| Scenes from the past
Garo Hills and its people have often inspired poets and writers. The same writers dread to write about the Garo hills of today. The sounds of drums and flutes have been replaced by sounds of guns and screams from distant settlements where a mother has lost her son or a wife is hopelessly waiting for some news of her husband, who has been abducted by militants.
In the Garo Hills today, development has taken a back seat. Guns, bombs, rocket launchers, gun-toting men in battle fatigues are what the everyday experience of the people of the Garo Hills is made of. People have learned to live with killings and extortions, but now they are under a fresh spell of terror. Besides the local outfit, Achik National Volunteers’ Council, Assam-based outfits like the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland too are finding their way to the Garo Hills.
People like the 70-year-old Seman Sangma of Baghmara in South Garo Hills is almost at his wit’s end trying to understand the cauldron that is Garo Hills. “Just when the ANVC was beginning to show interest in peace talks and hopes of the drums beating freely in the Garo Hills were returning to every home, the presence of the outfits from Assam have made things complicated”, he rues. The ANVC was formed in 1991, when the demand for a separate Garo state had been around for sometime. Recently its leaders based in Dhaka appeared inclined to talk peace, but developments over the last month have thrown cold water on such efforts.
The ANVC has gone back to its old ways and has let loose a fresh spell of terror, abducting state government officials and medical practitioners for ransom. The outfit has also provided shelter to militants from the ULFA and the NDFB. The NDFB’s latest claim to infamy is the abduction of the customs inspector, Dipak Mahanta, and seven other traders who were kept in captivity for over a month. Twenty-four hours after the NDFB released Mahanta and six of the traders, two state government officials were abducted by the ANVC. The list of persons abducted and killed seems to be increasing by the day. While the ANVC and the NDFB are busy aping each other, the ULFA has made some parts of the Garo Hills, close to the Bangladesh border, their storehouse of weapons brought from across the border.
The recovery of almost a truckload of highly sophisticated weapons which the police are almost convinced were purchased by ULFA militants from arms dealers in Philippines and China and hidden in an area known as Chisikgre in West Garo Hills, has rung alarm bells and has forced the Meghalaya government to do some serious thinking.
The link between the ULFA militants and the ANVC is well-known and has been reported extensively in the media. The outfits had recently signed a memorandum of understanding to barter training with logistic support. From the agreement between the two outfits, it is clear that while the ANVC would assist in locating hideouts for the ULFA in the Garo Hills, the ULFA would provide training to the Garo Hills-based outfit. But what has come as a surprise to the army and security personnel is the outfit’s presence in the Garo Hills, and that too with such sophisticated arms.
All these and more have perhaps convinced the Union home ministry that it should find a solution to save the Garo Hills from going the Kashmir way. The home ministry, according to latest intelligence inputs, is contemplating lifting the ban on the ANVC to pave the way for talks. But given the present situation, where the state government is locked in a verbal duel with the former Lok Sabha speaker and Nationalist Congress Party leader, Purno A. Sangma, and the Mizoram chief minister, Zoramthanga, a positive outcome of the proposed talks appears bleak. These could be reasons for New Delhi’s refusal to read too much into the ANVC’s claim to call off its armed struggle.
Having banned the ANVC on November 16, 2000, together with another local outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, it would perhaps take some time for the Centre to call the outfit for peace talks. The current situation where violence has become the order of the day, particularly violence perpetrated against the public, will certainly not work in the ANVC’s favour. The state government too has washed its hands of any initiative towards peace talks with the outfit on the ground that its ideologies are suspect, with its members busy extorting and looting.
The ANVC was formed on December 20, 1995, after the members of another outfit, the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army came overground on October 26, 1994 and surrendered before the then chief minister of Meghalaya, Salseng C. Marak at Tura. Twenty-six ALMA cadre including its chairman, Wilbur K. Sangma, who were arrested, agreed to be accommodated under the government’s rehabilitation package. When everything seemed to be working to a plan and the government was in the process of rehabilitating the surrendered members of the ALMA, a few snags developed with the amnesty programme.
Two ALMA members, Dilash Marak and Jerome Momin, were not included under the rehabilitation package as they had cases in Assam under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act. The two eventually broke the Shillong District Jail on August 8, 1995 and escaped along with HNLC general secretary, Chesterfield Thangkiew, and two National Socialist Council of Nagalim members. Later, Dilash Marak and Jerome Momin formed the ANVC with 15 cadre at Rajashimla in East Garo Hills and began their armed struggle for a separate Garoland. The outfit swelled in numbers as young and unemployed youths of the Garo Hills found it more lucrative to lead a life where money and power were abundant.
With the formation of the ANVC began another chapter in the Garo Hills’ tryst with destiny in the form of militancy. The ANVC began the journey towards its destination of a separate Garoland with some amount of misgivings. It often tended to lose sight of its objectives and indulged in extortion.
Incidentally, except for a few encounters, the ANVC’s has not been much of an armed struggle as is the case with other outfits, which are frequently locked in combats with security and state forces. All that the ANVC succeeded in doing was establish contacts with other outfits like the NSCN, ULFA, NDFB and join training camps in Bangladesh.
From ALMA to ANVC, the Garo Hills has seen enough of militancy, and now there are splinter groups like the People’s Liberation Front of Meghalaya and the Hajong United Liberation Army. The thick jungles of the Garo Hills, coupled with its difficult terrain and proximity to a highly porous international border with Bangladesh, make it ideal for these outfits to flourish while the government continues to find it difficult to check militancy and the people watch helplessly.
But why do the people of the Garo Hills not react' “We have very little choice,” says John Sangma of Tura, a young and progressive-minded resident of the Garo Hills. There is little else to do for the people of the region but resign themselves to fate and hope that the guns will fall silent some day.