Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Garo Hills Conundrum


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By Patricia Mukhim


Much has been written about the situation in the Garo Hills but I would like to join issues here since militancy or its several avatars, the last of which is pure and simple goondaism which is rearing its vicious head, has been of special interest to me as a journalist. Some politicians like the Community and Rural Development Minister, Saleng Sangma have been especially targeted. It is important to analyze each of these incidents in isolation instead of generalizing them. The very fact that so many militant groups and their alter egos can survive in the Garo Hills is indicative of the fact that there are enough resources to be exploited in the verdant Achik territory. The coal trade invariably spawns underworld dons and gangsters. In tribal culture we give then the respectable nomenclature of ‘militants.’

In a democracy there is always room for demands which are within the ambit of the Constitution. But the Government of India has the proclivity to give ear to gun-toting militants and their shopping list. This has therefore created a situation where if a group wants to raise a militia whose sole purpose is to extort and live the good life then it has to create an alibi for itself. The alibi is a demand for a sovereign status or an autonomous body with greater financial and political maneuverability. Whether the demands are granted or not is immaterial because the groups are not even serious about them. The cock and bull demands are imperative because without them, the militant group has no legs to stand on and to demonstrate their piety and concern for the “people” for whom they unabashedly claim they are fighting for. Big deal!

Now about the so-called ‘attack’ by the ANVC (B) on the working president of the Meghalaya Congress, Deborah Marak, I think we need to do some spooking rather than take things at face value. Why did the ANVC (B) attack Deborah and not any other candidate? Why did Deborah cross the Simsang River, an area known to be the hotbed of the GNLA militants without informing the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police of the district? And why did she not even take the bare minimum security with her? Was she assured by some other forces that she would have safe passage? Surely there must be a convincing reason why she felt safe. But the surprise package was that the ANVC (B) appeared and that was not what Ms Marak expected. It does not take too much intelligence to figure out this conundrum. If the area Ms Marak visited is a GNLA den and she was not afraid of walking into that den, what is it that gave her the sense of security? Surely it is not bravado alone! Unfortunately the ANVC (B) spoilt the party for her!

It is important to look at the acts of terror perpetrated by groups such as the GNLA, the two factions of ANVC and the LAEF all based in Garo Hills. What are their stated objectives? The ANVC has demanded an Autonomous Council along the lines of the Bodoland Territorial Council which in simple terms is a state within a state. The only difference between the BTC movement and the ANVC demand is that the majority of politicians in Garo Hills, particularly those from the Congress party have never come out openly in support of the notion of a BTC type arrangement in Garo Hills, whereas, the Bodos across the political spectrum were of one accord on this issue. The BTC was created as part of the Accord signed in 2003 between the Central Government, the Government of Assam and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) an armed insurgent group lead by Hagrama Mohilary who now heads the BTC and whose party the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) shares power with the Congress party led government at Dispur.

Interestingly the GNLA, ANVC (B) and the LAEF do not even have a stated ideology. They exist for themselves.

Even the sagacious Mr. PA Sangma who cavorts with the idea of a separate Garo State or Garoland at opportunistic moments has never been definitive about this issue. He is about as serious as the HSPDP supremo Hopingstone Lyngdoh is, who, at the back of his mind knows this is an impossible dream. At least for now it looks like the Balkanization of Meghalaya is not about to happen. The idea does not yet have too many stakeholders. The Garos admit that there is under-development; they also agree that their elected representatives have failed them. But the large majority of people in Garo Hills still believe in a cohesive Meghalaya which is why even those politicians who propound the ideology of a separate Garo state and use this idea as a political instrument have not got too far. Nor are people in sync with the militant ideology of a Garoland Autonomous Council. If there are intellectuals who subscribe to that idea they have not made their views public.

Every Garo knows, and I suppose, every Khasi-Jaintia does too that money alone will not deliver governance. Money will, in fact, create another layer of Garo, Khasi and Jaintia elite that appropriates all the resources of the state. The elite are unscrupulous and will use any means to retain power and prestige. This includes the use of militant outfits or mercenaries of various persuasions. And the idea of a Garoland Autonomous Council is nothing but an attempt of this political elite to accumulate more financial clout by way of direct central funding, ostensibly for infrastructural investments. But whether the funds will actually go into the creation of better and more durable public assets is of course the clichéd million dollar question. We have too many glaring examples of misuse of state and central funds in Meghalaya. We have failed models of poverty alleviation projects such as the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) followed by those schemes with fancy Sanskrit names (SGSY) delivered by the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) and the latest of all is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) now jokingly called the MAREGA because of its propensity to kill enterprise by promoting indolence and corruption down to the lowest levels of village administration.

The scenario is dismal and I am not saying this as a prophet of doom but because the list of those who wish to contest the 2013 elections does not inspire confidence. We have seen how they have performed and they are a disappointment. But yes, some of them have accumulated personal assets worth crores of rupees in their five year tenure. Those who will be elected next year will do the same. What is there for the people? Often they do not even get the crumbs from the high tables. A scenario of despondency like this should have provoked the youth to protest because the future is theirs and that future is hopeless at the moment. But the youth too is fragmented. The only people who have real stakes in the forthcoming elections are the candidates who will be contesting in the 60 seats and the militant groups who will be deciding which camp or individual to support. We know where Champion Sangma’s allegiance lies but is he still a big, hot player or does Sohan Shira hold all the cards? Sohan Shira will support the Congress because that is where the money is. The National Peoples’ Party (NPP) of Purno Sangma might not have the wherewithal to bribe the militia. But you never know where the funds might be sourced from once the going gets tough. There are surprise packages before every election. If the GNLA is with the Congress then both factions of the ANVC would have to support other parties and candidates. They cannot all be sharing the same pie.

Meanwhile all militant outfits in Garo Hills have spread their extortion networks in all 24 constituencies and some have spilled over into West Khasi Hills. In some constituencies there will be overlaps. These will become bloody battlefields as turf wars begin in right earnest. Some like Saleng Sangma have been prohibited to enter their constituencies because they have not met the extortion demands of the militants. The new Director General of Police (DGP) has breathed fire and said that his priority would be to fight militancy in the State. But don’t all DGPs mouth the same platitudes? Should the DGP not ask the politicians of Garo Hills first, whether he has their permission to take on the militants? This is not a good time to tackle militancy Mr DGP because now all the militant groups have enrolled themselves as political workers. The only difference is that they carry guns and operate surreptitiously while card carrying Congress or UDP or NPP workers work in the light. And on that note I rest my case!


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