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Rebels, criminals keep Garo Hills on the boil

POSTED ON 4 NOVEMBER 2015

Rani Pathak Das
senior research associate
, cdps

The Garo Hills area of Meghalaya today can be termed as the worst ‘insurgency’ affected region in the Northeast. During the last few years, Meghalaya’s Garo dominated region has been witnessing a series of bloody incidents in the name of insurgency—something that has escalated in the past few months. Reports of 98 abductions in just six months (between January and June 2015), killings for ransom, brutal torture and murders, carried out only to terrify civilians, have raised great concern among citizens. What is more disturbing is the fact that it is difficult to differentiate between the insurgents and criminals and at the same time, many elected politicians are believed to be hand in glove with these miscreants. On several occasions, at the peak of bloodshed and unrest, there are instances when helpless civilian bodies demanded Army operations. The Garo Hills, that consists of five districts—East Garo Hills, North Garo Hills, South Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills and West Garo Hills—shares a 443 km porous international border with Bangladesh.

The unabated violence and criminal activities in the region raises several questions. Are these incidents carried out by only Garo militant groups or they are supported by groups active in adjoining Assam? Are these being done by purely criminal gangs? Is there any political motivation or backing behind such incidents of violence? Why are the authorities not able to control the situation? On 26 September 2015, the Home Ministry expressed concern over the deteriorating law and order situation in the Garo region terming it as ‘disturbing’ and offered whatever assistance needed to tackle it. On a visit to Shillong, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju regretted that militants are on a “kidnapping and killing spree” and that “things are not improving” in the Garo hills. Only two days before his visit, armed militants of the A’chik Songna An’pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK) outfit kidnapped Intelligence Bureau officer Bikash Singh and cloth merchant Kamal Saha at gunpoint in South Garo Hills district. Their bodies were recovered from a shallow grave in a forested area in Bolchugre in South Garo Hills on October 24. In another brutal incident, a 35-year-old tribal Garo woman's head was blown to pieces by GNLA militants when she resisted an alleged molestation and rape attempt at Raja Ronggat village of Chokpot in South Garo hills district on 3 June 2014. In September 2015 alone, at least 30 people were taken hostage by different groups in the Garo hills. On 27 October 2015, a Block Development Officer of Chokpot in South Garo Hills was kidnapped by suspected GNLA militants from Deku Deganggre village, 25 km from Chokpot town, triggering alarm bells in official circles.

Admitting a sudden spate on the number of incidents of abductions in the area, Meghalaya DGP Rajiv Mehta said that in most of the cases the persons involved in the crimes do not belong to known militant groups. These are criminal groups who have somehow procured arms and are spreading their activities in all the five districts. Local MP and former Lok Sabha speaker PA Sangma has described the situation as “disturbing” and that “there is no Government in Meghalaya”. When there are police operations in the East and West Garo hills districts, the rebels move to the South Garo hills which has become a hunting ground for the militants. The rebels commit all kinds of crime and extortion here and easily slips through the porous border the district shares with Bangladesh—the transit point for them. The situation now has become such that in South Garo Hills, the miscreants brandish their weapons openly whenever there is a refusal to meet extortion demands. According to reports, a united platform was formed including groups like GNLA(Faction), the Achik National Volunteer's Council (Breakaway), the South Garo Hills faction of the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA), Achik National Liberation Army (ANLA) amongst others to launch coordinated strikes or activity. People of the area feel that earlier the rebels pretended they were fighting for a Garo land, but now it is plain robbery by any possible means. The miscreants appear to be nothing but criminal gangs rather than insurgents or militants.

Simmering tension continues across the Assam-Meghalaya border near Mancachar area in Assam’s Dhubri distict. More than 2,000 people staged a demonstration on 7 September 2015, in front of SDO (civil) office, Hatsingimari, against rampant killings, extortion and abduction over the past several months in Garo hills. The people were protesting against the murder of a 22-year-old mason who was abducted for ransom. At least 20 people from Mancachar and its adjoining area have been abducted and killed by Garo rebels, some being killed even after their families paid ransom. "People have protested against insurgent activities in Garo hills. Most of our people go there for trade and masonry. They cannot pay huge ransoms to the militants," said an activist associated with the Assam-Meghalaya Peace Forum.

It is said that politicians with business interests and rebels control development efforts financed by the State and the Centre to help the villages of the area. The local politicians and bureaucrats route the Government programs and the money for them through businesses that are linked to terrorist groups. The groups, in turn, assist the politicians with their election aims. Saleng Sangma, an independent legislator who represents Gambegre constituency under West Garo Hills, said that politicians who don’t fall in line run the risk of retaliation at the hands of militants. Saleng was elected parliamentary secretary in May 2011 and was associated with a dissident group from the Congress that opposed Meghalaya’s chief minister, Dr. Mukul Sangma. Saleng received threatening text messages from ANVC asking him to support Mukul Sangma.

Militancy began in the Garo Hills with the formation of the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) in December 1995 with an aim to carve out a homeland called ‘Achik (Garo) Land’ in the Garo areas of Meghalaya. While the divide among tribal residents of the region and the non-tribal settlers appears to be the root cause of militancy, the Sharma Commission which was appointed by the Meghalaya State Government found that economic factors like unemployment are the major causes of unrest. However, after the formation of the GNLA in 2009, the security situation in the Garo areas became more volatile with killing, abduction, extortion, bomb blasts and attacks on Security Forces. The failure of the Security Forces to bring the situation under control has inspired and escalated the incidents of violence in the area. At present, there are 13 militant groups in Meghalaya, out of which eight are active.

Lack of enough security persons poses a huge law and order problem. It is surprising that this troubled district has only four police stations—one each in Baghmara, Gasuapara, Chokpot and Rongara. A single police station that covers a vast area with thick forest cover makes it a nightmare for those that want to keep the rebels in check. A concerted effort by all the security forces, including the BSF, may work in checking the activities of the rebels and criminal gangs in the area.