In the morning of 15th August, 2021, the generally peaceful state of Meghalaya was thrown into unrest and violence. There were incidents of stone-pelting, capturing of police vehicles and weapons, vandalism of government and private properties; with Molotov cocktails hurled at Chief Minister Conrad Sangma’s private residence. For the protesters and miscreants, this unrest was the direct outcome of the death of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, former General Secretary and founding member of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). The HNLC is one of the main organizations engaged in the insurgency in Meghalaya, and was banned as a militant organization by the central government in 2019. In a notification released by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 18th November 2019, the HNLC with all its factions, wings and frontal organizations had been for years, been “openly declaring” its objective as “the secession of the state’s areas, which are largely inhabited by Khasi and Jaintia tribes, from the Indian Union.”
In the aftermath, analysts have tried to understand the specific series of events that could have led to such conditions on violence in a generally peaceful state. On 13th July 2021, an IED blast was triggered allegedly by the HNLC at a Police Reserve in East Jaintia Hills, apparently to demonstrate to the government that though they may have agreed to talks with the latter, they still have fire capabilities. On 10th August 2021, another low-intensity IED blast was set off in the busy marketplace of Laitumkhrah Lew, injuring two people and necessitating that MLA Ampareen Lyndgoh arrives at the location. In her opinion, these blasts occurred due to intelligence failure which failed to previously arrest the HNLC “that claimed responsibility for the blast.” Alongside Chief Minister Sangma, she also reiterated that the official policy of the Shillong government would now be to apprehend the wrongdoers. Early on 13th August 2021, R Chandranathan (DGP, Meghalaya) released a statement declaring that due to “incontrovertible evidence” and “credible and tangible information” about Thangkhiew’s involvement in the IED blasts, the police had stormed his residence at Mawlai. When facing a retaliatory knife attack, the police had been forced to shoot Thangkhiew leading to his death. For the citizens and Thangkhiew’s family however, the explanations provided by the police were murky and suspicious. Soon the erstwhile silent and covert local support for the HNLC was transformed into loud condemnation from pressure groups, local political parties and Dorbar Shnongs (village-heads) who termed this incidence of extrajudicial killing as a “fake encounter.” Even the Meghalaya Human Rights Commission agreed with Thangkhiew’s two sons (who were also arrested by the police) – that the way the arrest was attempted to be made in the wee hours of dawn and the fact that an individual was shot to death without a trial “appears to have resulted in a gross human rights violation.”
The primary reason for the breakdown of law and order in the state is the crisis in legitimacy that is encountered by the state government, as locals clandestinely support rebel and insurgent groups and leaders over the “outsider government.” After the encounter, pressure groups such as the Hynniewtrep National Youth Council asked youth from across the Khasi-Jaintia Hills to congregate for the funeral procession at Mawlai Kynton Massar on 15th August 2021, armed with black flags to display their anger and grief. Orders were also given to switch off all lights in the city on 14th August 2021, at 7 pm, in order to collectively mourn Thangkhiew’s passing. A crisis was festering, but the state was unprepared for the events that would follow. Unidentified youth barged into a police outpost at Mawkynroh, Mawlai after breaking through the gates and overpowering the on-duty policemen. They then proceeded to steal a black police Scorpio with weapons inside it, drive it around the city, and finally set it ablaze in Jaiaw as a display of strength. Another group of motorcycles that were leading the funeral procession also shouted “long live HNLC” in the first open display of support for the organization since it was banned. People from around the country took to social media to register their shock at the viral visuals coming out of Shillong on that day – youths dressed in black and masked, one brandishing an INSAS rifle from the front seat of a police vehicle, right in the heart of the city. Finally, in order to retrieve control over the rapidly deteriorating situation, a curfew was imposed upon Shillong and other surrounding Khasi-Jaintia districts with internet services suspended. Though the government has declared a relaxation of the curfew for 12 hours on 20th August 2021, the fact that it will be re-imposed again (and indeed, that it was imposed in the first place) and that Chief Minister deployed the paramilitary on advice from Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, has earned the ire of the TUR (Thma U Rangli-Juki) and other such local organizations. The TUR stated that this move by the government to suspend internet services and free movement would economically injure daily-wage earners and students, already suffering due to the pandemic. The Meghalaya Home Minister, Lakhmen Rymbui, also sent a letter of resignation to the Chief Minister, in shock over Thangkhiew’s killing, declaring that even he was unaware of such an endeavour being planned and executed by the state government. This led to a further deterioration in the legitimacy of the Sangma government, since Rymbui is a member of the United Democratic Party (UDP), which is an ally of the Chief Minister’s National People’s Party (NPP). This was worsened by the Meghalaya Cabinet ordering a judicial enquiry into the controversial matter on 16th August 2021. The Cabinet also instituted a Peace Committee chaired by ministers and constituted NGOs, other members of civil society, religious organizations and community heads. Sangma also formed the Security and Law and Order subcommittee which would deliberate how to maintain peace and stability in the area.
