By Soumik Dutta
Think of a state where insurgent outfits run a parallel government, aided and abetted by local politicians cutting across party lines. Sounds incredible, but welcome to Meghalaya, a hill state in India’s Northeast which shares porous international borders with Bangladesh.
When Scottish missionaries first entered northeastern India, the lush meadows and plateaus of Meghalaya reminded them of home, and they nicknamed the state the “Scotland of the East.”
Until 2010, Meghalaya was a relatively peaceful corner of India’s restive Northeast. But a growing insurgency movement has shattered that calm, as a patchwork of local rebel groups each vies for independence for its piece of Meghalaya, particularly the Garo hills area of the state.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs has called the breakdown of law and order in Garo Hills the “worst” in the country’s Northeast. Citizen’s groups have demanded martial law, which would put an end to the seven years of elected government in the Garo Hills.
The instability in Meghalaya threatens to spill over the state’s 275-mile (443-km) porous border with Bangladesh. Terrorist groups regularly use Bangladesh as the transit point for arms for all of the northeastern Indian states. When Indian security forces turn up the heat against insurgent outfits, the insurgents take shelter in Bangladesh.
While government forces scramble to contain the rebel factions, however, top state officials are turning to them for political ends, in what law enforcement authorities, citizen’s groups and others describe as a symbiotic, if perilous, relationship. An explosive email, put forth by an opposition figure and published in the local press, appeared to implicate Meghalaya’s Chief Minister, Dr. Mukul Sangma, in the use of militants to intimidate voters and silence critics.
Analysts say that politicians use insurgents to terrorize people and control their votes. They pay insurgents to protect or run business ventures designed to cash in on development projects funded by the central government, such as road construction and social welfare schemes for rural residents. Contractors and distributors handpicked for public works projects act as fronts for terrorist outlets. Insurgent-controlled businesses collect income from coal mines in the Garo Hills.
Officials also enlist militants to protect them from opposition political factions and rival terrorist groups. In return, insurgents reap hundreds of thousands of dollars that they then spend on weapons, terrorist acts and sustaining their cadres, says Purno Agitok Sangma, a former speaker of the Lok Sabha of the Indian Parliament, who now represents the Tura Lok Sabha constituency in the Meghalaya state parliament.
The association gives insurgents the latitude to traffic in illicit arms and drugs. “Insurgents are often protected from anti-insurgency operations, in many instances alerted in advance of sweeps by security forces or participating in fake encounters stage-managed by the ruling politicians,” said a professor of political science at Assam University, whose asked not to identified, citing fear of retribution by terrorist groups and local politicians.
“Militancy in the Garo Hills is state sponsored,” said Purno Sangma, who leads the state’s Nationalist People’s Party (NPP). “There is a strong militant-politician nexus, which is the root of the problem.” He called for an investigation by national authorities.
Meghalaya Home Minister Roshan Warjri denied that a politician-terrorist nexus exists in the state. “There is no need for a probe unless there is concrete evidence,” she said. Calling the allegations vague, she added, “The government is concerned about the issue and is discussing it. We need to have tangible evidence to begin such an inquiry.”
A deal struck with insurgents by the new federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014 offers some hope that the violence will abate. The New Delhi government signed tripartite agreements with two of the insurgent groups, the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and the ANVC-B (Breakaway faction), and the Meghalaya government to formally disband the two outfits. So far, the agreement is still in place, and the government is negotiating with the rebels over rehabilitation and economic aid in exchange for disbanding.
“A Haunted Place”
Most of the people in Meghalaya are ethnic Khasis, Garos or Jaintias. The state is rich in coal. In the southwest corner of the state sits the Cherrapunjee rain forests, once considered the world’s wettest place in terms of annual rainfall, but now facing water shortages and deforestation.
The Garo Hills, home to the dominant Garo tribe and many other ethnic groups, have become the hub of terrorist and separatist movement in Meghalaya. The local economy is built on agriculture, handloom textiles and coal mining, but the region has failed to prosper in great part because of the insurgency and its links to local officials and business interests.
In the last five years, at least one hundred criminal cases have been attributed to militant activity in the Garo Hills, including killings of civilians or security forces through bombings and shoot-outs. Kidnapping of businessmen and politicians for ransom by terrorists also occurs regularly in the area, according to police records available and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
“My constituency is like a haunted place,” said Saleng Sangma, an independent legislator who represents Gambegre constituency under West Garo Hills. “Everyone might want to leave the Garo Hills, but, unfortunately, where to go?”
In the boldest effort so far to combat cooperation between local politicians and insurgents, Meghalaya police in November filed charges against the state Social Welfare Minister Deborah C. Marak for “criminal conspiracy” with an armed insurgent group to win a state assembly election in February 2013.
According to charging documents, Marak allegedly struck a deal with members of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), among the most brutal groups operating in the western part of Meghalaya. The GNLA allegedly intimidated voters into casting ballots for Marak. In return, Marak is accused of promising to support their call for a separate state. Over 100 people, including security personnel, have been killed and more than 150 people abducted for ransom by GNLA rebels in the last three years.
The investigation grew out of a complaint by the Independent candidate from Williamangar constituency, Jonathon N. Sangma, who lost the 2013 election to her, said the Superintendent of Police Davis N.R. Marak (not related to the accused). Jonathan Sangma alleged that Deborah Marak had used GNLA militants to intimidate villagers into voting against him.
A week before the election, posters were pasted in Williamnagar that said, “Whoever votes [for] Jonathan, this is gun and this is bullet,” with pictures of firearms and ammunition. During the investigation, police traced the posters to Deborah Marak, former Congress Party leader Tennydard Marak and certain GNLA leaders, Superintendent Marak said.
