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Conflict Early Warning

Assam & Meghalaya: Threats of Violence in Garo Heartland


rani pathak das
senior research associate
, centre for development and peace studies

Armed conflict in western Assam’s Goalpara district and the adjoining Garo Hills in Meghalaya is assuming new dimensions with dangerous ramifications. Rag-tag rebel groups with their continued subversive activities have taken the people of the area to ransom. The otherwise peaceful area (the Garos and Rabhas have been living side by side for centuries, interacting and cooperating with each other) is now turning into a killing field, giving security forces a tough time considering that the stretch in Garo Hills has open borders with Bangladesh.

Mayhem caused by little known rebel groups like United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) in Goalpara and adjoining Garo Hills matches the havoc created by the Black Widow or the Jewel Garlossa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J) militants in the NC Hills district of Assam before they called a ceasefire and subsequently signed a peace accord with the Government in October 2012. UALA is a breakaway group of the ANVC-B (Achik National Volunteer Council-Breakaway), formed in February 2013 and is led by Singbirth N. Marak alias Norok. It is a small outfit with a cadre strength of about 30 and was conceptualized after the Garo-Rabha conflict in December 2010-January 2011.

Retaliation is a normal response in such cases and that is what happened on 14 November 2013. Rabha militants, allegedly belonging to Rabha National Liberation Front (RNLF), earlier known as Rabha Viper Army (RVA), unleashed terror by firing and lobbing bombs in a Garo village and by kidnapping one person. Though the RNLF was weakened in 2009 with the arrest of at least 31 cadres, the group is again trying to regain its influence in the area, said L.R Bishnoi, Inspector General of Police (IGP) Law and Order, Assam. Thus, possibility of another massive ethnic clash between the Garos and the Rabhas could be a bitter reality.

Militant groups are mushrooming in Garo Hills. While the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and its splinter group, ANVC-B, are officially under ceasefire with the government, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) and the Achik National Liberation Army (ANLA was formed recently in October 2013), are active in the interior areas of Garo Hills and in adjoining areas of Assam and West Khasi Hills. Again, there is the GNLA-F led by former GNLA militants Reading T Sangma, Jack Baichung and Savio R Marak. Meanwhile, ANVC suffered a further split in mid-November 2013 when seven members deserted the designated camp where they have been living since the truce and formed a new outfit, adding to the murky scene.

On the Diwali night of 3 November 2013, UALA rebels, armed with automatic weapons, triggered mindless and brutal attack on innocent Rabha people at the remote Gendamari village under Agia Police Station in Assam’s Goalpara district. Seven persons belonging to the Rabha ethnic community were killed and six were seriously injured. Just two days after the incident, on 5 November, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), another rebel outfit active in Garo Hills, killed five Meghalaya police personnel in a well planned ambush at Bangjakona in South Garo Hills. The manner in which the extremist attacks are taking place in quick succession has raised serious security related questions.

The idea of a Greater Garoland state consisting of the present Garo Hills in Meghalaya and a part of the Kamrup and the Goalpara districts in adjoining Assam, which came to forefront with the formation of Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) in December 1995, and the demand for sharing administrative power by the Rabhas residing in the Garo Autonomous District Council area could well be the main factors for the sustained unrest, but most often ambitious militants are seen taking advantage of the public causes.

The genesis behind the Garo-Rabha conflict, however, revolves around the issue of providing Scheduled Tribe status claimed by the Rabhas living in the Garo Hills area as their counterparts living in Goalpara in Assam were enjoying Scheduled Caste status. Since East Garo Hill district has its own Autonomous District Council under the Sixth Schedule, and the Rabhas are not a ST community in Meghalaya, they can never have their representation in the District Council. When the Garos were opposed to the claims made by the Rabhas, the latter started declaring bandhs to press their demand. The Garos, on the other hand, regarded the bandhs as an economic blockade by the Rabhas, and, therefore, started retaliating, leading to bloody clashes between the two tribes. The Garo National Council too had demanded a separate Garo Autonomous Council in Assam. The immediate cause of the conflict between the two tribes, however, was a bandh call by the Rabhas during Christmas time in December 2010 and some Rabha groups beating up a Pastor that led to violent clash among the Rabhas and Garos. Scores were killed and thousands displaced in the Assam-Meghalaya border areas.

The Goalpara district covers an area of 1,824 sq. km. and its southern part is bordered by West and East Garo Hill districts of Meghalaya—a state that shares a 443 kilometre international border with Bangladesh. The strategic location of the district, combined with the illegal arms trafficking through it, makes it extremely vulnerable to diverse troubles, including ethnic conflict. According to Home Department records of Assam, Goalpara topped the chart in the category of ‘arms recovered from extremists’ in the State in 2012. Between January and December 5 in 2012, the State Police recovered 118 weapons and 642 rounds of live ammunition from various areas of Goalpara district. In 2011, the figure was 97 and 63, respectively. In 2010, the arms recovery figure in the district was 50 arms and 303 ammunition rounds. Categorically, it is a matter of worry that the district recorded 22 insurgency-linked fatalities in 2012, including 17 extremists, four civilians and a Security Force person, as compared to just four fatalities of only militants, in 2011.

Extortion by militants is rampant in the area. While coal mine owners in Nangalbibra in Garo Hills pay to all armed groups, the coal truck owners of Goalpara in Assam also have to pay to the armed groups of the Garo Hills. Reports confirm that all liquor traders of Williamnagar, Nangalbibra, Tura, Ampati, Dalu, Chokpot and Mendipathar pay regularly to the GNLA while the people engaged in other business activities also have to pay for their survival in the area. A common complaint is about the failure of the police to provide security and protection. Hence, it has been observed that the traders prefer to buy peace instead of informing the police that may expose them before the militants and even invite death.

The GNLA, one of the strongest militant outfits operating in the region now, has reportedly acquired a huge arsenal of weapons while the UALA is said to have embarked on a strategy to arm itself. The commonality between the two outfits is that both are demanding a 'Greater Garoland'. Easy money has ensured free availability of arms in Garo Hills that come in from Bangladesh.

On 6 November 2013, the Assam and Meghalaya Police, the CRPF and the Army, launched a joint counter-insurgency operation against two Garo outfits—the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA)—along a 68 km stretch of inter-state border in western Assam. The security establishment, alarmed by the impending danger triggered by the bloody clashes between the tribes in Assam and Meghalaya, have no doubt joined hands to fight the militants. But, what is needed is stringent vigilance across the area by the security forces. The involvement of community leaders, educationists, cultural personalities, and civilians on the ground, to cultivate communal harmony and spread the message of peaceful cohabitation is the need of the hour.

(courtesy: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies,