Meghalaya: The Trouble with Peace

Last Updated: Tue, May 07, 2013 07:04 hrs

The flawed tripartite Cease-fire Agreement-(CFA) signed with the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) on July 23, 2004, resulted in a split in the outfit.

This was 'exposed' only in March 2012, with the surfacing of the 'Breakaway faction', ANVC-B. This latter formation has been split further, resulting in the formation of another extremist group, the United A'chik Liberation Army (UALA) in February 2013. The ANVC-B claimed in April, 2012 that their group was deliberately left out and not brought under the CFA by ANVC leaders, even as Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, on April 3, 2012, admitted: "There were deficiencies and the ceasefire process was not done properly. It came to the notice of the Government last year (2011) that there is still an armed group which did not come overground." The ANVC had also faced disgrace when Sohan D. Shira, the then-leader of ANVC, formed the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) towards the end of 2009, after he had surrendered as a member of ANVC in 2007.

UALA was formed when Norrok X. Momin, the then 'action commander' of ANVC-B, whose real name is Singbirth N. Marak, deserted from the outfit after he was accused of leading the attack on Williamnagar Jail in the East Garo Hills District, in which two jail officials - assistant Jailer Neil Warjri and Warder Sarai Singh Thabah - were dragged out and shot dead on February 2, 2013. The ANVC-B denied its involvement in the attack, though sources had pointed out that its 'chairman' Rimpu Barnard N. Marak had conceded that Norok had led the attack without his sanction. Norok had been released on bail in January 2013, after he had been arrested in connection with the attack on Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) working president, Deborah C. Marak, in November, 2012. Intelligence reports indicate that the UALA has a sizeable number of AK rifles, small arms and hand grenades, which the group took away from ANVC-B camps before deserting the parent outfit.

On January 5, 2013, the Union and Meghalaya State Government had signed a draft agreement with both ANVC and ANVC-B for the enhancement of powers of the existing Garo Hills Autonomous District Council (GHADC). The GHADC has been in existence since 1952, under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. Commenting on the infirmities of the draft peace pact, an official source observed that the defect lay in the fact that no deadline was given to ANVC-B leaders to deposit their arms with the Police or keep them in joint custody, as was done in the case of ANVC. The hurriedly drafted peace pact with ANVC-B, just prior to the Assembly Elections on February 23, 2013, without securing the surrender of weapons, had evoked criticism from the opposition National People's Party (NPP), which dismissed the pact as an election stunt. The Government wanted to bring both the groups under the peace pact for a final settlement, but had failed to ensure a ceasefire with ANVC-B.

The newly floated UALA headed by its 'commander-in-chief' Norrok X. Momin, on April 16, 2013, accused the ANVC-B leadership headed by Rimpu Barnard N. Marak (earlier known as Torik Jangning Marak, former 'spokesperson' of ANVC) and 'commander-in-chief' Mukost Marak, of aligning with the Rabha Hasong leadership in Assam to merge the Garo inhabited areas in Assam into the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council (RHAC), 'against the wishes of the people'. In a strongly worded statement, Momin declared, "The ANVC-B chairman (Rimpu) and commander-in-chief (Mukost) have signed up to merge the Garo areas with the Rabha Hasong for which they have been assured of Rs. 5 crore (50 million) as reward. It is because of their attempt to sell the rights of the Garos living in Assam that we have formed the UALA to oppose them... The ANVC-B leadership has betrayed the Garos of Assam and it is because of this that a large group of cadres along with me has abandoned the organization to start our very own called UALA to fight for the cause of the Garos living in Assam." ANVC-B had, in April 2012, asserted that the group would fight for a 'greater Garoland' [including all the three Districts of the Garo Hills - East Garo Hills, West Garo Hills and South Garo Hills - and Garo-dominated areas of West Khasi Hills, in Meghalaya, as well as Goalpara and Kamrup Districts in Assam] and would negotiate a separate truce with the Government, and not go along with ANVC. 'Greater Garoland' was the original demand of its parent group, ANVC as well. However, this demand was scaled down to the establishment of a Garo Autonomous Council (GAC) after the CFA, a provision that has been continuously delayed, as the Government now argues that the State already has the GHADC, which is a similar body.

RHAC areas spread over the troubled Goalpara and Kamrup (Rural) Districts of Assam. The Garo community in Assam, together with other tribes and communities, including the Bodos, Nepalis and Muslims, have refused to be a part of the RHAC, resulting in widespread ethnic clashes in February 2013, during the third and final phase of Panchayat (village Self-Governing body) elections in the RHAC areas in Assam, which claimed at least 20 lives. The Rabha Hasong Joint Movement Committee (RHJMC), an umbrella organisation of 34 Rabha groups, opposed the polls on the grounds that RHAC elections should have been completed before the Panchayat elections. RHAC elections were to be organized for the first time since the Accord of 1995. Assam's Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi had, on February 13, 2013, also described the 1995 Rabha Hasong Accord as "faulty", while his Press adviser, Bharat Chandra Narah, on February 14, claimed it was "unconstitutional", while confessing to the State's inability to exclude RHAC areas from the Panchayat Act.

