On September 14, 2012, a senior militant leader ('area commander' of the West Khasi Hills District) of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) was shot dead in an encounter with Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) commandos of Williamnagar and Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) units of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), deep in the jungles of Durama Hills (East Garo Hills).
The militant leader, identified as Tusol T. Sangma alias Mikjim, was inside the main camp, which was being used as the headquarters of GNLA's 'commander-in-chief' Sohan D. Shira, when the commandos attacked at around 11 am, resulting in a long gun battle over several hours. A huge cache of arms, including one Heckle-Koch (HK) rifle with magazine, AK magazines, grenades, pistols and 6 wireless sets, were recovered from the camp area. Williamnagar Police are now looking for the body of another GNLA militant, identified as Pedil, who is believed to have been hit during the attack on the camp. Police sources suspect that the militant, who was keeping guard on the camp and was injured during the encounter, was possibly dead.
Earlier, in a gun battle on April 5, 2012, Security Forces (SFs) killed four GNLA militants, who were involved in setting ablaze 14 coal-laden trucks on March 31, 2012, at Mongpangro near Keragalram village near Mendipathar in East Garo Hills.
SFs, however, have had only a few successes against the GNLA. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, SFs have, so far, only managed to eliminate 10 militants in Meghalaya this year, of which seven belonged to GNLA, out of a total of 33 fatalities, including 21 civilians and two SFs, (data till September 16, 2012).
Otherwise peaceful, Meghalaya is now continuously plagued by the activities of GNLA since its formation. In late 2009, Champion R. Sangma, the group's 'chairman', floated the GNLA, along with former A'chik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) leader Sohan D. Shira, the present 'commander-in-chief'. The GNLA is purportedly fighting for a ´sovereign Garoland´ in the Western areas of Meghalaya, and operates in the four districts of Garo Hills Districts, in the Western part of Meghalaya, and also the coal-rich borders of West Khasi Hills bordering South Garo Hills. The State has a total of eight Districts
Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, on August 15, 2012, stated that GNLA's activities continued to be a cause of serious concern. Even after the arrest of GNLA 'chairman' Champion Sangma on July 30, 2012, there has been no slowdown in their criminal activities. The GNLA has been involved in a number of incidents, including killings, encounters with SFs, abduction and extortion.
In the latest of a series of such incidents, on August 7, 2012, a group of four heavily armed GNLA cadres shot dead a businessman, identified as Nitesh Shah, at point blank range in the North Garo Hills District, in retaliation for his non-compliance to an extortion demand.
Earlier, on July 19, 2012, GNLA militants killed a school teacher, Momin, in Resubelpara in East Garo Hills District, on the grounds of his close links with Government authorities. Sources indicate that Momin was also a successful rubber plantation owner, and was envied by many, including GNLA militants, who wanted a portion of the revenues from the plantation.
On July 20, 2012, GNLA militants executed two civilians, including a school teacher, at Rongrong village in East Garo Hills District, and dumped their bodies on the village road. Both the victims had their hands tied and were tortured before they were killed. They also left behind a memory card which contained a graphic video of their torture. They had been abducted by the militants a few days before the murder. The militants accused the two of extorting money in GNLA's name.
GNLA also killed two civilians, a surrendered cadre of the outfit, identified as Sonaram Sangma, in South Garo Hills, on June 15, 2012, and a secretary of the Village Defence Party (VDP), Sengkan K. Sangma, alleging that he was a Police informer, in East Garo Hills, on June 14, 2012.
The GNLA also killed a CRPF Sub-inspector and injured a Constable in East Garo Hills, even as the SFs neutralized a rebel camp in the Durama Hills range, on July 24, 2012.
The GNLA was also involved in at least seven of 13 recorded incidents of abduction in the State. In the most recent case, the son of a coal exporter to Bangladesh, identified as Konu Mahanta, was abducted by eight armed GNLA militants on August 28, 2012, from the Chokpot area in South Garo Hills. The GNLA had earlier slapped extortion demands, ranging from INR 500,000 to INR 10 million, on petrol pump owners, coal dealers and businessmen.
