Meghalaya emerged as an autonomous State on April 2, 1970, and was declared a State of the Indian Union on January 1, 1972. Prior to April 1970, Meghalaya was a part of the composite State of Assam. Following a decade-long peaceful constitutional agitation for a separate Hill State, the Indian Parliament passed the Assam Reorganization (Meghalaya) Act, 1969, constituting the Autonomous State. The Parliament later passed the North Eastern Areas Reorganization Act, 1971, which conferred full Statehood on the autonomous State of Meghalaya.
Homeland to a number of tribes, Meghalaya (Abode of the Clouds) is also known as the 'Scotland of the East' for its scenic magnificence. The Garos dominate western Meghalaya; the Khasis, central Meghalaya; and the Jaintias, eastern Meghalaya. The ‘Hynniewtrep’ people, a collective name of the Khasi, Jaintia, Bhoi and War tribes belonging to the Proto Austroloid Monkhmer race, primarily dominate Eastern Meghalaya. The Garos or Achiks as they call themselves, belong to the Tibeto-Burman race and predominantly inhabit the Garo Hills.
The State has been plagued with the problem of insurgency since the latter part of the 1980s. Meghalaya has three terrorist outfits operating on its soil: the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC); the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC); and the People’s Liberation Front of Meghalaya (PLF-M). The first two are currently more active than the last, which is relatively dormant. The HNLC is a product of a 1992 split in the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), the first militant tribal organization in Meghalaya, and aims at creating a sovereign State for the Khasis. The ANVC, formed in December 1995, aims to carve out a homeland called ‘Achik Land’ in the area of the Garo Hills under the provisions of the Indian Constitution. On November 16, 2000, the Union Government declared both the organizations as unlawful associations under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
Roots of Discord
The reasons of discord in Meghalaya are manifold. The divide among tribal residents of the State and the non-tribal settlers (mostly Bangladeshis) has been a prime factor for the growing discontent. Commencing with the divide that persisted through the nineteen seventies and eighties, events took a perilous direction in August 1992, when the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) and the Federation of Khasis, Jaintia and Garo Peoples (FKJGP) started issuing threat orders to non-tribal traders, compelling them to shut down their businesses in Meghalaya for not possessing valid trading licences. A riot – widely considered the fifth major riot against the so-called outsiders – followed, claiming 31 lives. In 1994, another round of trouble ensued over the Election Commission’s orders for preparing photo-identity cards for all voters, which was resisted by the KSU. The KSU insisted that no photography for the cards would be permitted before the electoral rolls were revised with a 1951 cut-off date with regard to immigrants from Bangladesh.
In addition to the continuing divide between the locals and non-locals, issues of identity, growing corruption and perceived injustice in the Garo hills are considered to be reasons for the violence in Meghalaya. However, the Sharma Commission appointed by the State Government to investigate the various dimensions of the growing ethnic conflict in the State, observed in its report in 1995 that the primary cause of such disturbances has been economic, such as the increasing unemployment rate in the State.
Between 1994 and 2002, 92 civilians, 68 security force personnel and 44 terrorist fatalities have been recorded in Meghalaya. The general trend had been an increasing civilian and security force casualty rate as compared to the terrorist fatalities. Signs of escalation in the overall death rate are evident in official data: a total of 20 deaths were reported in 1998, 22 in 1999, 36 in 2000, 40 in 2001, and 64 in 2002. Starting from 1997 to 2001, 225 terrorist related incidents took place in Meghalaya. According to Annual reports of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, in 1997 there were 14 terrorist related incidents, but the following years witnessed a vertical increase— 16 in 1998, 52 in 1999, 73 in 2000, 70 in 2001 and 84 in 2002.
The HALC was a radical organization and could be considered to be the first terrorist outfit in the State. In 1992, following a split in the HALC over inter-tribal antagonisms, the group was renamed and has functioned under the banner of Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) since May 1996. According to the HNLC’s 19-point manifesto, the organization stands for the ‘national existence and self-determination of our people without subordination under the yoke of foreign powers.’ Its objectives include the transformation of Meghalaya into a ‘Khasi State’ and freedom from the domination of the Garo tribes. To realize its objectives, the outfit calls for the ‘unshackling of the motherland and people from the bonds of Indian colonialism, imperialism and chauvinism.’ Further, it also aims at fighting ‘outsiders’, as the group sees Khasi youth as a deprived lot in their own land. The HNLC is active in the Khasi Hills of the State.
The HNLC is understood to have close links with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) faction. Its activities include, among others, fake currency circulation in the State, as well as extortion and other forms of underground activities, primarily for monetary gains. It is believed that the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's external intelligence agency, has assisted the HNLC in the acquisition and circulation of fake currency.
The second splinter group of the HALC was named the A’chik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA), a Garo outfit. The ALMA could not continue the armed struggle and surrendered on October 25, 1994, at Tura. As the State Government dithered over the issue of rehabilitation of the surrendered cadres, in August 1995, a group of Garo militants along with some NSCN-IM cadres made a successful jailbreak attempt from the Shillong District Jail. Among the Garo cadres was Jerome Momin, who went on to form the A’chick National Volunteer Council (ANVC) in December 1995. The ANVC demands a homeland for the Achiks (Garos) comprising the Garo Hill District of Meghalaya, the Garo dominated Nongkhlaw area in the Khasi Hills, and the Garo-Inhabited Goalpara and Kamrup districts of Assam. Following the jailbreak, the outfit is understood to have grown with the active assistance of the NSCN-IM. Over the years, the ANVC has come to establish a working relationship with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), especially after the latter wound up some of its camps in Bhutan and is in the process of relocating them in the Garo Hills. Though media reports suggest a worsening of ties between the ANVC and the NDFB, both groups continue to assist each other in several operations. The ANVC has also established an 'extortion empire' of sorts in the Garo Hills and parts of the West Khasi Hills. According to a list submitted by India to Bangladesh, the ANVC maintains three camps in that country.
The People’s Liberation Front of Meghalaya (PLFM) is a relatively new group operating in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya. Reports suggest that the outfit had been re-christened as the Achik National Council (ANC) on August 2001. The PLFM is an offshoot of the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA). While most of ALMA terrorists surrendered in 1994, a few formed the ANVC in 1995. The PLFM consists of some of these "surrendered rebels" of the erstwhile ALMA who returned underground after their rehabilitation scheme failed. The primary objective of the PLFM is economic development as well as better educational opportunities for the Garo tribes in Meghalaya. Like the ANVC, one of its claimed objectives is the demand for a separate Garo State. The group is primarily active in Dainadubi and Williamnagar in East Garo Hills, and Dalu in West Garo Hills.
After the terrorist groups refused to heed the State Government’s repeated appeals for a negotiated settlement, the Church was seen as a potential mediator in the ongoing conflict. The Church leaders, under the banner of Shillong Khasi Jaintia Church Leaders’ Forum (SKJCL), had offered their services to the State Government to initiate talks with terrorist groups, especially the HNLC. However, there has been little response from the insurgents of this group, who have accused the political establishment of a ‘lack of sincerity’ towards solving contentious issues.
Peace efforts with the ANVC, on the other hand, have been more successful, as the outfit has been open to the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Government. In fact, it started a dialogue with the Mizoram Chief Minister, Zoramthanga, and the Intelligence Bureau Director, K.P. Singh, in Bangkok in January 2003. However, no further dialogue has taken place since. On September 5, 2003, