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Meghalaya: Elusive Peace

Meghalaya: Elusive Peace

Nijeesh N. | | 14 Dec 2015, 04:32 pm
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management On December 12, 2015, Meghalaya Police recovered the body of a Police constable, Khomraj Bhattarai, from a shallow grave near the Tapa Darengchi area in the North Garo Hills District. Bhattarai was abducted along with another person, identified as Muslo Hussain, by Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) militants from Rongdongre village on November 6, 2015. Muslo Hussain was later released unharmed on November 19. Police suspect that GNLA 'area commander' Pilliport D. Shira was responsible for the abduction and subsequent execution of the Policeman.

On December 3, 2015, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) commandos of the Meghalaya Police killed the 'action commander' of the 'Eagle Hunters' group of the GNLA, Kennedy T Sangma aka Hebel, during an encounter in the Durama Hills forests near the Khakwa Duragre village in the East Garo Hills District. Police recovered two AK-series rifles, a Dragunov sniper rifle, 26 live rounds and four mobile handsets from the encounter site, a makeshift hideout.

On November 26, 2015, a surrendered GNLA cadre, identified as Kenny Rozar Sangma aka Jack, was lynched by villagers in the Chigitchagre village under the Dadenggre Civil Sub-division in West Garo Hills, over allegations that he was involved in criminal activities, including extortion and kidnapping.

Earlier, in the night of October 7, 2015, two suspected members of a "kidnappers' gang" alleged to be involved in a string of cases, were executed by suspected GNLA militants in the Chiading area of East Garo Hills District and their bodies, dumped on the road connecting Jengjal with Williamnagar, were recovered on October 8. One of the victims, identified as Ambar N. Marak of Songsak, was the prime accused in the kidnapping of a local trader, Dilip Marak, in September 2015.

Since the formation of the group in November 2009, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, GNLA-related violence has resulted in 162 fatalities (67 civilians, 28 Security Force (SF) personnel and 67 GNLA cadres) [data till December 13, 2015]. During this period Meghalaya recorded a total of 294 fatalities - 111 civilians, 35 SF personnel and 148 militants. Since its formation GNLA has thus accounted for 55.1 per cent of total fatalities in the State.

Of the 20 fatalities [three civilians and 17 militants] recorded in the state in 2010, 11 deaths (two civilians and nine cadres) were related to GNLA, 55 per cent of the total fatalities. In 2011, all the 29 fatalities [11 civilians, 10 SF personnel and eight militants] in the State were linked to GNLA. In 2012, out of 48 total fatalities [27 civilians, two SF personnel and 19 militants], 39 deaths (22 civilians, one trooper and 16 cadres), 81.2 per cent of the total fatalities, were linked to GNLA. In 2013, of 60 fatalities in the State [28 civilians, nine SF personnel and 23 militants], GNLA linked violence accounted for 33 (17 civilians, five SF personnel and 11 militants), 55 percent of the total. In 2014, of 76 fatalities [23 civilians, six SF personnel and 47 militants], the GNLA linked insurgency accounted for 23 (eight civilians, five SF personnel and 10 militants), 30.2 per cent of the total.

Meghalaya has recorded at least 61 insurgency-linked fatalities in 2015, including 19 civilians, eight SF personnel and 34 militants (data till December 13, 2015). Of these, the GNLA was responsible for 27 fatalities, (44.2 per cent of the total). Of 19 civilian killings in 2015, GNLA was involved in seven, followed by A'chik Matgrik Elite Force (AMEF) (two) and Achick Songa An'pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK) (one). Nine civilian fatalities remain unattributed. Similarly, of eight SF fatalities, GNLA was responsible for seven, while one such killing was attributed to ASAK. As the most active formation, GNLA also suffered the maximum number of losses: of 34 militants killed in 2015, 13 were from GNLA; followed by AMEF, 9; ASAK, 6; Liberation of Achik Elite Force (LAEF) and Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), one each; four remained as unspecified. According to Meghalaya Police records, however, the total number of militants killed was 39 (till November 30, 2015), of which 11 belonged to GNLA. Significantly, AMEF and ASAK are GNLA splinters. In a major split in 2013, a group of senior GNLA leaders led by former 'finance secretary' Reding T. Sangma left the outfit and formed their own organization, Garo National Liberation Army-Faction (GNLA-F), which rechristened itself ASAK in February 2014. Later in 2014, ASAK split further and AMEF, under the leadership of the self-styled 'commander' Jack Marak, who was the 'finance secretary' of ASAK, was created.

Though GNLA's operations were earlier concentrated in East Garo Hills and South Garo Hills, it has now started to expand its network to the coal-rich West Khasi Hills region, which borders South Garo Hills. Dorengchigre village, located in East Garo Hills District, is considered to be heartland of the GNLA's activities. In these areas, apart from carrying out fatal attacks, the outfit has also been found involved in abduction and extortion activities among coal-traders, petrol tank owners and local businessmen, on which it principally relies to sustain its activities. According to an April 24, 2011, report, most non-Garo Government employees working in Garo Hills were abstaining from their duties due to fear of GNLA militants, who had served demand notes to them asking for up to INR three million as "donation for the interest and upliftment of the Garo people of Garo Land and for making use of the resources of Garo Hills."

According to partial data compiled by SATP at least 44 incidents of abduction, in which 73 persons were abducted, have been reported in the current year, until December 13, 2015. GNLA was involved in the abduction of nine persons in six such incidents. In 2014, of the total of 54 recorded incidents of abduction in which 70 civilians were abducted, GNLA was involved in seven, which resulted in the abduction of nine persons. In 2013, out of 17 incidents in which 36 persons were abducted, GNLA was responsible for the abduction of 26 persons in nine incidents. In 2012, 39 persons were abducted in 21 incidents in which GNLA was involved in the abduction of 30 persons in 11 incidents. In 2011, 10 persons were abducted in seven incidents in which GNLA abducted nine persons in six incidents. The year 2010 witnessed seven abductions in six incidents where GNLA was involved in the abduction of five persons in four incidents. Most incidents of extortion and abduction go unreported, as families of victims often settle with the militants without reporting to the Police.

The Meghalaya Government has launched various measures to tackle the GNLA. State Police Forces backed by Central Forces jointly initiated 'Operation Hill Storm' to flush out militants from the interior areas of the Garo Hills, which comprises of five Districts - West Garo Hills, East Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills, South Garo Hills and North Garo hills. The main aim of the operation was to deny the militant outfits, mainly the GNLA and ULFA-I, any 'comfort zones' in the region.

In the first phase of the operation, 'Operation Hill Storm 1', conducted between July 7, 2014, and December 31, 2014, SFs killed at least 16 militants, including seven GNLA cadres, five ASAK, two United A'chik Liberation Army (UALA), and one each of ULFA-I and LAEF. Another 24 militants were injured during the operation. The second phase of the operation, 'Operation Hill Storm 2' was launched by SFs on April 2, 2015. According to the State Police, between April 2 and June 6, 2015, at least 17 militants were killed, including seven cadres of GNLA, four of AMEF, two of ASAK, and one each of ULFA-I and LAEF during this phase. The group affiliation of the remaining two militants was not known. However, According to SATP, SFs involved in the Operation have killed another five GNLA militants since June 7, 2015, (data till December 13, 2015).

Several key GNLA cadres have also been arrested during the period. In one recent incident, on November 18, 2015, Police arrested Hendinath Ch Marak aka Malmepa, a key aide of the 'commander in chief' of GNLA, Sohan D. Shira, from his residence at Bawegre in Williamnagar in East Garo Hills District. According to Inspector General of Police (Operations) G.H.P. Raju, "Malmepa supplies food and other items to Sohan. He also disclosed that he was looking after the properties of Sohan, including his rubber garden, newly constructed house at Bawegre village, fish ponds, amongst others". According to SATP, out of a total 141 militants who were arrested in separate incidents in 2015, 31 were from GNLA. In 2014, 173 militants were arrested, of which 48 were from GNLA. In 2013, 64 militants were arrested, of which 40 were from GNLA; in 2012 out of 92, 55 were GNLA cadres; in 2011 out of 61, 33 were from GNLA; in 2010 out of 71 arrested, 12 were from GNLA.

