Turmoil spreads in Shillong and Meghalaya once immersed in insurgent battles are seeing the rumblings of conflicts rise again.
There was mayhem in Shillong on Sunday over last week’s death of a former rebel leader, leading to the declaration of a two-day curfew. The eruption followed the funeral of Cherishstarfield Thangkhiew, who was shot last Thursday during a police raid at his residence.
Hundreds of people, in black clothes and carrying black flags, took part in the funeral procession on Sunday, which later sparked violence. As the agitation spread, some persons snatched police personnel’s service weapons and allegedly carried out arson attacks in the state capital. A video of a group of masked people torching police vehicles has been shared since the violence. Some of the persons involved were reportedly seen carrying the cops’ weapons even as they drove the automobiles around the city. The guilty are still missing.
Meghalaya Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui resigned on Sunday amid violence in Shillong over the police shooting of a former militant. He sent forth a letter to Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, and Rymbui expressed his shock and proposed a judicial enquiry be conducted into the death of Cheristerfield Thangkhiew.
“I would like to request you to relieve the Home [Police] Department from me with immediate effect. This will facilitate a free and fair inquiry taken by the government to bring out the truth about the incident. I propose a judicial inquiry be conducted,” he said.
Rymbui stated that his party, United Democratic Party (UDP) also backed the decision to step down.
“I have put forth my papers, after due consultation with my party leadership, to allow a free and fair probe into the killing of Thangkhiew,” he said.
The United Democratic Party (UDP), a coalition partner of Sangma’s NPP in the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government, has also summoned a judicial investigation into the incident, which evoked violent protests.
Some youth barged inside a police outpost at Mawkynroh, Mawlai after vandalizing the gate, overpowered the policemen there, took away a Scorpio vehicle with weapons in it, and drove around the city in it.
The person in the front seat stood with a gun and showed it proudly. Having demonstrated their strength, the youth then took the vehicle to Jaiaw, not too far from Mawlai, the place where all the action is, and set the vehicle ablaze.
Meghalaya suspends cops who abandoned weapons during the Shillong violence. Meghalaya Chief Minister K Conrad Sangma did not define how many policemen were punished for deserting their arms yesterday.
Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma condemned the incident saying police personnel’s arms and weapons were as good as parts of their body.
“What happened was unacceptable, whether on the police personnel’s part or that of the individuals who had taken them. We are very firm on this and will take firm action on this,” Chief Minister Sangma said.
Mr Sangma asked all those involved to immediately return the arms and ammunition. He did not reveal how many policemen were suspended but said four personnel were involved, of whom one fled with his weapon and three left them behind.
Pointing out to the two bombs hurled at his residence, Chief Minister Sangma said such acts were “meaningless”.
“My appeal to all citizens of the state, especially those involved…this is not the way forward. I appeal to everyone that they must remain peaceful and resolve issues in a proper manner. Violence is not the way forward. We condemn it and will find who is responsible for it,” he said.
Meghalaya’s Turbulent History of Insurgency
Meghalaya had a frozen armed conflict between India and a number of separatist rebel groups which was taking place in the state of Meghalaya. The Insurgency in Meghalaya is part of the wider Insurgency in Northeast India and was fired by demands of the Khasi, Synteng and Garo people for a separate state.
The HNLC rose in India at that time. The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council is a militant organization operating in Meghalaya, India. It claims to represent the Khasi-Jaintia tribal people, and its aim is to free Meghalaya from the alleged domination of outsiders from the Indian mainland.
In this conflict, the state of Meghalaya was separated from the state of Assam in 1971, in order to satisfy the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo for a separate state. The decision was originally applauded as an example of successful national integration into the broader open Indian state.
This step, however, failed to check the rise of national consciousness among the local tribal populations. This later led to a direct confrontation between Indian nationalism and the newly created Garo and Khasi nationalism. An identical acceleration of nationalism in the other members of the Seven Sister States further complicated the situation, resulting in occasional clashes between fellow rebel groups.
The state wealth distribution system further fueled the rising separatist movements, as funding is practiced through per capita transfers, which largely benefits the leading ethnic group.
