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Meghalaya: Simmering Conflicts
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meghalaya: Simmering Conflicts

| @indiablooms | 03 Apr 2023, 06:16 pm

On March 20, 2023, Meghalaya Governor Phagu Chauhan informed the State Assembly about the decision of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) to engage in unconditional talks within the ambit of the Indian Constitution.

Stating that the peace talks had started, he added, "The state government is committed to ensuring that the talks are concluded at the earliest. We are also thankful to the Government of India for their support."

On March 17, 2023, the Meghalaya State Government stated that the ongoing peace talks with the HNLC were heading to a closure.

After receiving the Government of India's nod, peace talks between the HNLC and the Meghalaya Government were initiated on March 11, 2022. HNLC is a product of a 1992 split in the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), the first militant tribal outfit in Meghalaya. HNLC claims to represent the interest of the Khasis, the largest indigenous community in the state.

After the complete decimation of the Garo-insurgent group, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), in 2018, following the killing of GNLA founder ‘commander' Sohan D. Shira on February 24, 2018, at Dobu A'chakpek in the East Garo Hills District, HNLC was the lone major active insurgent group left in the state. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since Shira's killing, Meghalaya recorded four fatalities (one civilian and three militants). While HNLC’s role is suspected in the killing of the civilian on May 12, 2019, one of each of the three terrorists killed belonged to the IK Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-S), the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) and HNLC. The last militant killing was reported on September 14, 2021, when the UALA cadre was killed.

State Government data indicated that, out of seven Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosions in Meghalaya between February 2018 and January 2022, at least five were suspected to be linked to the HNLC. The remaining two IED explosions remained unattributed.

No violent incident has been reported in the State since January 2022.

In such a situation, successful completion of the talks with the HNLC is likely to help establish permanent peace in the state, which witnessed heightened insurgency between 1992 and 2000 (when overall fatalities were in three digits in each year) and a persistent low-level insurgency between 2001 and 2016 (when overall fatalities remained within two digits, and were limited to just five in 2009). There were eight fatalities in 2017, seven in 2018, two in 2019, none in 2020, two in 2021 and none in 2022.

Some problems, nevertheless, persist.

On April 13, 2022, The Meghalaya Police arrested the founder (name withheld by the Police) of a 'newly formed' militant group Lawei ba Phyrnai (Bright Future), who sent two threatening emails to the Chief Minister of Meghalaya Conrad K Sangma. The first email, sent on April 1, 2022, threatened to trigger bomb blasts every single week starting May 1, 2022. The email read,

Mr. Chief Minister...I am emailing you to let you know that I and 36 other well qualified and talented jobless youths have formed an outfit. A terror outfit, of course-with free sponsored arms and ammunition - whose capability and strength will come to display in a couple of weeks from now.

In the second email sent on April 7, 2022, the outfit demanded the release of the jailed HNLC leader, Julius K. Dorphang, arrested on January 7, 2017, in connection with a rape case. It warned of blowing up a school if the demand was unmet.

Further, the inter-state boundary issues between Meghalaya and Assam threaten to undo the hard-earned peace and stability in the State. The village of Mukroh, which Meghalaya claims lies in Block-I under the West Jaintia Hills District of the State near the border with Assam, was the site of violent clashes on November 22, 2022. Assam Police shot dead five Meghalaya citizens. Both parties gave differing accounts of the event. The Assam Government said the incident occurred between "Assam Forest" officials and "unknown miscreants" at Mukroh under Jirikinding Police Station in the State's West Karbi Anglong District. Meghalaya Chief Minister Sangma blamed the Assam side for the "unprovoked firing". Reacting to the incident, Assam registered vehicles were set ablaze by enraged mobs at Mahavir Park in the Jhalupara area of Shillong. Vehicle movements were restricted along the Assam-Meghalaya border, and internet services were suspended in various Districts of Meghalaya.

Such incidents have a long-established history in Northeast India and are not particularly limited to Meghalaya and Assam, but have involved other states, such as Nagaland and Mizoram, as well.

To resolve interstate boundary issues in various disputed areas between Meghalaya and Assam, talks between officials are slated to be conducted by the end of April 2023. The interstate border talks will discuss disputed areas such as Langpih in West Khasi Hills, Borduar, Nongwah-Mawtamur, Desh Doomreah and Block-II in Ri-Bhoi District, and Block-I and Psiar-Khanduli in West Jaintia Hills District.

Further, the demand for the application of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system has grown stronger in Meghalaya after the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. The ILP system provides for restricted entry in certain protected areas, to non-native Indian citizens from other parts of the country. Several NGOs convened meetings in and around the state to express their dissent against the non-implementation of the ILP system in Meghalaya.

The conflict between the Khasis and Garos, the latter are the second largest indigenous community in the State, is a further complication in the socio-political context of the state. The conflict has been fueled by various factors, including historical grievances, competition over land and resources, political power, and cultural differences, which sometimes takes a sectarian form since most Khasis are Welsh Presbyterian Christians while the Garos are American Baptist. This conflict dates back to the colonial period, and has continued into the present. It accounts for the original emergence of HNLC and GNLA.

Establishing a sustainable peace in Meghalaya requires the resolution of these critical issues. The state government, which was sworn into its second term on March 7, 2023, is expected to take necessary steps in this direction. However, any delays or lackadaisical approach would provide a fillip to the insurgent groups, which have been cornered at the present stage.

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