The Rebel returns to retire: The paradox of our times

Patricia Mukhim


Some might ask why this paper gave a detailed interview of Cherister Thangkhiew, the founder general secretary of Meghalaya’s ambiguously named militant outfit – Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). Ambiguous because we are neither a Hynniewtrep nation nor are we delivered from our anomie. Well, a man who guided the fortunes of the outfit and was its locus for over a quarter century deserves media space to lay out before the public what ideological compulsions pushed him to take up the gun against not just the state but against select individuals also. Between 1994- 2000 the HNLC struck fear in the hearts of Shillongites. Life ended at dusk as it did in Nagaland and Manipur. Extortion was rampant. We would have gone that way had civil society not resisted. The first victim that succumbed to HNLC bullets was Rajesh Saigal of Saigal Accessories, Laitumkhrah. At the time the locals said nothing for it is believed that non-tribal traders have made off with much that should rightfully remain with them. It was only when Khasi businesspersons were targeted that the shoe actually went to the other foot and it began to hurt.

Since its inception the HNLC had, according to rough estimates collected over Rs 5 crore by 1997. The outfit regularly looted banks, offices, petrol pumps with gay abandon. Law enforcement then seemed incapable of tackling these mercenaries. It was only when the HNLC Finance Secretary Fullstar Rani was arrested on June 7, 2003 that we learnt that the outfit was earning something between Rs 4-5 crore annually through extortion and other illegal activities. Jyrwa confessed that the money collected was sent to the Chairman Julius Dorphang and General Secretary Cherister Thangkhiew in Bangladesh. At the time people cowered in fear and paid up when the extortion notices landed at their doorsteps. Remember Patel Engineering the firm which was entrusted with construction of the PHE dam at Mawphlang? They had to pay approximately Rs 1.4 crore to the outfit.  Many who did not pay up were eliminated; some disappeared and their bodies were never found.

There are optimists who don’t like to be reminded of this sordid past in the life of the HNLC. Others, even today believe they are the saviours of the blighted Jaidbynriew (people of the Khasi nation) and that their actions would have caused a salutary effect on a society and polity that had lost its moorings. But this misguided nationalist frenzy must be tested against the actions of the outfit and whether it had a moral locus to begin with. Can crime counter crime? No way; and those who believe so are courting danger for Frankensteins can only destroy, not build.

As always there will be many who will raise the question: Why rake up the past? Let the past be buried in the whirlpool of time. Let me remind such people that it’s impossible to ride into the future without learning lessons from the past. When the past is suppressed memory becomes explosive for those who have not found closure from the horrors inflicted by the HNLC. But when the past is cultivated at the expense of the present, that memory becomes a blind alley. However it’s also a fact that when the past overwhelms as it tends to do with our societies then victims can turn oppressors. None of these case scenarios is good for us. We cannot delete the past from our memory banks but we can move on after imbibing lessons and then deal with the present so that we are equipped for the future.

Many who have read Cherister Thangkhiew’s interview would have noticed that he used the word “retire” from the HNLC.  I have never heard of a retired militant. The ULFA’s elderly Paresh Baruah continues to remain in exile in Myanmar. He has not lost his fire power and is still recruiting younger cadres. That’s some ideology the guy has! What is the ideology of the HNLC and why was it not sustainable? There is a problem when you have to craft out an ideology as an excuse for extortion. And that was exactly what the HNLC was – a group that had got comfortable with extortion but which had no vision or trajectory along which to take the society. Thangkhiew’s answers were pedantic and lacked depth. But what was interesting was his confession of having seven children. So Thangkhiew must have had free access into and out of the Bangladesh where the HNLC is camped to come home to his wife or she had an equally easy access to meet him where he was stationed. This is a quiz that Meghalaya Police have to answer for they actually have a lot of answers should they spill the beans.

The other thing that bothers many who stood with stoic steadfastness against the violence and extortion of the time, is the offer to bring more HNLC cadres over ground. Normally governments don’t talk to militants unless they are forced to. And that coercion happens when militants have fire power and can hold governments to ransom through their age old tactics of blackmail. And how? By effecting collateral damage through use of soft targets. The HNLC is not in that position today. Governments don’t talk to a group that enjoys no legitimacy and is not a potent force. So why is the MDA government falling over itself to placate this group? Government cannot adopt a surreptitious plan of action vis-a-vis how it tackles militancy. It has to have a clear, transparent roadmap which the public should know of.  After all the militants will have to retrain themselves to live in civil society without their guns! Having said that, I want to ask Dr Mukul Sangma who is today raising many uncomfortable questions before the MDA about their not having a policy to tackle militancy, if his MUA Government had one? What was the policy adopted or adapted vis-a-vis the ANVC or the GNLA? Did he share it with the public or was it a hush-hush affair? It’s easy to raise a million queries when in the Opposition and to ride roughshod over due procedures while in the Government. And the questions raised today by the Opposition Congress have reached the point of belligerence. It’s like the Khasi saying, ‘wohkjat’ which means sticking out a leg to trip someone so they fall and disgrace themselves. Clearly, nitpicking is not the remit of the Opposition but putting the Government on notice for its acts of omission and commission is, and there is a difference between the two.

At this juncture I want to ask both Mukul Sangma and Conrad Sangma if they agree that militants be given general amnesty? Why should they not pay for their crimes? Is killing and extortion not a crime? And I am aghast that surrendered militants should now be guarded by the State. Worse, is that they enter politics and muddy up the already murky space. If the two Sangmas agree that crimes committed by militants should be watered down then it won’t be long before some other adventurous group picks up guns, dons fatigues and repeats the journey. After all, if crime pays then who cares for the law?

Tailpiece: These days the daily mudslinging between the Congress and the MDA has created a weary cynicism among the public. And then our own penchant for change is royally betrayed even as one set of politicians replace another, with all of them proving to be gluttons of privilege. This predilection for privilege seems to arise out of our own pygmy-sized self worth. Otherwise why pursue the good life when the constituents wallow in poverty, illiteracy and the absence of basic amenities such as health care? Truly, the more things change the more they resemble the past.

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