Is Government waiting for natural death of HNLC?

By Albert Thyrniang

Now and then The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) seeks public attention through IED attacks. The latest one is the IED blast at Khliehriat police reserve in East Jaintia Hills in the wee hours of Wednesday last. Thanks to the explosion that damaged the walls of the facility and injured a havildar the banned outfit has able been able put forth its points of view in the public domain. The face of the militant organisation, publicity secretary Sainkupar Nongtraw, justified the violent act as a ‘revenge’ against the police for allegedly torturing and killing its members in custody besides warning Star Cement against carrying out mining operations in Brishyrnot in the same district.
The 1993 founded armed outfit also demanded implementation of Inner Line Permit (ILP) besides setting its condition for peace talk even as it threatened another blast in a more strategic place to ‘create history in the state’. It is up to the government whether to take the HNLC seriously or not. By the look of it both the central and state government have been lackadaisical in their attitude. They have not positively responded to the calls of the outfit for peace parleys. They have delayed accepting repeated offers for negotiation from the outfit. The establishment appears to consider the once feared force in Khasi and Jaintia Hills in the 1990s and first few years of 2000 a spent force. The government at the centre and at the state seem to await the natural death of the 30 year old underground outfit that claims to fight for the ‘Khasi-Jaintia homeland.’
The Union and state government with all the intelligence at their command may not be any serious threat for taking the HNLC lightly but a callous attitude could give legitimacy to an outlawed group to pontificate people’s cause. Claiming responsibility for the attack the Bangladesh based group demanded implementation of Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the state sending a warning even to the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah for being ‘adamant’ on the issue. Bringing the offshoot of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act, 1873 into operation in Meghalaya has been the loudest demand of the whole state ever since CAB was converted to CAA by Parliament in 2019. The Meghalaya Legislative Assembly unanimously passed the resolution urging the Government of India to implement ILP in the whole state. Pressure groups were up in arms demanding ILP leading to the unprecedented resolution being adopted while pressure groups held vigil in the premise of the state library. In the meantime the Union Home Minister has been keeping the issue in the backburner, entertaining no discussion with the stakeholders and speaking neither for nor against the proposed law. When people are ignored through democratic means, the danger could be that extra constitutional groups could take advantage of the situation. In such a situation who is to be blamed? I have a clear answer in my mind. Do you?
Unresponsive governments could create space for militancy and anti-social elements. This alarm bell is clear from the fact that no pressure group has condemned the violent incident in East Jaintia Hills. The space has been yielded to ‘Rambos’. This is not the first time. No organisation has ever spoken against the militant group in earlier incidents as well. No one has dared to issue statements articulating that the demands may be valid but violence is not an unacceptable tool. If the trend continues it looks as if the loud pressure groups have outsourced their cause to the insurgents. The HNLC knows it can survive only through public support. For the record, no politician has condemned the vile act of intimidation a week ago. A silent acceptance seems to prevail and this could be dangerous.
The HNLC might have scored over the Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma and Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui. Both have rubbished intelligence failure that led to the blast. If there was no intelligence failure, the blast should not have occurred to begin with. Arrests might have been swift but the bomb had already gone off. The message is that if the HNLC can strike in a security facility it can plant bombs anywhere else. The security and safety of the people of the state could be at stake.
The HNLC has also countered the Chief Minister and the Home Minister arguing that the honourable ministers’ appeal to the outfit to shun violence before a peace deal is meaningless since the government has been ignoring their offers to come to the negotiating table. The Council is able to have an upper hand over the government stating they want an interlocutor appointed before any movement towards peace talk. They claim they have documented letters sent to the central and state governments to prove their intention but reciprocity has been not forth coming. Each time an offer was made, the state government would welcome it but followed up with little action. Just to jog our recent memory in December 2019 the separatists talked peace. In June and October last year too the rebels repeated the advances. The present Home Minister assured that he would take up the matter with the Centre but nothing came out of it. The government lacks strategy in dealing with the HNLC. A strategy is worked out only when something is important or urgent. If the HNLC is ignorable then naturally a strategic plan will be absent.
The government’s precondition is abnegating of violence for talks. But the irony is that the government does not take note of peaceful and democratic overtures. Let us assume a scenario wherein for ten years the HNLC does not involve in any violent activity but regularly appeals for peace talk. The government will probably pay no attention. Unfortunately, often the government responds only when disruptive activities take place.
The HNLC, a split group of the Achik Matgrik Liberation Army (AMLA) has been in decline since around 2005. Julius K Dorphang, the former chairman who surrendered in 2007 claimed in 2010 that only about 50 cadres are left in Bangladesh. In its wisdom and based on ground assessment the government may take this position and decide to snub the HNLC. The state may downplay the occasional blasts of the HNLC and the threat for more violence as a ploy of the outfit to stay in the news. However, no one wants to return to the violent past of killing, abduction, robbery, and extortion. If militancy revives in the state because of the government’s poor policy, who is responsible? If the central government can hold talks with the NSCN-IM whose cadres are in designated camps why not with the HNLC?
By the look of it the government responds only when hit hard or cornered. In 2018 the dreaded militant leader, Sohan D Shira was shot dead almost immediately after the NCP candidate Jonathone N Sangma was killed in an explosion. Before that brutal incident the GNLA’s ‘commander-in-Chief’ escaped police action for a long time in spite of repeated acts of violence. The MDA government is presently not under the heat of ILP because of COVID-19 restrictions. It should have also used the time to get some clarity on the vexed issue from the Centre. Months have passed but the MDA leaders have not succeeded in convincing Amit Shah to lend his ears to Meghalaya. The West Bengal and Assam elections were given as excuses for the delay tactics. The government might have played tricks by inviting the Union Home Minister to the state on a couple of occasions giving hope to the pro-ILP groups that they could meet him. The lockdowns have come as a blessing to buy time. But once the coronavirus situation subsides the government may have to face a potential pent-up anger from the pro-ILP groups and then be forced to take a hasty decision that may not be in the best interests of the state.
The Khliehriat attack was ‘heard’ in Garo Hills with NCP chief Saleng Sangma urging the state government to sustain peace in the once militancy-ravaged region. Forced to hail the initiatives of the former Chief Minister, Mukul Sangma the NCP leader mentioned a ‘few lacunae and loopholes’ which the present government must address. The lone NCP legislator suggests the government is aware of the ‘lacunae and loopholes.’ It could be non-implementation of the points of agreement with surrendered militants. It could be the inability to comprehend the complexity of militancy. It could be the lack of a considered policy as in the case with the HNLC. The government is unsure whether to accept or reject the insurgents’ proposition for peace dialogues. The fallout could be costly.
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