The purpose of this article is to understand the crisis in Meghalaya through a historical overview. In aid of this, it will first understand who the “Hynniewtrep” are – a word which has mobilized Khasi-Jaintia insurgents over the years. Alongside this, it will study the history of insurgency in Meghalaya to understand how matters came to a head on 15th August 2021. Second, it will analyze the main factors that have led to the instability in the state to comprehend how it fits into the larger instabilities in the Northeast. Finally, it will study the role of operatives in international States, specifically militants located in neighbouring Bangladesh, in fomenting the insurgency in Meghalaya.
Who are the ‘Hynniewtrep’ and what is the HNLC? – A history of insurgency in Meghalaya
After Independence, Meghalaya was slow to achieve statehood. Originally a part of the state of Assam, it was eventually granted the status of a state officially on 21st January 1971 after several tribal movements comprising of Khasis, Jaintias and Garos called for self-determination and a separate state. At that time, this decision was widely lauded as an instance of national integration successfully achieved by the then-infant free Indian government. This, however, did not impinge upon the rising national consciousness amongst the tribal populations. Indeed, this tribal nationalism came into direct conflict with Indian nationalism, and over the years, militancy in Meghalaya became embedded in the larger insurgencies in the Northeast. Not only was their tribal nationalism contradictory to that of the Indian State, there were also clashes between different tribal groups due to differing perceptions about the kind of future they had imagined. This was further complicated by the national system of wealth distribution which was implemented through per capita transfers, thus benefitting the majority ethnic groups to the disadvantage of the smaller ones. The Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC) was the first militant group formed in the region. Through the HALC, the Hynniewtreps (who believed themselves to have originated from the seven celestial families of Meghalaya) were represented by present-day Khasis and Jaintias; and they allied with the Achiks (or the Garos) in their common struggle against the Dhkars (outsiders). However, this unity did not last long due to several conflicts of interests between Khasis and Jaintias on one hand, and the Garos on the other. Finally, the HALC split into the Achik Matgrik Liberation Army (AMLA) and the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) formed of the joint Systeng-Khasi alliance. The AMLA was eventually replaced by the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC). The HNLC and the ANVC continued to clash because each had conflicting objectives on how to constitute Meghalaya. Though both condemned the influx of outsiders into the state, depriving the tribal population of the yields of governmental development policies; the former wanted to transform the “sovereign geography” of Meghalaya into a completely Khasi state free from Garos, while the latter sought the creation of an independent Garo state in the Garo Hills away from Khasi influence. At this time, there was a small movement of Jaintia nationalism as well, claiming a separate state on the basis of a historical kingdom called Jaintia Rajya.
The HNLC was proscribed in 16th November 2000 by the Indian government, but the ban was later lifted after agreements of ceasefire and surrender of weapons. In the 2019 statement finally banning the group as a “violent militant outfit”, the central government stated that the HNLC has continued to intimidate and harass civilians to extort funds, while maintaining linkages with other militant organizations in the Northeast and in Bangladesh for weapons, training and security. Declaring that allowing the group to maintain its presence in Meghalaya, would ease their regrouping, rearming, expansion and weapon-procurement, infringing upon the integrity and security of the country. The notification released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) therefore stated that they would be banning the group under the “powers conferred by the sub-section (1) of section 3 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1973 (UAPA). Julius K Dorphang serves as the Chairman of the HNLC, with Thangkhiew as the General Secretary, M Diengdoh as the Publicity Secretary, and Bobby Marwein as the Commander-in-Chief. The Operations Group is, according to national intelligence, comprised of Khraw Bian, Shining Star Synkhli, Shynshar Nongbri, Bantei Kharkongor, Raju Blah and Kynteilang Kharkongor. The leadership of the HNLC is based out of Dhaka in Bangladesh, with several camps located in the Chittagong Hill Tracts regions. Dorphang eventually surrendered to the central government on 24th July 2007, apparently as a consequence of internal contradiction within the organization, wherein a group of HNLC cadres were sent to Bangladesh to assassinate the Chairman. The HNLC has reportedly close linkages with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Issak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). The latter was revealed through neutralization of an HNLC-NLFT joint camp in the Jaintia Hills coal belt, where Meghalaya police officials stated that both organizations were engaged in extortion and criminal activities in the region. The face of the HNLC is the HSDF (Hynniewtrep State Democratic Front), members of which were arrested on 20th October 2001. The United National Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) also operated in Meghalaya, until the surrender of ULFA second-in-command Dhrishti Rajkhowa and four other militants marked the “end of a two-decade-long armed conflict in the restive Garo Hills in particular and Meghalaya in general” according to Chandranathan in 2020. Eventually, the mass surrender of the ULFA and the NDFB did convince the government that conditions of peace would prevail in the state.
