‘For money, Dhaka turned a blind eye to our activities’

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After a 16-year insurgency against India, Julious Dorphrang is a disillusioned man. The former HNLC chairman tells Avalok Langer that Khasis must change from within, instead of blaming outsiders

Carved out of Greater Assam in 1972, Meghalaya’s statehood was only the first step towards its cultural preservation. Unemployment and the inability to compete with established nontribal businesses gave rise to discontent and anger among the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribals. The anger gave birth in 1978 to the Khasi Students Union (KSU), which fought to safeguard indigenous rights and culture.

Boomerang We tried to clean up the system, but our cadres got corrupted instead, says Dorphrang
Boomerang We tried to clean up the system, but our cadres got corrupted instead, says Dorphrang  Photo: Avalok Langer

Slogans of ‘Khasi by blood, Indian by accident’ gave way to violence. In 1987, three KSU men were trained by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). The Nagas, looking to destabilise the region, needed safe routes into Bangladesh and the Khasis had to fix their ‘outsider problem’. After the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) was formed in 1993, the Khasi underground was born. After 16 years of rebellion, former HNLC chairman Julious Dorphrang surfaced in 2007. Now, he wants to do much more for his people. Excerpts from an interview with the former law student at his Mawlai (outer Shillong) residence:

Why did you join the Khasi underground?
When I was a student, there were no opportunities for the youth. There was no development. Building roads is not development; you have to build the village economy. As a KSU member, I saw the violence of the securitymen. We had to do something. With the moral, physical and financial support of the NSCN, we transformed ourselves into an underground movement. Once a businessman asked me why we do this. I replied that we do this because we want to draw the attention of those in power. They are now sitting on a pin — we are the pin — and they can no longer do as they please.

What was the HNLC’s goal? Sovereignty?
We never asked for sovereignty. We wanted the power to govern ourselves. Will Nagaland get independence? I don’t think so, but maybe Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) will be formed.

You established HNLC camps in Bangladesh. Did you get any official support? 
Through my local contacts, I met a couple of high-ranking army and government officials. A colonel said to me, “Don’t you know our country is poor?” I said, “Yes, I know, but your heart is very big.” We had to use money power. Their support was not from the heart. It wasn’t like, since you are fighting India, I will support you. It was all about the money. Every border outpost has a Major in command. All you had to do was send Rs. 10,000 every Eid and he would turn a blind eye to our trans-border activities. Even the ISI had approached us through our general secretary Cheristerfield Thangkhiew to push fake currency into India. Though it was a lucrative proposition, I refused. Who would suffer? Not the Indian government, but the Khasis. To build camps, we targeted the Khasi villages in Bangladesh. They were being oppressed by Muslim zamindars. We paid off their loans and offered them protection. In return, we got some land where we set up our camps. The authorities knew about our activities, but they turned a blind eye.

The ISI approached us through our general secretary to push fake currency into India. The proposition was lucrative, but I refused

Where did the HNLC get its arms from?
Once we had money, arms were never a problem. In eastern Burma (Myanmar) there is a tribe called the Wa. They are one of the most dangerous opium cartels in the world. Being of Chinese stock, they can easily cross into China to buy weapons for their private armies. After using them for three years, they sell them in the black market. They are picked up along the Indo-Myanmar border and then from Mizoram and Manipur are brought to the arms markets in Bangladesh (Bandarban and Sylhet). You can buy anything: AK-47/56, M-16s, RPGs, grenades, 9mm Berettas, etc.

How much did an AK rifle cost?
Depending on the honesty of the person you send, I’d say about two lakh taka (approximately Rs. 1.27 lakh).

Graphic: Naorem Ashish

Where did you get the money to buy arms?
The early years in Bangladesh were tough. Money wasn’t easy to come by. In every village that we used as a hideout, I set up a betel nut plantation. The pan made from betel nut leaf was popular and the locals would flock to buy them. We made Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000 a day from each plantation.

Was the HNLC involved in extortion?
We imposed collection on businessmen. We would set an amount based on their income, which was open to negotiation. We also collected tax from petrol pumps (Rs. 5,000 a month), wine shops and corrupt government officials. We used our intelligence network to hunt officials dealing with black money. We tried our best to clean up the system. But in the long run, it was our boys who got corrupted.

How did the organisation maintain its popular support?
You can’t wage war with money. If I give you Rs. 10 lakh, will you love me? Only from the lips you will, not from the heart. I told my boys you cannot win the love of the people with money or guns. We had to help the Khasi people, make the society better. So to rid the society of rape, we launched Operation Kyllang (hurricane). Rapists were publicly punished. We would pierce a lock through their ear lobes, lock it and throw away the key. We would shoot him with one bullet (making sure it wasn’t lethal) and then drop him off at the hospital. We were able to successfully reduce crime in the Khasi Hills.

But that scenario has changed now…
The HNLC is nothing now and you can quote me on that. There are no more cadres (only 55 are left in Bangladesh). The experienced lot has vanished. (Commander- in-chief) Bobby Marwein and Cheristerfield just don’t care, they are not sincere. I became so disgusted and frustrated that I had to get out. I wasted 16 years of my life. I could have done so much more.

Do you get death threats from the HNLC now?
I don’t care about that. I have made my decision. Whatever happens, I am a man. One day, sooner or later, I might die (probably of) old age, or any eventuality that a man doesn’t know. That is the way of life. But I will not die at the hands of Bob (Bobby Marwein). That, I know. Some people say I’m a terrorist, a militant, but now I am overground. I want to live a normal life, be a good father and a good citizen.

What does the future hold for you?
I still feel depressed when I travel through my state. I want to do something before I get old, but I cannot do it alone. Sometimes, I get frustrated with the church. Why does the church talk against the HNLC? Why don’t they condemn the politicians who attend mass in their Sunday best? The church turns a blind eye to corruption. What is the difference between the HNLC and these politicians? We loot at gunpoint, they loot in suitcases. They are also terrorists. We should stop electing the same lot. Enough of blaming outsiders, the problem has to be fixed from within.

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