Meghalaya: End of an Insurgency

Meghalaya: End of an Insurgency

M.A. Athul Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management | @indiablooms | 08 Mar 2018

On February 24, 2018, the ‘commander in chief’ of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) Sohan D. Shira was killed in an encounter with commandos of the Meghalaya Special Force-10 at Dobu A’chakpek in East Garo Hills District. Police recovered one Heckler & Koch assault rifle with magazines, gelatin sticks and detonators, among other items, from the encounter site. Meghalaya Director General of Police (DGP) S.B Singh stated that “last night (February 23) we had received information about the probable location of Sohan Shira and Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I) ‘commander’ Dristi Rajkhowa and their group in Dobu Anchengbok in Bilwatgre village. Accordingly, we launched an operation at 4am and finally caught up with him in an encounter at around 11:30 am.” According to personnel of SF-10 commandos, who took part in the operation, Sohan was several yards away from his group when an approaching team of commandos came into visual contact with him. He (Sohan) tried to escape by firing a volley of shots from his rifle and the Police commandos returned fire, killing him on the spot.

Later, a militant, identified as Panseng R Sangma, who surrendered on February 28, 2018, claimed that Sohan D. Shira, Dristi Rajkhowa, and he (the surrendered militant) were in the area along with a group of GNLA cadres (number not specified) on the day of encounter. While the rest of cadres, including Dristi Rajkhowa, had gone for a bath, he stayed with Sohan D. Shira at the hilltop. Subsequently, he (surrendered militant) also went into the jungle to relieve himself leaving Sohan D. Shira ‘alone and unguarded’. According to his claims, the encounter took place when Sohan D. Shira was ‘alone’.

The Security Forces (SFs) had intensified operations to locate Sohan D. Shira subsequent to the killing of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate Jonathone Sangma and three others in a suspected GNLA-triggered Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast in the Samanda area of East Garo Hills District on February 18, 2018. Among the dead was surrendered GNLA leader Nikam Ch Momin aka Baichung, who was accompanying the NCP candidate. Before his surrender in December 9, 2016, Baichung was the GNLA ‘second-in-command’. On February 20, 2018, Superintendent of Police (SP), East Garo Hills District, Ringrang T.G. Momin disclosed that Police had launched an operation in the night of February 19, 2018, after getting information that Sohan D. Shira and a few other GNLA cadres were in the Samanda area (location of the IED blast). But the rebels received information about approaching police unit and fled the area. SP Momin added, “we strongly suspect the involvement of the GNLA chief behind this IED blast."

Elections for the Meghalaya State Assembly were held on February 27, 2018. Other than the IED attack targeting the NCP candidate, no other election-related violence was recorded in the State. The polls registered a 75 per cent voter turnout. Of the 59 constituencies (election in William Nagar constituency was deferred, following the killing of NCP candidate) in which election was held, Indian National Congress (INC) won 21 seats; followed by National People’s Party (NPP), 19 seats; United Democratic Party (UDP), six seats; People's Democratic Front (PDF), four seats; Independent, three seats; Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), two seats each; Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement, one seat each. Meanwhile, as per latest reports, National People’s Party President Conrad Sangma on March 3, 2018, met Meghalaya Governor Ganga Prasad and staked claim to form the Government with the support of 34 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs), including 19 from National People's Party (NPP), six from United Democratic Party (UDP), four from People's Democratic Front (PDF), two each from Hill State People's Democratic Party (HSPDP) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), besides one Independent MLA Samuel Sangma.

Earlier on January 11, 2018, ‘deputy-commander-in-chief’ of GNLA Matchallang M. Sangma aka Vietnam was killed in an encounter at Bawe Duragre in East Garo Hills District. An AK-56 rifle with ammunition and three kilograms of gelatin sticks were recovered from the encounter site. According to Police authorities, Matchallang was directly taking orders from and was very close to Sohan D. Shira.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, two militants have already been killed in Meghalaya (both GNLA cadres) in 2018. Since the formation of GNLA in November 2009, Meghalaya has recorded at least 172 militant fatalities (data till March 4, 2018), among which the group identities of 160 has been established. Of these 160, at least 83 were drawn from GNLA. In addition to Sohan D. Shira and Matchallang Sangma, other prominent GNLA leaders killed during this period include:

August 9, 2011: Then ‘deputy-commander-in-chief’ Roster Marak was killed in an encounter at Bolkengre in East Garo Hills District.

June 27, 2017: Sohan D Shira’s bodyguard, identified as Ading Ch Marak aka Lukseng Ch Marak, was killed by SFs in the forests of the Chitmang Hills in South Garo Hills District.

SFs have also arrested at least 288 GNLA cadres since November 2009. In a recent incident of arrest of a prominent leader, Bande Ch Marak aka Border, a close ‘aide’ of Sohan D Shira, was arrested on September 30, 2017.

Moreover, at least 203 GNLA cadres have surrendered through this period. At least 24 GNLA cadres surrendered on May 13, 2016, including four of Sohan D Shira’s personal bodyguards. Again on August 7, 2017, GNLA's ‘senior commander’ and third in the hierarchy of the outfit, Baltush N. Marak, surrendered at Chokpot in South Garo Hills District.

GNLA has clearly suffered huge losses. According to reports, the outfit had cadre strength of about 300 in 2012, but as been reduced to just 17 now. On August 2, 2017, Chief Security Advisor to the Meghalaya Government, Rajiv Mehta, stated that GNLA was 'well past its prime' and it was just a matter of time before it is 'totally obliterated'.

