In 2013, the Congress retained power in Meghalaya by winning 29 seats in the 60-member Assembly, a landmark of sorts in the northeastern state’s volatile political history. The key to the party’s success was its stunning performance in the Garo Hills, considered the bastion of former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Sangma. The Congress won 13 of the 24 seats in the hills, leaving Purno’s National People’s Party (NPP) with just two seats.
The credit for dislodging Purno on his home turf went to Mukul Sangma, who went on to become the chief minister, but another key name that figured in the success story was Deborah Marak, a prominent leader who is now the social welfare minister in the Congress regime.
Deborah, 49, a working president of the Congress state unit and a former deputy chief minister, was once considered to be close to the chief minister. Of late, she has been vocal in favour of the dissidence that is brewing against Mukul within the party and the government.
Now, the soft-spoken leader, who represents the prestigious Williamnagar constituency in the Garo Hills, finds herself in the middle of a scandal that not only threatens her political career, but is proving to be a major embarrassment for the Congress government.
On 3 November, the Meghalaya Police filed a chargesheet against Deborah for allegedly taking the help of the banned militant group, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), for garnering votes in the 2013 Assembly election.
Soon after the polls, Jonathone Sangma, the independent candidate who contested against Deborah, lodged an fir at the Williamnagar Police Station, claiming that she had used the services of the GNLA for intimidating the people into voting for her. As evidence, Jonathone produced posters and banners that were widely circulated in Williamnagar, threatening voters of dire consequences if they voted for him. Jonathone also alleged that he had received death threats for contesting against Deborah.
After initial resistance, the police registered a case against Deborah under Sections 171F and 506 of the Indian Penal Code. Later, the police registered an additional case under Section 120B.
Along with Deborah, her aide Tennydard Marak has been named in the chargesheet. Tennydard was in the news recently when he filed a pil against Mukul in the Supreme Court, alleging that he was not a tribal and had used doctored certificates to fake his identity.
“We took the case seriously and wanted to investigate all aspects,” says Davies Marak, superintendent of police, East Garo Hills district. “We decided to file a chargesheet against Deborah Marak and Tennydard Marak after the investigation pointed at the fact that the duo had instructed the GNLA to threaten the voters.”
Informed sources have confirmed that during the investigation, the police had found evidence that while campaigning in remote villages, Deborah and her aides did speak about the banners and posters against Jonathone that were allegedly put up by the GNLA. The police believe that perhaps there was a verbal agreement between Deborah’s camp and the GNLA where in lieu of the support during the election, Deborah would not only support the GNLA’s demand for a separate Garoland, but also lobby within the government in favour of the demand.
The chargesheet has been submitted at the court of the chief judicial magistrate in Williamnagar, headquarters of the East Garo Hills district. The police have also sought permission for naming the GNLA in the chargesheet.
Deborah is perhaps facing the biggest crisis of her political career. It is unlikely that the police went ahead with the process of filing the chargesheet without getting the nod of the home department, raising eyebrows on what to read between the lines when the state government decided to act against its own minister.
However, Deborah is putting up a brave face. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” she told reporters in Shillong when the chief minister summoned her for a discussion. “This is a conspiracy against me. If any of my supporters had done this, I condemn it, but I cannot take responsibility for what others are doing. I will fight it out in the court. There is no question of me stepping down.”
Sources close to the chief minister revealed that Mukul is mulling over the idea of asking Deborah to quit on her own, so that the Opposition parties cannot put pressure on the government, but Deborah is in no mood to do so. Deborah has won the Williamnagar seat four times and with huge margins, so she will pull all possible strings within the party to save herself from the axe.
In a series of reports from the Garo Hills, Tehelka had time and again pointed at the possible nexus between militants and politicians; this development vindicates our investigation.
For the chief minister, this is a bittersweet situation. Mukul had been vocal against the alleged politician-militant nexus, even going to the extent of asking for a CBI or a NIA probe. Now, he finds himself in a difficult situation with his own minister nailed by the police.
The main Opposition parties — the NPP and the United Democratic Party (UDP) — have already trained their guns on the Congress government. “If the Mukul Sangma government is serious about this particular issue, it should ask for a CBI or a NIA probe into the politico-militant nexus,” says NPP state president W Kharlukhi.
UDP president Donkupar Roy wants the chief minister to take immediate action against Deborah if he wants to prove that his government does not have any nexus with the GNLA. “It is the duty of the chief minister to take action since the version of this alleged nexus has come directly from the state security agency,” says Roy. “The Congress has to make its position clear on Deborah.”
According to party sources, both Mukul and Deborah were very close but differences set in after the 2013 Assembly polls when Mukul retained the the chief minister’s chair. Mukul is facing dissidence from archrival and Congress president DD Lapang. If sources are to be believed, Lapang has teamed up with Deborah’s uncle and former CM SC Marak to topple Mukul. Deborah had sided with her uncle and was thus very vocal on the issue of dissidence. This has perhaps led to some heartburn between Mukul and Deborah.
“Deborah is an important member of the party and the Cabinet,” says a senior Congress leader on the condition of anonymity. “So, Mukul cannot publicly ask her to quit. But if she does not, then the Opposition parties will make life miserable for the government. If he goes tough on Deborah, then this might rile up the dissident camp.”
While Deborah’s future hangs in the judicial balance, it also leaves Mukul with yet another crisis to tackle.
With inputs from Purbasha Bhattacharjee