Thursday, February 29, 2024

Militancy in Garo Hills: Settle it at the table or in the jungle?

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By Albert Thyrniang

The militant groups in Garo Hills are springing non-stop. One has lost count of the number of rebel outfits in the four district region. The latest is a GNLA splinter faction christened as Achik Songna An.pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK), literally meaning vanguards of Garoland. ASAK was floated by the former GNLA Finance Secretary, Reding T Sangma who was alleged by Sohan D Shira, the GNLA ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of deserting his parent organization because of misappropriation of funds, violating the organization’s rules and leading an immoral life.
In turn Reding accused his former colleague of running the ‘army’ autocratically and dictatorially, deviating from the organization principles, amassing massive extorted wealth that is invested in coal business, purchasing of land in Shillong’s prime locality of Nongrim Hills and a flat in Guwahati in his associates’ and collaborators’ names. The war of words between the ‘comrades turned foes’ has been going on and is unlikely to subside.
Reding’s ASAK is also a partner of United People’s Revolutionary Alliance (UPRA) apart from the breakaway faction of A’chik National Volunteer Council (ANVC-B), A’chik National Liberation Army (ANLA) and United A’chik Liberation Army (UALA). The alliance is to Sohan’s organization. It is feared that the enmity and the fight for control of resources in coal belts might lead to fratricide. Recently GNLA carders shot ANVC-B militants dead in Chokpot for intruding into their business stronghold. Police operations and retaliation by rebels on security forces will add to the bloodshed. In the meantime extortions, kidnaps, killings will continue to be the order of the day. Innocent citizens will endure suffering silently. Hence, a prolonged violent and warlike future stares at us. A depressing and gloomy time is predicted for Garo Hills.
Armed outfits are mushrooming. They are thriving and flourishing. Violent and criminal activities are escalating. Law and order is worsening.  “Garo Hills sinks into lawlessness” by reputed columnist Patricia Mukhim (Shillong times, 22ndFebruary, 2014) gives us a picture of the harsh reality in Garo Hills. The situation is viewed with deep concern. It has to be dealt with urgently. But the question is how to deal with those who unleash violence? (Consciously the term ‘terrorists’ is avoided). What is the approach?
About a fortnight ago, the Unified Peace Movement for Garo Hills, an umbrella organization of civil groups and NGOs in Tura was formed to permanently restore normalcy in the trouble torn Garo Hills. The forum resolved to bring misguided youth back to the main stream. The appreciative move is a welcome step. But how will hard core militants be brought back to the main stream? Will those who gruesomely gunned down innocent people in Gendamari in the Meghalaya-Assam border of Goalpara district on ‘Diwali’ last year be convinced to come over ground? Will those who revengefully ambushed policemen at Bangjakona in South Garo Hills on 5th November, 2013 be willing return to normalcy? Will the sophisticated Heckler and Koch automatic rifle brandishers give up their prized possession? Should society welcome back such people? Should they not face the law? If they are made to face the law will they not return to the jungles?
We know that alcoholics, drug addicts and smokers relapse quite often, even after rehabilitation. The same applies to criminals and militants. It is not this writer’s opinion. It is that of psychologists and sociologists. Surrendered cadres are often in the news for illegal and criminal activities. They surrender a rifle but keep back a pistol. They often create havoc and unleash a reign of terror. Old habits die hard!
A few days ago the Vigilante group A’chik Peace Volunteers Council (APVC) has taken an opposite view to end the nagging problem of militancy. The Ampati based organization favour the use of force to end the long standing menace. They suggested deployment of central forces to neutralize the various insurgent groups. They termed them as criminals and therefore holding talks with them is, according to them, unconstitutional. Criminals should be treated as such. They have no ideology. Militancy is a business. The multi-crore GNLA chief’s wealth points to the allegation. We also see surrendered militants constructing posh houses for themselves and their kith and kin. They purchase luxury vehicles. Where does the money come from?
Has APVC called spade a spade? Should not criminals be settled at their own game? Well, others may advice the Buddha’s wise Middle Path approach. But it is easier said than done. The middle path is a thin line. It is a tight rope.  You lose balance and you fall. Only tactful parents know how to combine kindness with firmness in raising up children. Only statesmen can tread the middle path.
What is the government’s approach? Dialogue? Use of force? Or the Middle Path? Should it settle militancy by sitting across the table? Go for an all out war or combine the two? Observers opine that the government is unsure. It is directionless and visionless. It is indecisive and confused.  Military operations are employed against armed outfits but it is also considering accepting terms of dialogue offered by rebels who don’t know the meaning of peace. Peace pact is signed with the ANVC-B with no designated camps. Worse a section of the group led by Mukost Marak, ‘Commander-in-Chief’ has made the jungles of West Khasi Hills their home. Can we expect ‘free birds’ to adhere to the rules of a peace deal? Why are we fooling ourselves?
The Khasi Hills model in taming the HNLC is often quoted. A no non-sense Home Minister backed by strong police leadership were responsible for bringing the resolute outfit to its knees. Do we have a HM of the same calibre? Is the HM in control? Has the HM made any statement on the depressing scenario in Garo Hills? Does she know the ground reality in the region? Is she given the autonomy to deal with huge problem at hand?
What about the police leadership? Do we have combative ones? Or do officers make big promises and tall claims that eventually fall flat? Do we have personnel who play a dangerous game – neutralizing one group by arming another? Could the ASAK too be a handiwork of GNLA surrenderees who simultaneously work for the state police?  The police-militant nexus defeats the very objective of banishing militancy forever.
More dangerous is the politician-militant nexus. No militant group survives without political patronage. It is known that politicians and militants mutually seek and offer help for reciprocal benefits. If there is political will militancy can be brought to an end with ease and in record time.
In Khasi Hills the HNLC which has been keeping a low profile for more than a decade is now revitalized (?). The banned organization received a boost with the joining of the KSU vice president, Frederick Kharmawphlang and 13 others in its fold. The Council also made its presence felt in the coal rich Jaintia Hills by warning trouble makers to behave or face its wrath. Is the revival of the ‘broken backbone’ outfit also linked to the weak government and police leadership?
On his visit to Shillong, His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, remarked pertinently that there is corruption galore in religious India. Can we alter a bit and say, ‘violence abounds in religious Meghalaya’? Though unconstitutional we pride in calling ourselves a ‘Christian state’. Christianity is akin to peace. But we seem to have embraced the cult of violence.

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