The ANVC was also declared an ‘unlawful organization’ under the UAPA on 16th November 2000, and entered into a tripartite Suspension of Operation (SoO) Agreement with the state and central government on 23rd July 2004 for a period of six months, which was eventually extended for six more months and continues to be extended periodically. The power vacuum that was created by the ceasefire has led to precipitation of other rebel groups including the Retrieval Indigenous United Front (RIUF), (United Achik National Front (UANF), and Hajong United Liberation Army (HULA) in the Garo Hills, and the Hynniewtrep National Special Red Army (HNSRA) in the Khasi Hills. The Liberation Achik Elite Force (LAEF) was formed in 2006, which maintained links with the ULFA and the NSCN-IM in the Garo Hills. Eventually, in 2008, the strategic endeavours of Meghalaya police bore fruit as members of the LAEF surrendered and their Commander-in-Chief was found dead. The ANVC cadre are now confined to the Youth Hostel in Tura, and the ANVC-B, a splinter-group under the leadership of Bernard N Marak also signed the tripartite pact on 24th September 2014, following up with the suspension of all its activities. In 2014, the Meghalaya government had also formed a 10-company-strong counter-insurgency force to manage and suitably defend against Garo nationalism, finally neutralizing leaders on the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) including the Commander-in-Chief, Sohan D Shira in February 2018. In general, for many years, the government believed that militant activity in Meghalaya was concentrated mainly in the Garo Hills region, which was brought under control by the deployment of SF-10 commandos.
The HNLC was active through the early 2000s, calling for bandhs and boycotts on Independence Day, and consolidating their finances through extortion and illegal drug trade. Though the organization continued to resist any peace deals because the government made any talks conditional on the surrender of arms, in the opinion of Patricia Mukhim (Editor, Shillong Times) ex-Home Minister RG Lyngdoh “dealt firmly with the HNLC” leading to many cadres coming overground in 2000s leading to funding “drying up” for the organization.
Factors Behind Insurgency in Meghalaya
One of the primary reasons behind the continued insurgency in Meghalaya is the porous border with Bangladesh, which has not only allowed the militant outfits to be based out of the latter, but has also made easier the illegal migration of Bangladeshis looking to take advantage of a relatively prosperous Indian economy. For several political and civil society groups in the state, it is has become imperative that such illegal migration be stopped or regulated to manageable levels, not only from Bangladesh but also from the Mankachar Circle in the Dhubri District of Assam. The mountainous terrain and the thick forest cover between Meghalaya and Bangladesh have also provided insurgents with an easy gateway in and out of India, and has allowed the smuggling of arms and narcotics to continue. Of the 443 km-long border between Meghalaya and Bangladesh, 350 km is fenced; though patrolling and surveillance is sporadic and inadequate.
Another reason is the differing tribal aspirations in what is essentially a tribal-majority state divided between three major tribal communities – the Khasis, the Garos and the Jaintia – though the Khasis through HNLC have generally represented Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi and the War tribes over the years. Khasis also constitute the tribal majority with 56.04% of the tribal population, thus benefitting from the systems of resource distribution undertaken by the state government. The Garos are situated on the Garo Hills and scattered across Assam, Tripura, Nagaland and the Mymensingh District in Bangladesh, and constitute 34.06% of the tribal population. As both demand for a separate Khasi and Garo state respectively to be carved out of Meghalaya, there are also conceptions of perceived injustice by the Indian government on favouring one tribe over the other. Overall too, both tribal groups believe that the government has been ineffective at ensuring high rates of socio-economic development in the region, and are deeply critical of the paucity of government efforts in constructing roads, electrical towers and telephone towers in the area. Issues of identity between locals and non-locals, locals and illegal Bangladeshi settlers, and Garos and Khasis, are exacerbated by widespread governmental corruption and increasing unemployment in Meghalaya.