Sustained SF pressure has also resulted in the surrender of several GNLA cadres. At least 94 GNLA militants have surrendered since 2010: 23 in 2015, 27 in 2014, three in 2013, nine in 2012, 27 in 2011 and five in 2010.

SF operational successes have caused alarm among the militants. On October 27, 2015, GNLA cadres abducted Jude Rangku T. Sangma, a Block Development Officer (BDO) in the Chokpot region of the South Garo Hills District, from Deku Deganggre village, threatening to execute him if the Government did not stop counter-insurgency operations in the Garo Hills. He was, however, released unharmed on November 2, 2015, even though the Government did not meet the outfit's demand. Through a social media statement, GNLA declared that "the officer had been released since his custody was no longer required by the group", but warned that any Government officer who went against the outfit would face a similar ordeal in their custody.

Though SFs have secured crucial gains in beating back the insurgents during the Operations Hill Storm 1 and 2, GNLA, which was the primary target of the Operation, still retains its capacity to unleash periodic violence. Significantly, in a statement issued to the media on August 9, 2015, GNLA declared that it has formed a seven-member 'special operations team' called 'Eagle Hunters' specifically to carry out attacks on Police personnel 'anytime, anywhere': "Our Eagle Hunters team will shoot Police personnel dead on the spot no matter how many Police personnel are there at the time of the incident."

More worryingly, reports indicate that GNLA has forged close operational links with other North-East-based militant groups like ULFA, NDFB and NSCN-IM in their insurgent activities in the region. The outfit has also forged an alliance with the Bangladesh-based A'chik Special Dragon Party, which operates along the India-Bangladesh border in the western part of Meghalaya. According to Police, ULFA helped GNLA in the March 10, 2015, ambush in which four Policemen were killed. It was also reported in the past that ULFA militants assisted by GNLA were using the Garo Hills corridor to cross over to Bangladesh. Moreover, Paresh Baruah, 'commander-in-chief' of ULFA-I claimed, on October 15, 2015, that two Meghalaya-based outfits, GNLA and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), had expressed their desire to join the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), a common platform of militants in India's Northeast. He had further stated that the formal process of these outfits joining the new umbrella group could be completed within the current year.

Amidst these developments, there were signs that talks may be initiated between the Government and GNLA. Meghalaya Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi, while addressing the opening day of the Budget Session in the State Assembly on March 9, 2015, made a conditional talks offer to both GNLA and HNLC, stating that the Government's commitment to establish dialogue with the militant outfit remained, provided they gave up their anti-national stance and abjured violence. Though the GNLA welcomed the offer of negotiations, the 'joint publicity secretary' Garo Mandei Ch Marak stated, on March 12, 2015, that the 'chairman' of the outfit Champion R. Sangma who was in Shillong Jail, should be released unconditionally if the State Government intended to invite the outfit for negotiations. On March 16, 2015, however, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma ruled out any such move, declaring, "GNLA continues to be a terrorist organization. We will take into consideration its demand only when the outfit stops its anti-national and criminal activities."

Indeed, GNLA remains a potent threat. A July 14, 2015, report citing Meghalaya Police sources stated that GNLA had an effective strength of around 150 cadres and an almost equal number of over ground workers and sympathizers. It also continued to possess a strong armory.

On April 10, 2015, Meghalaya Director General of Police (DGP) Rajiv Mehta, citing the Sino-Vietnamese war to inspire SFs combating militants, especially GNLA, observed: "China has more weapons than Vietnam yet they lost," adding, "just weapons were not enough, training and tactics mattered too". Notably, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma admitted in the State Assembly on June 6, 2014, that "militants in Garo hills, including the GNLA, possessed state-of-the-art weapons such as AK-series rifles, explosives, remote-controlled improvised explosive device and under barrel grenade launchers, which even the State Police did not have."

Although counter-insurgency operations have secured limited successes, militant groups such as GNLA and its various splinters continue to constitute a security threat. A proliferation of groups and initiatives to create a wider pan-Northeastern militancy, have made insurgency in the State and wider region more complex. Aggressive operations like Hill Storm will have to be sustained till these groups are demobilized, if an enduring peace is to be established in Meghalaya.