The SFs, meanwhile, have managed to arrest at least 40 GNLA cadres, including some leaders, in 2012. The most significant of these were:
August 9: SFs arrested five GNLA militants while they were extorting money from a person at Resubelpara in North Garo Hills District. One of the arrested was the main accused in the July 19 killing of the school teacher Momin.
July 30: SFs arrested GNLA 'chairman' Champion R. Sangma from the Umkrem-Pyrdiwah area in the East Khasi Hills District, on the Indo-Bangladesh border, after he was 'pushed back' by Bangladesh.
June 19: Police arrested the chief arms procurer of the GNLA, Jackuish A. Sangma from Tura, District headquarters of West Garo Hills, when he was handing out an extortion note to a businessman. A foreign-made revolver and six rounds of live ammunition, four GNLA extortion notes, and seals were seized from Jackuish's possession. Jackuish had been under a Police scanner for several months since his release on bail from the Shillong District jail, where he was under detention for his involvement in the procurement of arms and ammunition for the GNLA. The Police said Jackuish had procured arms and ammunition from suppliers based in Dimapur in Nagaland, bordering Assam. Jackuish had been arrested on November 23, 2011.
June 2: SFs arrested four GNLA militants, including Pintu Marak, brother-in-law of GNLA ´commander-in-chief´ Sohan D. Shira, and two Nagaland-based arms smugglers from the Guwahati (Assam) city´s Tetelia area. A huge consignment of arms and ammunition, including one AK 74 assault rifle, one Berretta .32 pistol, 25 shells, 400 rounds of AK 74 ammunition, 500 rounds of 9 mm pistol ammunition, and 20 rounds of ammunition of the .32 Berretta pistol, was seized from them. The militants confessed that the consignment was procured from Myanmar and was being taken to Garo Hills through Nagaland and Assam. The weapons were concealed in secret chambers built inside the vehicle in which they were travelling.
Of 10 militants who surrendered in Meghalaya this year, six belong to GNLA.
A June 4, 2012, report stated that GNLA had emerged as one of the biggest procurers of arms in Meghalaya, using Guwahati city as their main transit route. The outfit, which has created a nexus with the Anti-Talks Faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-ATF) in the recent past, is now in close contact with many Nagaland-and Manipur-based militant outfits, mainly the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Peoples´ Liberation Army (PLA), as well as gunrunners from Myanmar. The outfit has also forged an alliance with the Bangladesh-based rebel A'chik Special Dragon Party.
Police sources state that the ULFA-ATF has been providing help to the GNLA for its own benefits. Senior member of ULFA-ATF, Drishti Rajkhowa, is now believed to be hiding with the GNLA in the Garo Hills jungles. Rajkhowa also visits Bangladesh from time to time, taking advantage of the porous international border. Sources indicate that ULFA-ATF is helping GNLA maintain an open corridor open for movement into hideouts in Bangladesh. ULFA-ATF had earlier extended help to the ANVC, but after that outfit came over ground in 2004, ULFA-ATF started supporting GNLA.
SF sources also indicate that ULFA leaders, hiding in shelters provided by GNLA in Garo Hills, have been coordinating the outfit's extortion operations in Assam's western Districts, targeting officials of the Rural Development Department posted in blocks, as well as officials from the Transport, Food and Civil Supplies Departments. ULFA uses linkmen to collect money from extortion targets, who are contacted over phone by ULFA leaders based in the Garo Hills.
Assam Police is now reportedly looking for much better coordination with Meghalaya Police, to launch an effective assault on the ULFA-GNLA network in the Garo Hills area, even as a senior Assam Police official in the rank of Additional Director General has been put in charge of coordination of operations against the ULFA in the western Assam Districts of Goalpara and Dhubri, bordering the Garo Hills area in Meghalaya.