When the state was formed, the central government had instituted three Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the state: the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council at Tura, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council at Shillong and the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council at Jowai – all of which have been largely ineffective over the years in being accountable to aspirations of the tribal communities. When the ADCs were instituted, their presence was widely praised even by the local population because they had thought it signalled a political and constitutional advancement in the bestowal of autonomy to tribal communities. However, because these Councils have not been developed and remain irresponsive to the needs of the population, the issues of tribal identities as contradictory to the Indian national identity have only worsened. Since the ADCs have failed, development projects in Meghalaya are also slow to see approval and implementation. For years, tribal leaders and the student unions of the respective tribes have demanded the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and the institution of the Inner Line Permit system, though they too have failed to sufficiently mobilize to address the worsening legitimacy crisis in the state.
Another factor complicating the stability of the state is the illegal coal mining that has continued under the Sangma government largely unabated. Practised through long, narrow tunnels by locals and termed ‘rat-hole mining’, it has also led to coking factories mushrooming in the East Jaintia Hills and the West Khasi Hills. In both these areas, the banned HNLC and the GNLA respectively continue to extort mining sites along with their armed cadres, “serving demand notes ranging from INR 2 to 25 lakhs” according to Adelbert Nongrum, Chief Executive Member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. It has surprised scholars and activists across the country for years, as to how the National Green Tribunal continues to allow the transportation of extracted coal; and how the State Pollution Control Board has allowed clearance to such unscientific mining methods that pose serious threats to the environment, lead to a reduction of forest cover, increase soil erosion, injure bio-diversity, and cause air, water and land pollution. There continue to be recurrent public protests against coal mining and coke plants, and there have been controversies related to the Saubhagya Scheme for supplying electricity to rural homes in Meghalaya. However, because of the lack of good and responsible governance, illegal mining activities have continued; which has allowed the sources of funding for the militant outfits to continue as well.
As militant outfits are deepening their contacts across the borders, the smuggling of contraband has also increased exponentially in Meghalaya. In April 2021, police made several drug busts across the state. In the West Garo Hills, two drug peddlers were intercepted who were transporting a substantial amount of yaba tablets through the plain belt region, manufactured in Myanmar and smuggled through Bangladesh into India. These smugglers are thought to be part of a larger nexus based out of Bangladesh. A special team led by SDPO Sadar (Tura) and the Garobadha Investigation Centre intercepted these smugglers at a tri-junction near the Garobadha town. In Wahijer village in the West Jaintia Hills too, police were alerted to vehicle carrying contraband and seized the individual possessing one mobile phone, INR 13510 in cash and 0.86 grams of heroin. At the Mawiong viewpoint, a police naka check-post seized five persons and two vehicles carrying INR 192050 in cash and 100.66 grams of heroin. 90 grams of heroin was also seized from an individual thought to have smuggled it from Bangladesh into Umsning, Ri Bhoi. For locals, increased drug trafficking activity also means that there is an increased source of funding for the rebels, which is contrary to stability in the state.
The HNLC and the ANVC are not the only outfits in Meghalaya that are fomenting insurgency and unrest. The late 2000s have also seen a serious upsurge in Garo nationalism. The GNLA was formed in 2009 under the leadership of former DSP of Meghalaya, Pakchara R. Sangma, with a strength of around 250 individuals and with the stated objective of creating a separate ‘Garoland’ in western Meghalaya. With a cadre base comprising primarily of deserters from the LAEF and the ANVC, at its height, the group was reported to possess a sophisticated armoury including K series rifles, US M-16 rifles, HK rifles, under barrel grenade launchers, rocket propelled grenades, Chinese grenades, among automatic weapons and explosives. After several cases of gunrunning, murder, extortion and kidnapping in all the Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya, the organization was proscribed by the Centre in January 2012. This group had also fostered deep connections with other militant groups in the region, including United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Songbijit, NDFB (S), the NSCN-IM; and with the Bangladesh-based militant group, Achik Special Dragon Party. Though the GNLA has been mostly neutralized today, their policy of utilizing Meghalaya as a “corridor for routing sophisticated arms and ammunition by the militant outfits from neighbouring states including Assam or Bangladesh” which also have Garo populations (according to central intelligence agencies) has allowed the continued presence of militant outfits in Meghalaya. As different groups with the aim of secession became active in Meghalaya, peace and stability became more and more elusive.