The ANVC-B leadership, however, insisted that a "conspiracy" was being hatched by Muslim militant groups to form a Garo outfit to take on the ANVC-B. ANVC-B 'chairman' Rimpu Marak, referring to the draft agreement of January 5, 2013, contended, "The UALA was formed by people closely associated with Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and probably Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJi) and were kept under control from rising until we signed the peace agreement," and further, "Regardless of Norrok's actions against the ANVC-B, it had never abandoned him and provided him protection. However, Norrok has disregarded it and because of him three members of the outfit were recently shot dead at Dobu." On March 9, three ANVC-B cadre were killed in an alleged encounter between a Meghalaya Police team and the rebels, at Dobu Chitingbang village of East Garo Hills District.

The ANVC-B further alleged that a nexus existed between the UALA, All India Garo Union (AIGU) and the Garo National Union (GNU), not allowing the RHAC to function through proper elections. In a statement issued on April 19, 2013, ANVC-B chairman Rimpu Marak observed, "UALA support to Garo National Union and All India Garo Union of Assam against the autonomous council election needs to be closely examined." The ANVC-B also made it clear that the outfit would not oppose the RHAC election. RHAC elections, which were scheduled for April 30, 2013, have been delayed. A meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee, in which representatives of Rabha and non-Rabha organizations had taken part, presided over by State Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation Minister, Prithvi Majhi, was held at Guwahati on April 24, 2013. After the meeting, Majhi stated, "There are some problems due to which the RHAC polls cannot be conducted soon. More discussions are needed with Rabha and non-Rabha organizations. Hence the polls will be delayed."

Prospects of a stable peace with the ANVC factions are undermined further by contrary claims from different authorities. On April 8, 2013, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma stated in the Assembly that the peace pact with ANVC and ANVC-B was at an 'advanced stage'. However, Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), Joint Secretary Shambhu Singh, asserted, on April 13, 2013, that the peace process would take 'more time': "The signing of final peace pact with the ANVC militants is likely to take some more time with the Centre still processing the matter."

Meanwhile, on April 11, 2013, ANVC-B disclosed that the outfit was trying to bring Norok back into the outfit to enable his participation in the peace process. Rimpu Marak noted, "Norok is still a part of the ANVC-B and we are trying to get him back as we are in the verge of a settlement and the last thing we would want is another splinter group." Rimpu Marak also asserted that UALA was an Assam-based outfit, conceptualized after the Garo-Rabha conflict. In January 2011, clashes broke out between the Rabhas and the Garos along the Assam-Meghalaya border, resulting in the death of 12 persons and displacement of an estimated 50,000 civilians.

ANVC-B had accused ANVC of being indifferent to GNLA attacks on its cadres. In first incident of its kind in the Garo Hills, a clash between the GNLA and the ANVC-B occurred near Simsang River, bordering West Khasi Hills and South Garo Hills District on December 20, 2012, resulting in the death of one GNLA militant and injuries to another two.

Worse, the growing nexus between Mehalaya's GNLA and the Anti-Talk Faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom [(ULFA-ATF) in Assam [now renamed ULFA-Independent, after its central executive committee meeting between April 2 and 5, 2013] is another rising threat to peace. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of six GNLA militants have been killed so far in Assam alone in 2013. Meghalaya Home Minister Roshan Warjri, on April 17, 2013, observed that the GNLA, with support from Assam-based militant groups, had become a "potent force, comprising a large number of cadres, including active overground workers, adequate firepower, organizational capacity and command leadership." She noted that the outfit, which was active all over Garo Hills, in certain areas of West Khasi Hills and in South West Khasi Hills, was a significant cause for concern.

An April 30, 2013, report indicates that the Government wants the GNLA to first eschew violence before initiating talks with the group. The GNLA recently made an offer of talks, but asserted that it would not surrender. In response, the State's a Home Department insisted that talks with the Government would be possible only if the GNLA ends violence. An official stated, "The militant group has to first abjure the path of violence and extortion, then only we will be able to talk to them."

Meghalaya has already recorded 16 fatalities in 2013 [till May 5, 2013] including five civilians. Three civilians fatalities involved GNLA, one ANVC-B, and one was 'unspecified'. Two Security Force personnel and nine militants (six GNLA and three ANVC-B) have also been killed. Total fatalities recorded by SATP numbered 20, 29 and 48, in 2010, 2011 and 2012, respectively. The rising graph of violence is substantially the result of continuous mishandling of a complex situation by state agencies, and the formation of a new Garo militant group can only add to the problems. It is useful to recall that Meghalaya's security scenario started deteriorating with the formation of GNLA at the end of 2009. The repeated inking of flawed and hastily drafted peace agreements, the divergent agendas of a multiplicity of ethnic groups, and inordinate delays in the implementation of agreements reached with Government, threaten further deterioration, as new actors engage in the simmering conflict.

(The writer Veronica Khangchian is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)

(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)

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