On 3 June, 35-year-old Jospin M Sangma, a tea stall owner in the remote village of Raja Ronggat in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, was playing with her children when two Garo rebels, armed to the teeth, came looking for her. Jospin was surprised and scared for her life. In no time, her head was blown off in front of her four children and husband.
“Two armed men came to our tea shop at around 6.30 pm, looking for my wife. I told them that she was outside playing with the children. They immediately went out and asked her why she had inform the police about their activities. She replied that she had nothing to do with the police. Then, in a fraction of a second, they shot her and fled, as I watched helplessly,” recalls Abel Sangma, her husband, the only eyewitness to the horrific incident.
What happened to Jospin is not rare in Garo hills, the home of the Garo tribe in Meghalaya, bordering Bangladesh, where the Garo rebels reportedly maintain their bases. “They fired and left, as my children screamed and shouted — aama dongja ha (mother is no more). None of the villagers assembled stepped until the militants left,” adds Abel.
It has been over two months since Jospin was killed, yet the villagers in Raja Ronggat don’t want to speak of the incident for the fear of sharing her fate. “We came to know of Jospin’s murder only when the children screamed. We did not see the rebels. We are all terrified. Militants rule the roost here and exploit us. The security forces are of no use. How can we oppose the rebels?” asks Kikien Marak, the 68-year-old village headman.
The Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), an outlawed insurgent group, which claims to have raised an armed rebellion for a separate Garo state, has turned into a nightmare for the Garos and other tribes that inhabit the Garo hills. The GNLA was behind Jospin’s ghastly killing. In the past five years, the GNLA has created a strong fear psychosis in the minds of the people by unleashing terror, and runs a parallel government in the hills by issuing diktats and threats.
Over 1,000 cases of crime have been registered against militants in the Garo hills, in the past five years. Civil society groups have been demanding for President’s rule in the region. At least 20 security personnel and 93 civilians were killed while the insurgents kidnapped 124 persons in the past five years.
Life in the Garo hills has become the shelf of nightmares: crushed by terror, the impregnable jungles of Meghayala now only smell of blood. Although the GNLA has lost over 90 rebels, while 508 of its cadres have been arrested and 92 have surrendered, the group recruits uneducated Garo youths from remote and underdeveloped villages every day. Shockingly, many of the new recruits are minors.
Garos are the second most influential tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasis. Chief Minister Mukul Sangma is himself a Garo and fingers are pointing at him. “Random killings, extortion and kidnapping should be stopped. The chief minister has to own up responsibility. The Centre should intervene and appoint an interlocutor to hold dialogue with the militants. How can people live in constant fear?” asks Milton Sangma, the former pro-vice chancellor of ICFAI University in Meghalaya.
In 2004, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Centre, the state government and the underground rebel group A’chik National Volunteer’s Council (ANVC). And while the peace process was initiated, it moved at a snail’s pace. As frustration crept among the rebels, a top commander, Sohan D Shira, decided to breakaway and formed the GNLA. It got a shot in the arm when a former deputy superintendent of police, Champion Sangma, quit his job in the Meghalaya Police to join the newly formed rebel group.
The two soon received support from the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and other rebel groups in Nagaland and Manipur. In 2009, the GNLA launched a full-scale offensive against the state, demanding the establishment of a separate Garo state. In 2012, the Centre declared GNLA a terrorist organisation and banned it under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. In retaliation, the GNLA started targeting security forces. Today, the five districts that make up Garo hills are their killing fields. And while their idea of a sovereign Garoland might not be tenable, they have established a parallel regime with a strong base of 300 cadres.
In 2012, the ANVC suffered another split, as Rimpu Marak lost his cool with the peace process initiated in 2004 and formed the ANVC (Breakaway). In the past five years, 10 more splinter groups have come up in the region, making counterinsurgency very challenging.
“We have already expressed out willingness to initiate a peace process, but it seems that both the Center and the Meghalaya government are adamant. Thus, the conflict continues. We will not move an inch from our demand to create a separate Garoland. This is our birthright,” says Sohan D Shira, the GNLA commander- in-chief, who spoke to Tehelka over phone from an undisclosed location.
Insurgency isn’t a new phenomenon in Garo Hills. The region saw major bloodbath and turmoil when ANVC’s influence and violence peaked between 1995 and 2003. At least three dozen security personnel and scores of civilians were killed in those ugly days of Garo insurgency. Even after the outfit came forward to ink a peace treaty in 2004, it continued to its scare tactics to maintain its influence.
“A peace process with the AVNC will not help much. The GNLA is unleashing terror. Even if the GNLA comes to the table, other groups will emerge. This is a cycle. Perhaps, the only option is a fullscale army operation. Like the ones in Assam against ULFA in the 90s,” says Kabir Hussain, a human rights activist from the Garo Hills.
People in the Garo Hills have been expecting a massive combing and counterinsurgency operation against outfits operating in the region, but to no avail. In the past three months, at least 45 kidnappings have take place from Garo Hills.
“The situation in Garo Hills is turning into a complex challenge for law enforcement agencies. It is really chaotic. One issue is the emergence of armed splinter groups such as the A’chik National Liberation Cooperation Army (ANLCA), the A’chik National Liberation Army (ANLA), the A’chik Tiger Force (ATF), the A’chik Songna An’pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK) and other such gangs. This will have a direct bearing upon crimes such as extortion, kidnappings and criminal intimidation. These groups have no ideology, and perhaps that is why they target anybody and everybody. GNLA and ANVC-B are already a looming threat,” admits GHP Raju, inspector general (Operations) of Meghalaya Police.
The state government estimates the combined strength of all the insurgents groups operating in the area to be about 500 cadres. Some groups operate with 15 cadres, suggesting that insurgency is an organised business in the region.
So, why does the Meghalaya government lack the political will for a total crackdown?
“Militancy in Garo Hill is state sponsored. It has grown in the past five years under the Congress regime. There is a strong militant-politician nexus, which is the root of the problem. There should be an NIA probe into this,” says Purno Agitok Sangma, who represents the Tura Lok Sabha constituency in Parliament.
However, Home Minister Roshan Warjri says, “There is no need for a probe unless there is concrete evidence”. Terming the allegation as vague, she says, “The government is concerned about the issue and is discussing it. We need to have tangible evidence to begin such an inquiry”. Meghalaya Director General of Police Peter James Hanaman says the police has not been asked by the government to conduct any inquiry into the allegation; chaos is perhaps what aides terror in Garo Hills.
The Centre, for its part has dispatched 19 additional companies of paramilitary forces and is opening up consultation with the army for a full-scale offensive. In the past two months, security forces have been able to dismantle militant camps, gun down militants and recover a huge cache of arms and ammunition. The state government has also begun its process to raise a special force to combat insurgency.
While talking to TEHELKA, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma made it clear that peace talks are definitely on the cards but there cannot be any dialogue on the issue of a separate Garoland. The state government has extended the tenure of the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council by another six months to facilitate the peace process with the ANVC. The term of the council expired in February this year. The MHA has clearly stated that it will not hold talks with any outfits, including Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), until the ongoing process with the ANVC ends.
But people in Meghalaya want immediate action against the GNLA. “The fact that the ANVC peace talks were so slow is the government’s fault. Garo Hills is in a state of total lawlessness where facts and figures speak for themselves,” alleges Leader of the Opposition in Meghalaya Assembly and former chief minister Donkupar Roy.
Chief Minister Mukul Sangma claims that he has asked one and all to pull up their socks. The question is, will his police and administration be able to run faster than the insurgents?