GNLA has been demanding a ‘sovereign Garoland’ in western Meghalaya, and  was formed in November 2009 by Sohan D. Shira, who was previously a member of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), and by a former Meghalaya Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Pakchara R. Sangma aka Champion R. Sangma. Champion Sangma was arrested on July 30, 2012, from the East Khasi Hills District and has been in jail since, despite the fact that the Court of the District and Sessions Judge in Shillong had granted Pakchara Sangma conditional bail on February 22, 2017, and the Supreme Court dismissed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) moved by the Meghalaya Government for the cancellation of bail on September 1, 2017. Other prominent leaders in the group included ‘deputy commander in chief’ Robert Ch. Marak aka Rupanto Marak (surrendered on October 7, 2016); Baichung aka Nikam Ch Momin (founding member, surrendered on December 9, 2016. He was killed in the IED attack on February 18, 2018, when he was traveling along with the NCP candidate Jonathone Sangma, whom Baichung was supporting in elections. It is not clear when did he became part of mainstream politics); ‘western area commander’ Hedio C. Marak (surrendered on May 13, 2016); Pilport D. Shira ‘area commander’, GNLA’s 'northern command', which according to Police was the outfits most potent fighting unit (surrendered on May 4, 2016).

Since GNLA’s formation in 2009, Meghalaya has recorded 126 civilian fatalities, among which at least 94 have been attributed to one terror outfit or another, while 32 remained unattributed. GNLA was found to be involved in 77 of these 94 (i.e. 82 per cent) ‘attributable’ civilian killings. GNLA is responsible for all three civilian fatalities (in one incident) in 2018.

Similarly, since November 2009, Meghalaya has recorded 36 SF fatalities of which 35 have been attributed, while one remained unattributed. GNLA was involved in 30 of the 35 ‘attributed’ SF killings, i.e. 85.7 per cent. GNLA is responsible for the lone SF fatality reported in 2018 (till March 4, 2018).

Since its formation in November 2009, GNLA has been responsible for 190 fatalities (77 civilians, 30 SF personnel, and 83 militants) in Meghalaya out of total of 291 (95 civilians, 35 SF personnel, and 161 militants) recorded in the State, in which group identities of outfits have been established. The State recorded a total of 334 fatalities (126 civilians, 36 SF personnel, and 172 militants) between November 2009 and March 4, 2018. More noticeably, between 2015 and 2018, GNLA was responsible for 55 fatalities (17 civilians, eight SF personnel, and 30 militants) in Meghalaya out of total of 58 fatalities (20 civilians, eight SF personnel, and 30 militants) in which group identities were established. The other groups which were responsible for killings between 2015 and 2018 include: Achik Matgrik Elite Force (AMEF), two fatalities (both civilians); and Achick Songa An'pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK), one fatality (civilian). There were a total of 101 fatalities (34 civilians, nine SF personnel, and 58 militants) between 2015 and 2018.

After the spike in fatalities in 2014, State SFs launched Operation Hill Storm (OHS). OHS-1 was launched on July 7, 2014, and continued till December 31, 2014, resulting in the death of at least seven GNLA militants. OHS-2 was launched on April 2, 2015, and continued till June 6, 2015, in which seven GNLA militants were killed. OHS-3 continued for six months from February 25, 2016, during which five GNLA militants were killed. The fourth and latest phase, OHS-4, was launched on September 22, 2016. There is no further information about the operation.

Operation Hill Storm was primarily responsible for improving the security situation in Meghalaya, with fatalities declining from 76 in 2014 to eight in 2017, the lowest overall fatalities recorded in the State since 2009, when total fatalities were just five (one civilian and four militants). The decline in militant violence has been the result of a collapse of GNLA’s capacities for violence.

The need for vigilance, nevertheless, remains. After Sohan D. Shira’s killing, DGP S.B Singh cautioned that, despite the success, the regrouping of GNLA could not be ruled out, since ULFA-I ‘deputy commander-in chief’ Drishti Rajkhowa, a close associate of the slain GNLA ‘chief’, had been assisting the outfit and is likely to offer similar help to surviving cadres. Rajkhowa reportedly helped GNLA by providing ‘safe havens’ and training for its cadres in Bangladesh. He also helped the outfit with supply of arms and explosives. Revealing the level of coordination between ULFA-I and GNLA, a surrendered GNLA militant Bhim Bahadur Chetry aka Kancha, who surrendered on February 16, 2018, stated that GNLA was operating in two groups: one group, comprising 11 militants, was moving with Sohan D. Shira in South Garo Hills District, while another group with seven militants, led by Dristhi Rajkhowa, was operating in West Khasi Hills District. Moreover, Dristi Rajkhowa was reportedly trying to ‘import’ ULFA-I cadres from neighboring Assam and even Bangladesh to strengthen GNLA.

With Meghalaya taking several important measures over the past years, including augmenting State Police capabilities to counter the insurgent threat by adding a new elite commando force SF-10, the State is now in a position to effectively nullify the remaining militant threat from GNLA, in particular, as well as the lesser active outfits. However, 90 kilometers of the porous and unfenced of Meghalaya-Bangladesh border continues to be concern for the authorities. The gaps in border management need to be addressed, in order to isolate and deny the remaining militants their escape routes across the border into Bangladesh.

Meghalaya: End of an Insurgency

M.A. Athul Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
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