The first militant outfit to emerge in the region was the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), it was formed in 1992, aiming to protect the interests of Meghalaya’s indigenous population from the rise of non-tribal (“Dkhar”) immigration.
A conflict of interest soon led to a split of HALC into the Garo dominated Achik Matgrik Liberation Army (AMLA), and the joint Systeng-Khasi alliance of Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC). However AMLA passed into obscurity, while Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) took its place. The Garo – Khasi drift persisted as HNLC had set up the goal of turning Meghalaya into an exclusively Khasi region, ANVC on the other hand sought out the creation of an independent state in the Garo Hills. A small group of Jaintia region who is being claimed a separate state in the name of historical kingdom of “Jaintia Rajya”.
A number of non Meghalayan separatist groups have also operated in the region, including the United Liberation Front of Assam and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland among others.
After Mass surrender and disbandment of ULFA and NDFB, insurgency in Meghalaya had seemed to have been over where most major Garo militants had also either been killed or have surrendered.
Killing Cheris in his Sleep Trrigged Rage
The recent brewing of stormy unrest in Shillong escalated with shooting Cherishstarfield Thangkhiew, the longest-Serving Cadre of HNLC and general secretary until his surrender in October 2018. The Shillong Times sent two of their reporters to meet with Bah Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, on Thursday, 12 August.
The reporters went there and met with his family members but were told that Cheris was not at home. They managed to get his mobile number and sent it to a reporter who called up Cheris twice and also sent him a message that he needed to talk to him. He never replied to the calls or the message.
Later, the news went out that he shot in what is euphemistically termed as “police shooting in private defense” because Cheris came at them with a knife. The reporter was shell-shocked and it became a “very personal thing.”
On 13 July 2021, the HNLC triggered an IED blast at a Police Reserve in East Jaintia Hills. The outfit said this was just a demonstration that they can plants an IED any time, anywhere they chose to.
They were trying to pressurize the government for talks. The government, however, wanted them to first surrender with arms and ammunition, and only then would they talk to the outfit. Thus, the IED blasts were sent out as a message that they still have firepower.
On 10 August, this year the HNLC placed a low-intensity IED at a busy marketplace at Laitumkhrah. Fortunately, only two people were injured in the blast.
Following that blast and the public outrage, Meghalaya’s Home Minister gave a public statement that there was an intelligence failure. This speech might have triggered the police. In the early hours of Friday 13 August, a squad of police forces led by the SP of East Jaintia Hills, JS Dhanao went to Cheris’ home, broke into his bedroom, and claiming that he tried to lunge at the police with a knife they shot him dead.
From the accounts of his two sons who slept in the same room as their father, after Cheris was shot the police took him to the Civil Hospital at Shillong, where he was declared brought dead. Cheris was shot dead in his sleep in a cold-blooded killing which triggered outrage.
Meghalaya’s DGP claimed in a press conference after the killing of Cheris that the police had incontrovertible proof that Cheris was still involved with the HNLC and was giving them all kinds of inputs on IEDs etc. This claim is strange since Cheris was also unofficially a sort of interlocutor between the HNLC and the Government.
Whenever he was called for interrogation to the police station, he would diligently be present. Moreover, the 57-year-old Cheris was, according to his brother already suffering from chronic renal failure and had difficulty even climbing up the stairs to his house.
As soon as news of the death of Cheris spread across the city there was rage and all-round condemnation.
Since Cheris’ body was brought rather late in the evening of Friday, the family decided to bury him on Sunday, 15 August, since as per tradition the body of a deceased person has to be kept at home for at least one day for family and friends to pay their tributes.
Hundreds flocked to pay their last respects to “Bah Che” (Bah means brother in Khasi and is a commonly used to address an elder brother). Some pressure groups comprising the Hynniewtrep Youth Council and others appealed to the people, especially the young to come from across the Khasi-Jaintia Hills to converge at Mawlai Kynton Massar where Cheris lived so that they could take out a funeral procession.
Before that, on Saturday a call was given to switch off the lights at exactly 7 pm as a mark of respect for Cheris. People were told to carry black flags as a protest against the cold-blooded killing.
While rage and mayhem reigned across the state, it was evident that the government was unprepared for the reactions as the former militant emerged an urban legend, a martyr for the people.