The Meghalaya Police has a total strength of 10,064 personnel, yielding a strong Police-population ratio of 391 per 100,000. The Assam Police has a total strength of 51,729 personnel, with a police-population ratio of 169 per 100,000.
Significantly, on July 23, 2012, SFs neutralized a joint GNLA-ULFA training camp in the East Garo Hills region, at Memanang in the foothills of Durama, after a fierce gun battle between the rebels and a joint team of Meghalaya´s SWAT and CoBRA commandos. The Durama Hills range is a vast, densely forested area which has been used by GNLA and ULFA rebels as a safe haven. Sohan D. Shira, chief of the GNLA´s military wing, controls his group from Durama.
Earlier developments in Bangladesh had significantly impacted the activities of the militant groups. According to a September 14, 2012 report, India's Border Security Force (BSF) and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) have now shifted focus to the Sherpur District in Bangladesh to neutralize remaining GNLA and ULFA cadres who are holing up in the area. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) of Bangladesh is also engaged in search operations, a senior BSF official indicated. The BSF had handed over photos of the cadres and information on certain areas of Sherpur where the GNLA-ULFA cadres meet. According to the BSF officials, the 'deputy commander-in-chief' of ULFA, Drishti Rajkhowa, is married to a Garo woman residing at Sherpur, and she facilitates the gathering of both GNLA and ULFA cadres there. However, there are no full-fledged militant camps in Sherpur, and cadres hide out in thatched houses belonging to sympathizers. The border Forces of both India and Bangladesh are looking to clear Northeast militants from Bangladeshi soil after past operations yielded major successes, resulting in the arrest of top militant leaders, including the GNLA 'chairman' Champion Sangma and ULFA 'chairman' Arabinda Rajkhowa (2009), among others.
Despite the arrest of the GNLA 'chairman', it is business as usual for the outfit, with its 'commander-in-chief' taking control. Since Sohan is from the armed wing of the militant outfit, he has more control over matters related to the organisation, unlike Champion, who controlled only the political wing. At present Sohan controls nearly 200 GNLA cadres, including some overground workers.
The Government meanwhile has shown no interest in holding talks with the outfit on the demand of separate Garoland in western part of the State, despite an offer of talks by GNLA. An August 9 report indicated that the GNLA had announced its willingness to end its armed struggle if the Central Government was ready to accept its demand for creation of a separate State for the Garos, carved out of the present State of Meghalaya. Bikdot Nikjang Marak, 'political secretary' of GNLA, stated, "We will end all armed struggle if Delhi listens to our peoples' demand for a separate Garoland State under Article 3 of the Indian Constitution. We do not want a separate country but wish to remain within India." He said that Garos continue to live under the shadow of the Khasis who rule Meghalaya, and there was a long-standing demand by people of this part of the State for a separate identity. The arrested GNLA 'chairman' had also reportedly indicated that he was ready to initiate 'peace talks' with the Government.
Reiterating his stand of going all out against GNLA, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, on May 8, 2012, warned its cadres to lay down arms, even as he assured attractive packages for those who came forward to surrender. He made it clear that the Government had no intention of suspending ongoing operations against GNLA, and also said there was no question of holding dialogue with the GNLA, which was led by a person who is already a deserter. The Chief Minister argued that Sohan D. Shira, who was leading the GNLA after deserting the ANVC, had, on several occasions, cheated the Government. Shira deserted an ANVC designated camp on July 24, 2007. He surrendered before the then Chief Minister D.D. Lapang, on August 25, 2007. However, he quickly returned underground, teaming up with Champion R. Sangma, to form the GNLA towards the end of 2009.
With its rising activities and growing linkage with ULFA-ATF, collaborating in and outside the State as well as abroad, the GNLA continues to threaten peace in Meghalaya, despite operational successes against the group.
(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)