Linkages with Operatives in International States
In May 2010, a leader of the HNLC, Pariston Pakyntein was apprehended by the Border Security Force (BSF) near Dawki along the India-Bangladesh border. Involved in several cases of extortion and murder, he was finally handed over to the Meghalaya Police along with other cadre he had crossed over from Bangladesh with, in order to carry out extortion in the Meghalaya coal belt. This is one case out of many. It is widely acknowledged that the base of the HNLC, as well as other militant units, has been in Bangladesh since the 1990s, despite the avowed objective of these individuals to rid the state of outsiders (which do also include illegal Bangladeshi immigrants). The HNLC continues to run some businesses in Bangladesh and have also created hideouts assisted by corrupt border security officials in the Bangladesh army. According to Meghalaya police officers, these business activities are being carried out despite Bangladesh’s denial of the same. They suspect that HNLC Commander-in-Chief Marwein and his close lieutenants Bah Hep Metal and Bullet are all well-entrenched within Bangladesh, hiding in the Khasi villages of the Sylhet and Sunamganj districts. For locals, it is common knowledge that a large amount of HNLC or ANVC or GNLA financing for survival, recruitment, training and arms comes from Bangladesh, and the porosity of the border makes it easier than it should be to cement international terror linkages.
In 2012, Asad Durrani, former chief of ISI Pakistan, declared that the spy agency has been meddling into India’s affairs in the Northeast before a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This has been India’s contention for many years. Several Indian officials have cautioned against the nexus between the ISI and the Directorate General of Forces (Intelligence) in Bangladesh, which seem to have covertly supported the insurgencies led in the Northeast, especially by the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and the Jamaat-e-Islami. In a shocking admission, Durrani admitted that ISI has been funding the right-wing Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government ever since the 1991 general elections and that nearly PKR 50 crore was paid to former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during that time, though Indian intelligence agencies estimated that amount to more than INR 300 crore by now. He also stated that nearly 9000 trained jihadis had been transported from different countries in the Middle East and from Pakistan to Bangladesh to foment instability in India. He divulged that the ISI had launched a campaign in Bangladesh which would allow insurgents to destabilise the Northeast through the provision of logistical support and funds. Expectedly, the Pakistan and Bangladesh governments were quick to deny these accusations, and in 2019 Durrani was found guilty of violating Pakistan’s Military Code of Conduct for co-authoring the book The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace along with AS Dulat (former head of Research and Analysis Wing, India). His pension was withdrawn and his ban on leaving the country has been extended.
Other than the embedded linkages with terror outfits in Bangladesh, the HNLC’s closeness to the NSCN-IM also allows it to have access to the various international militant connections of the latter. Indian authorities believe that the HNLC distributes and promotes the circulation of fake currencies in the State, assisted by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The NSCN has also cemented linkages with China and Myanmar, and utilizes the money earned from narcotics and weapons trafficking to build safe havens, train its cadres, and expand its reach across South East Asia. According to analysts, this allows HNLC to also enjoy close ties with, and the resultant benefits of, these illegal trading networks.
What is Happening Now?
Though both the government and the HNLC are willing to enter into peace-talks, they disagree about the compromises that have to be made on either side. The government has made talks conditional on their surrender and relinquishment of arms. The new General Secretary of the organization, Seinkupar Nongtraw has stated however, that they will not surrender their arms until a “concrete decision” is taken and an “interlocutor is appointed.” Chief Minister Sangma specified that some of these demands had been rejected by the Centre and they have been asked to modify them in order to initiate talks. As part of the judicial enquiry into the killing of Thangkhiew, the Sangma government has stated that the policemen-in-charge who had fled, leaving the weapons behind on 15th August 2021 have now been suspended, though their names have not been made public.
For locals, this back-and-forths between HNLC and the state and central government is obstructive to the process of peace, and local academics have called for both sides to compromise, keeping in mind the precariousness of the situation and to enter into talks before the crisis of legitimacy of the Sangma government suffers further losses. Moreover, because the Garos and the Khasis have had mostly unfriendly relations since the split of the HALC, the fact that Chief Minister Sangma belongs to the Khasi community does not help matters with HNLC either as it had for ANVC.
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