The social welfare minister, who has won four previous elections, denied the allegations. “I have not used any militant outfit to seek votes and if my supporters had at all used the help of militants, I cannot be blamed,” Deborah Marak said.
Insurgency-related fatalities in the Garo Hills increased 63 percent from 2012 to 2014, to 76 deaths in 2014, up from 48 in 2012, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP-www.satp.org), a research organization that tracks political violence throughout the region. The state government estimates the combined strength of all the insurgent groups operating in Meghalaya to be about 500 people, many of them minors from impoverished villages.
Striking Deals Instead of Blows
Politicians with business interests and rebels control development efforts financed by the state and the national government of India to help the area’s villages. Programs such as the public distribution system of food grains and temporary minimum wage jobs for the poor are run by local politicians and bureaucrats. They, in turn, route the programs and the money for them through businesses that are linked to terrorist groups, which assist the politicians with their election aims.
“In fact, all government contracts in terrorism-affected areas in the Northeast are completely monopolized by contractors who are a front for, or work under, the “protection” of extremist groups,” said a retired joint secretary in the Home Department of Manipur, who served on a government task force to curb terrorism in Manipur. The official declined to be identified, citing fear of retaliation by insurgents and politicians. “This is supplemented systematically by a well-organized network of civil servants and members of the political executive.”
For example, Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) “commander-in-chief” Sohan D. Shira had ordered the closure of all dried fish markets in Williamnagar town in East Garo Hills District for non-payment of protection money the group had demanded. GNLA demanded INR 300,000 ($5,574) from each of the dried fish sellers. To earn this amount, it would take the average fish seller close to a year. Other business owners, too, have received extortion notes but have refrained from giving any information to the police for fear of retribution from GNLA, said an analyst at the South Asia Terrorism Portal, who declined to be named due to security concerns.
Politicians who don’t fall in line run the risk of retaliation at the hands of militants, said Saleng Sangma. Upon his election as parliamentary secretary in May 2011, Saleng Sangma was associated with a dissident group from the Indian National Congress party that opposed Meghalaya’s chief minister, Dr. Mukul Sangma (no relation).
Before long, Saleng Sangma started to receive threatening text messages on his cell phone from an unknown number. The messages were signed by the militant group, A’chik National Voluntary Council (ANVC), and they demanded that he support the minister.
If he did not, the message said, he would be barred from entering Garo Hills, according to images and transcripts of the messages published in local media. Other politicians reportedly received similar texts.
Saleng Sangma had long assumed there were politicians who forged relationships with the militants. Still, he was shocked to see the text message from rebels demanding he support the chief minister, he said. Saleng Sangma filed a complaint with police, who are investigating his case.
Despite the warning, Saleng Sangma refused to back the chief minister, Mukul Sangma. Two weeks after the demands and threats began, Saleng Sangma was kidnapped by unidentified militants. He was released unharmed two days later.
Later, when he was the minister in charge of rural development and cooperatives in 2012, he narrowly escaped an attempt on his life by unidentified insurgents who had planted 22 pounds (10 kg), of RDX explosives in his house.
In June, Saleng Sangma asked India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh to order an official investigation into the ties between politicians and insurgents in Garo Hills. His political rival, Chief Minister Mukul Sangma said in press releases that he, too, believes an insurgent-politician nexus exists.
Members of the insurgency have also accused Meghalaya’s top politicians of recruiting them to further their political aims, and many allegations have centered on Chief Minister Mukul Sangma.
In June, Meghalaya’s opposition National Peoples’ Party (NPP) demanded a probe by federal investigators into an alleged nexus between Chief Minister Sangma and the breakaway faction of the militant ANVC, known as ANVC-B. A state leader of the National People’s Party presented an email written to Chief Minister Sangma by ANVC-B’s Political Secretary Ajaju R. Marak, which appeared to illustrate an unholy alliance between the now-disbanded rebels and the chief minister.
“The very reason you rose to become Chief Minister from Deputy Chief Minister is thanks to us,” said the letter, which was published in the Economic Times of Guwahati . “We did our part to bring you to power, but did you do yours? You broke all commitments ….We lost many of our cadres while you acquired wealth, power and chair, and now you bite the hand that made you who you are today,” the rebel group wrote.
Ajaju Marak had told local media six months earlier that Chief Minister Sangma used his militant group to aid in his campaigns. The top leadership of his insurgent group strategically attacked and abducted opposition candidates to ensure the victory of the chief minister’s party in the 2013 election, he said.
“On January 11, 2014, the day after Ajaju Marak made his allegations, the ANVC-B camp at Daren Apal village in Garo Hills where he was based was raided,” said NPP leader and Meghalaya Assembly member James Sangma. “Marak was subsequently killed in the encounter. His party comrades and next of kin were not allowed to identify his body, which was given an anonymous burial.”
The police have declined to comment on Ajaju Marak’s death and James Sangma’s claims.
Top photo: Displaced Indian villagers took shelter at a relief camp in Kukurkata on the border of the north-eastern states of Assam and Meghalaya, some 150kms from Guwahati, in 2011. At least ten people had been killed and up to 40,000 left homeless in an upsurge of clashes between two rival ethnic groups in India’s northeast, officials said at the time. The violence between the Rabha and Garo tribes who live along the border between India’s Assam and Meghalaya states had escalated, with Garos demanding autonomous local government council and the Rabhas vehemently opposing it. AFP/Getty Images/STRDEL.