The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lapang and Gogoi: Confused moves

April has been a month of abductions in the impoverished Garo hills of Meghalaya. A decade of simmering discontent has inevitably snowballed into an insurgency with roots that run deep. In the summer of 1994, 20 Garo militants of the A’chik Liberation Matgrik Army (Alma) had sent letters to the then chief minister, Salseng Marak, expressing their willingness to join the mainstream. On October 25, 13 of the cadre surrendered unconditionally at Tura, headquarters of the West Garo Hills district, led by their general secretary and de facto chief, Desang Sangma, and acting commander-in-chief, Omaid Marak.

It was not the most glorious of sights. Emaciated militants trickled out of the jungles, depositing their puny arms. Their leader, who was brought from Tura hospital, hobbled in abject surrender. It was a poignant moment though for the “peace committee” comprising the Garo Baptist Convention that had played facilitator, as well as the police and administration.

The government, basking in post-surrender euphoria, magnanimously promised to rehabilitate these militants, while Wilbur Sangma, the Alma chairman serving a sentence under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act in Shillong jail, demanded amnesty for all those who came overground. His plea was disregarded. Banking on the obvious indications of fatigue at the surrender ceremony, Marak claimed that the rebels would never return to the hard life in the jungles.

So it was decided that following their surrender, the Alma members would be taken into custody and produced in court. They were assured that their cases would be expedited and Rs 30,000 paid to each to help their families tide over the months of their detention. But as governments are wont to do, the rebels were left to languish in jail till they broke free and escaped into the wilderness shortly thereafter. Rounding up this straggly group of extortionists, inspired by the United Liberation Front of Asom and trained by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim would hardly have proved taxing for the security forces at the time. But instead of nipping insurgency in the bud, the Meghalaya government chose to ignore it.

Not unexpectedly, barely two years later, the militants regrouped under the A’chik National Volunteers Council led by Susime Marak. The raison d’être of the new outfit remained unchanged — struggle for “a separate Garo state”. Emboldened by the inaction of a schism-ridden government, the ANVC now announced that it aspired for a “greater Garoland” comprising not only the three Garo Hills districts but Nongkhlaw in the Khasi Hills and Goalpara and Kamrup in Assam as well.

The Khasi chief ministers — E.K. Mawlong, F.A. Khonglam and now D.D. Lapang — have not been too inclined towards tackling what they perceive as a “Garo problem”. In the absence of a strong, cohesive government or an assertive chief minister, the problems of the distant Garo hills were swept under the carpet.

Despite the issue developing into a major crisis over the past month, the Meghalaya government still refuses to acknowledge that its policies have gone awry. The gravity of the situation following the spate of abductions in the Garo hills seems to have been lost on them. The latest to be taken hostage is the block development officer of Dadenggri in West Garo Hills this weekend. As the news came in, two other government officials were freed from militant custody in the same district on payment of ransom. Besides these, four others were abducted from Phulbari, near Dadenggri, earlier this month, the very day that a customs inspector and three others were freed, possibly in lieu of money.

Initially, the militants targeted traders in the hope of a bigger heist by way of ransom. But now, they have taken to abducting government officials, hinting at a more complex gameplan. Their message is obviously directed at the administration: either compromise, or else….But Lapang and his eminently Khasi coterie, comprising deputy chief minister, Donkupar Roy, revenue minister Khonglam and home minister, Robert Lyngdoh, have categorically stated that the ANVC is trying to institutionalize crime in pursuit of a political agenda. Only after dismissing the claim of the ANVC general secretary, Wanding Marak, last week that the banned outfit would intensify its separatist struggle for Garoland, did the government hold out the bait of a “healing touch”. Ironically, every state in the Northeast that has orchestrated surrenders by militants has lapsed on the follow-up reconstruction or rehabilitation plan. The roots of terrorism have now run too deep to provoke a response to such prophylactic overtures.

But to ignore the latest developments in the area would be inviting peril not just for the state but the entire region. The Garo outfit is no longer the band of extortionists which lurked in the jungles ten years ago. Today it has strong links with other militant outfits, especially the Ulfa, with whom it shares its spoils in lieu of a territory for bases. There has also been intense speculation over the Ulfa’s role in the insurgency, given the pressure on it to relocate its bases outside Bhutan. Phulbari in West Garo Hills district is now a hotbed of activity and arms transhipment. Meghalaya shares a sprawling 446 kilometre-long border with Bangladesh, which sees a flurry of cross-border movement by insurgent groups.

The topography of the Garo hills, which the leaders use as an excuse for inaction, is unlikely to change. Overcoming this disadvantage is not impossible, given technological advance and the measure of success armed operations have had on more difficult terrain in the region. What Lapang should realize is that the more he dithers, the worse will be his dilemma. It requires more than just urging the police and civil administration to work in tandem or calling on church leaders to lend a hand in tackling an issue of this dimension.

The Garo-Khasi rift is not new; its genesis throws light on why this is an important factor in dealing with the situation. Soon after independence, Khasi leader Reverend J.J.M. Nichols Roy, considered the architect of district council autonomy, prevailed on the Constitution-framers to carve out a niche for hill tribes. Thus was born the Sixth Schedule, conferring the instruments of autonomy on the tribals. Nichols Roy had insisted on linking the destiny of the Garos to that of the Khasi-Jaintias, because “the Garo hills are contiguous to Khasi and Jaintia Hills.” But that autonomy ushered in a craving for more, and with it, inter-tribal conflicts.

Ever since Meghalaya became a state in 1971, prominent Garo leaders like the first chief minister, Williamson Sangma, the Nationalist Congress Party leader, Purno Sangma, and later Marak tried to ensure a modicum of development in their native Garo hills. Yet consider this: Tura, the largest Garo Hills town, can be reached from Shillong only after traversing an entire day, cutting through Assam. Its airport, opened with much fanfare a few years ago, lies forgotten.

The Meghalaya member of parliament, Paty Ripple Kyndiah, once wondered whether “the Sixth Schedule could be made a recipe for political movements now agitating the minds of the people.” It certainly is a precursor to the demands for Garoland as separate from Khasiland. One of the more recent bones of contention is the quota for tribals in such multi-ethnic set-ups. The Garos have enjoyed a 50 per cent share, given their area, while the Khasis, considered the more progressive and hence more deserving tribe, have had to share theirs with the Jaintias. This has sparked resentment, led to protests and firmly driven a wedge between the tribes.

To tackle the crisis, the ethnic equation must be addressed before separatist forces can come to the negotiating table to bargain on their goals. It is, after all, the civilians who are at the receiving end, the very people whose “cause” these rebels claim to uphold.

During his visit to New Delhi on April 9, Lapang pleaded for additional forces and outlined a “comprehensive action plan.” While this sounds monotonously familiar, it is time he came up with a feasible formula to tackle the violence graph in the western part of the state. Otherwise, very soon there will be no officials left working in the Garo hills, given the spree of abductions! While it is convenient to slap a “disturbed” tag on a state to give sanction to armed operations, the malaise lies deep inside. Substantiating allegations of a politician-militant nexus would be a laudable way to continue in power.

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