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Meghalaya: Lingering Fires in the Garo HillsNijeesh N. Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
On November 24, 2016, an extortionist, identified as Rakseng Momin (19), was killed by a Police patrol team while he was reportedly attempting to extort money from passing coal trucks in East Garo Hills District. Three extortionists displaying crude weapons had reportedly stopped several passing trucks on National Highway (NH) 62 near Rangeberam village in East Garo Hills and were collecting money forcibly. The Police team came across the gang and, on being challenged, the extortionists made an attempt to flee. The Police opened fire killing one of the extortionists, while the other two managed to escape. The group affiliation of the extortionists was not known.
On November 13, 2016, one Achik National Liberation Cooperative Army (ANLCA) militant, identified as Jonal Momin, was lynched to death by an angry mob at Chibbonga in the North Garo Hills District. The members of a Village Defence Party (VDP) at Chibbonga caught four ANLCA militants while they were trying to extort money from the villagers in the area. While one of them was lynched, the remaining three managed to escape and later surrendered before the Police at Kharkutta in East Garo Hills District. The three militants who surrendered were identified as Changtial P. Momin (18), Laban T. Sangma (24), and a 16-year-old boy whose name has been withheld. The four ANLCA militants belonged to Chibbonga village and were allegedly trying to regroup.
Earlier, on October 26, 2016, the Security Forces (SFs) neutralized a GNLA hideout killing one militant in afierce hour-long gun battle in the remote Nangalbibra region of the South Garo Hills District bordering Bangladesh. While other militants managed to escape, SFs recovered a huge cache of weapons, including one AK Rifle, one Heckler and Koch Rifle, one Self-Loading Rifle (SLR), one 2 inch Mortar, one Grenade Launcher, two Mortar Shells, one Chinese Live Grenade, seven magazines, more than 160 live rounds of ammunition, one high power walkie talkie handset, and three Mobile Handsets, besides incriminating documents. Police disclosed that the weapons belonged to a GNLA group led by 'area commander' Salman.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, at least 22 persons, including seven civilians, one trooper and 14 militants, were reported killed in insurgency-linked incidents in the Garo Hills region during the current year (data till December 4, 2016). In 2015, the region had recorded 55 such fatalities, including 13 civilians, eight SF personnel and 34 militants.
The Garo Hills region has recorded at least at least 399 fatalities, including 130 civilians, 51 SF personnel and 218 militants, in insurgency-linked incidents since 2001 (data till December 4, 2016). It was in 2014 that the region had registered the highest number of fatalities at 75, including23 civilians, six SFs and 46 militants.
The Garo Hills region measures approximately 8,000 square kilometres in the western part of Meghalaya and comprises five administrative Districts - East Garo Hills, North Garo Hills, South Garo Hills, South West Garo Hills and West Garo Hills. This 'militancy hotbed' provides natural shelter to the rebels as it has dense forest cover across the Durama Hills. Out of the 11 militant groups operating in Meghalaya, the centre of activity of 10 groups is in the Garo Hills region. These include: GNLA, Achik National Volunteer's Council (ANVC), Breakaway faction of ANVC (ANVC-B), Achik Songa An'pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK), United Achik Liberation Army (UALA), Achik National Liberation Army (ANLA), ANLCA, Achik Tiger Force (ATF), Achik National United Force (ANUF) and Liberation of Achik Elite Force (LAEF). The centre of activity of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) is the Khasi and Jaintia Hills region.
Among the 10 groups at work in Garo Hills region GNLA is currently the most active. Most of these outfits have been demanding a separate Garoland, comprising the five Garo Hills Districts of Meghalaya and some parts of adjoining Districts of Assam and Bangladesh. However, some of the relatively new outfits, mostly formed by deserters from ANVC and GNLA, are primarily engaged in extortion and abductions and have no specific political demands or ideology.
Abductions and extortion are the major militant activities in the Garo region, as most of the militant groups primarily eye the spoils of extortion from coal mine operators and local businessmen. Due to increasing cases of abduction and extortion in the region, the High Court of Meghalaya, in its order dated November 2, 2015, had directed the Central Government to consider the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, and to enable the deployment of armed and para-military forces in the Garo Hills area to control the fast deteriorating law and order situation. Subsequently, on December 23, 2015,the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju stated in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Indian Parliament) that the Government of India had constituted a Committee under the Chairmanship of the Secretary (Internal Security), Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) to assess the security situation in Garo Hills. Details about the Committee's findings are not available.
The overall insurgency situation has improved as compared to 2014 as a result of the increasing heat of SF operations in a sustained anti-insurgency campaign in the region in particular and the State at large. Counter insurgency operations such as 'Operation Hill Storm', which started its fourth stage on September 22, 2016, have so far neutralized and arrested several GNLA militants and led to the mass surrender of rebels in the region. On November 13, 2016, East Garo Hills Superintendent of Police (SP), Davies N.R. Marak stated that GNLA was on its last legs and had only about 27 members left. The operational success of the SFs was visible during Independence Day celebrations, (August 15, 2016), which passed peacefully all over the Garo Hills region after almost a decade.
Nevertheless, the region's vulnerability persists. On November 1, 2016, acting Director General of Police (DGP), Swaraj Bir Singh, categorically stated that the State Police force "will take militancy head on" in Garo Hills, were witnessing deteriorating law and order. Though he asserted that the situation in the Garo Hills Districts had "improved a lot", he conceded that some pockets in South Garo Hills remained a concern and the Police would concentrate on the District to flush out militants. While gains in the region have been significant, a great deal remains to be done to establish an enduring peace.