Under the dancing shadows of its silver clouds, you can lose yourself in the rock music and laidback lifestyle of Shillong, which is not only the educational hub of the Northeast but also an example of the potential possessed by the region. Unfortunately, that’s just one side of the story. In western Meghalaya, the dense jungles of the Garo Hills have been a hotbed of insurgency. Not only were the Garos (one of the three dominant tribes of Meghalaya) central to the creation of the state’s first vigilante outfit, the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA), they also helped create the Hynniewtrip Achik Liberation Council (HALC), the first underground group.
The Garo movement came into its own with the creation of the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) in 1995. Its demand was simple: a separate state for Garos within the Indian Union comprising the Garo Hills and the Garo-dominated areas of Assam’s Kampura and Goalpara districts.
The justification behind the outfit’s demand was the state government’s “step-motherly treatment” towards the Garos. Having signed a ceasefire agreement in 2004, the ANVC suspended all guerrilla activities but this has left the cadres frustrated and susceptible to recruitment by the active and growing Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). Excerpts from an interview with ANVC spokesman Torik Jangning Marak and joint secretary Janggam Momin:
Why did you join the guerrilla movement?
MARAK For too long we have been neglected, suffered step-motherly treatment from the Meghalaya government. The state was carved out of Greater Assam in 1972, but we are yet to see any benefits. We are far behind other parts of the state in terms of education, development and economics. I could never accept the wrongs that are being done to my people, I had to speak out, I had to highlight the problems.
MOMIN To militarily challenge the government is not easy. It is like hitting an elephant with your hand, nothing happens. But our idea was never to challenge the state. All we wanted to do was to knock on the door of the government and be heard.
MARAK In a family, if there are three kids and one of them is naughty, the parents will pay attention to the naughty child. Earlier, the Garo voice barely reached Shillong. We had to make the Centre listen to our demands, so we picked up arms. We never asked for sovereignty. All we wanted was statehood so that we could get what was rightfully ours, but we always knew that an armed struggle was not an end in itself.
Is that why you agreed to the ceasefire?
MARAK It was partly because of that. We wanted to achieve a permanent political solution for the Garo people. But by being holed up in the jungle we could not do that. At the same time, the people of Garo Hills appealed to us to come to a ceasefire agreement. Our movement is for the Garos. They have supported us from the very beginning and we had to respect their appeal. That’s why the ANVC as a whole will never go back to the jungle.
Do you have any regrets about agreeing to the ceasefire?
MARAK Every day, I am haunted by a question that I am forced to ask myself: will we deliver even a small part of the promise we made to our people? After all, we are accountable to them. The movement is not restricted to just the 182 cadres who are still with us, it involves all the Garo people. Today, we feel like we have been cheated. Many promises were made by political leaders and various government agencies when we signed the ceasefire agreement, but nothing has come of them. We are saddened by the government’s lack of sincerity in finding a solution even though we have scaled back our demand from a separate state to just an autonomous council with certain special provisions.
MOMIN Sometimes I wonder if we have come out of the jungle to be repeatedly insulted by these officials. There is nothing that we can do and I feel there is something wrong with this system.
What do you mean by that?
MARAK The government doesn’t see the bigger picture. We have 182 soldiers who are very frustrated. We have kept them under control for six years. These are men trained to live in the jungle and fight like guerrillas. How long can we restrict them to a civilian environment? The government is trying to domesticate a wild animal.
Now there is an added problem. Last year, a renegade Deputy Superintendent of Police, Champion Marak, and one of our deserters, Sohan, got together to form the GNLA. They have recruited 200 cadres and are now approaching our boys. Our cadres are well trained, they know these jungles like the back of their hands and they will be perfect recruits for the GNLA. If they join the new group then we can’t be held responsible for their actions.
We don’t support the GNLA, but at times we feel a sense of oneness. We started this movement and brought it to a certain level. Now, they are taking it forward. If the government doesn’t want to deal with us then let them deal with the GNLA. But big problems are in store for the Garos. With the GNLA at large and growing in strength they will turn to other groups for support, maybe the ISI or the Nagas. With the government unable to do anything, it won’t be long before this region explodes again.
‘To militarily challenge the government is not easy. It is like hitting an elephant with your hand. Nothing can come of it’
MOMIN In a Mumbai jail, Ajmal Kasab is being punished for what he was brainwashed to do. Here, the unemployment and frustration among the youth can potentially create hundreds of Kasabs.
What do you feel about being a part of the underground?
MARAK We are treated like terrorists, made to feel like lepers and shunned by society. Because I joined the underground my family has suffered, they are looked down upon as the family of a terrorist. But to be very frank, it takes courage to join an underground movement. You have to sacrifice your family and youth to stay in a jungle to fight for a cause. It is the cause that we are living for and the cause that we will die for. We all knew that the moment we are a part of the movement, the only certainty is that we are closer to death.