militancy-related violence in Meghalaya. 25 persons were killed in 2006, including eight civilians and 17 militants, till December 7. Previous fatalities were 29 in 2005, 35 in 2004, 58 in 2003, and 64 in 2002.
The Garo Hills—consisting of three districts, East Garo Hills, South Garo Hills and West Garo Hills—as in previous years, witnessed the largest proportion of fatalities, accounting for 15 of the 25 killed this year. East Garo Hills had four civilian and five militant fatalities. West Garo Hills had four fatalities; South Garo Hills: 3, Jaintia Hills: 3, West Khasi Hills: 5, and East Khasi Hills: 1. Of the 17 militants killed in Meghalaya in 2006, eight belong to Assam-based outfits such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS). Among the rest, five belonged to newly formed smaller Garo outfits. Further, five out of eight civilian casualties were ascribed to these new groups.
Prominent among these minor groups, formed especially in the Garo Hills area to fill the vacuum created by the surrender of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), are the United Achik National Front (UANF), Liberation Achik Elite Force (LAEF), United Achik Liberation Front (UALF), Achik National Liberation Front (ANLF), Hajong United Liberation Army (HULA), and Retrieval Indigenous Unified Front (RIEF). Similarly, the Hynniewtrep National Special Red Army is active in the Khasi Hills area. Apart from killings, these outfits, with wide cross-border networks in the Northeast, also engaged in several acts of abduction and widespread extortion targeting villagers and government officials. The UANF ‘chief’, Nimush Marak, was killed in an encounter with the Bangladeshi security forces at a Rangamati hideout in Bangladesh bordering the Gasuapara village of South Garo Hills District, on June 12, 2006. While security forces claim to have successfully neutralized these smaller outfits, the ULFA and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) have created tactical alliances with these amorphous groups to replace their arrangement with the ANVC to facilitate their cross-border movement through the Garo Hills.
The Jaintia Hills and its adjoining Ri-Bhoi District witnessed an extortion drive by the Karbi militants, from neighbouring Assam. On June 24, 2006, several villagers of Moolaber, Skap, Deinler, Saba, Myntang, Psiar, Lum Moojem, Khatkhasla, Mooshrot, Mukroh and other adjoining villages near Labang-Nongphyllut in the Jaintia Hills Distict were forced to pay Rs 200 each by UPDS cadres. Again, on July 1, several farmers of Mawlasnai area in the Ri-Bhoi District, with their cultivable lands in the Madan Umwang and Khlieh Umwang areas, were served demand notes by the UPDS to pay ‘levies’. They were later asked by the militants to attend a meeting at Madan Umwang, and were threatened with dire consequences in case of failure to meet the demands.
Similarly, Khasi farmers in the Block-II areas of the Ri-Bhoi District alleged that they were subjected to extortion, on October 24, by the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV), another Assam-based group. Each of them had to pay a "tax" of Rs 100 for each item (agricultural produce) sold at Umlaper and Umwang market, while Rs 50 and above has to be paid for owning cultivable land in Block-II area. The villagers alleged, further, that the extortion "goes on throughout the year and aggravates during the harvesting season… One who expresses his inability to pay the tax, the KNV militants threaten to take away the cultivable land or the crops", and that there was no one to provide security.
On June 28, several civil society groups and chiefs of local self-governance institutions, Rangbah Shnongs, urged the government to create more police outposts and deploy additional police personnel to prevent the UPDS from harassing Khasi-Pnar families in the Block-I and II areas of the Jaintia Hills District. Meghalaya Chief Minister J.D. Rymbai, on July 5, accused the UPDS of violating rules of the cease-fire agreement of May 23, 2002, with the union government, by indulging in unlawful activities along the Assam-Meghalaya border. It is not clear whether his statement has led to any ground-level augmentation of Security Forces.
Assam-based groups were involved in 13 incidents during 2006 (till December 8) in Meghalaya. While smaller outfits from Assam have targeted Meghalaya for extortion, for larger and more dominant groups such as ULFA, Meghalaya has served as a crucial transit route to and from Bangladesh. Significant levels of movement by ULFA cadres have been reported from the Garo Hills. ULFA’s cadres have crossed into Bangladesh from the West Garo Hills’ plain belt areas and entered into Assam from the Tikrikilla, Rongsai, Bajengdoba and Mendipather areas. On August 24, Meghalaya Director General of Police, W. R. Marbaniang, had stated that counter-insurgency operations against the ULFA would continue in the State, despite the suspension (since withdrawn) of Army operations by the Union government in Assam.
The cease-fire agreement between the government and ANVC on July 23, 2004, was extended by another year on July 11, 2006. However, the truce appears to be at a stalemate despite the constitution of a Joint Monitoring Group to monitor the cease-fire. The government has opposed the group’s demand of ‘de-proscription’ till it surrenders its arms, a condition the outfit is resisting. On May 30, Mehgalaya Home Minister, H. Donkupar R. Lyngdoh, said, "Let people be satisfied with their non-violence and peaceful existence… No doubt, the illegal activities of the ANVC have reduced to a great extent; but until people are satisfied, the ban should continue." The outfit, meanwhile, is attempting to pressure the government by reiterating its demand for the creation of an independent ‘Garoland’. On March 24, 2006, ANVC ‘publicity secretary’, Arist Sengsrang Sangma, said it was high time for all Garos to come under one umbrella and demand a separate State. The Union government extended the ban on both the ANVC and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) on November 9, 2006.
Prospects for peace with the HNLC have remained bleak despite efforts by the state government and the Church. Chief Minister Lapang is on record stating that the proposal for peace talks with the HNLC is a better option than its cadres surrendering. The HNLC’s top leadership, including 'chairman' Julius K. Dorphang, 'general secretary' Cheristerfield Thangkhiew and 'Commander-in-Chief" Bobby Marwein, continue to be ensconced in Bangladeshi safe havens and have resisted several attempts by the government and Church to start a peace process. In the last week of April, however, Dorphang requested the Chief Minister to urge the Centre to ‘expedite’ the peace process. On September 10, the union government authorized the Meghalaya government to directly negotiate with the HNLC. Meanwhile, sporadic activity by the outfit continues in the Khasi Hills region. Two HNLC cadres were shot dead in an encounter with the police at Nonghyllam in the West Khasi Hills district on June 23, 2006 and Meghalaya Police killed a HNLC cadre, Bankit Khonjee, during an encounter at Umkrem in the East Khasi Hills district on September 20, 2006. On September 25, the Meghalaya Police recovered dead bodies of two former HNLC cadres, Philio Hashah and his brother Anthony Hashah, from Wah Khri in the West Khasi Hills District.
Meghalaya, arguably the worst victim of infiltration across the 443 kilometer-long India-Bangladesh border, has recorded a very poor rate of detection, prosecution, conviction and deportation of foreign nationals. Fencing, an effective deterrent to infiltration, has remained unimplemented. Fencing has been found to be damaged along the 198 kilometers already fenced in the Garo Hills, while fencing work in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills areas has been paralysed by protests from the local people. Ominously, official inaction in containing infiltration is provoking locals to adopt vigilante measures. On March 6, 2006, villagers from Nongjri-Umnuih-Nongshken area in East Khasi Hills District announced a programme under the call, "Gun down a Bangladeshi criminal and collect Rupees 3,000", in protest against the alleged killing of people and looting of agricultural produce by Bangladeshi infiltrators. Such incidents can only further escalate violence in a State that has long been simmering in the absence of adequate and effective policies to neutralize its internal insurgencies, and to contain the overflow of troubles from Assam.
Sandipani Dash is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review
of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.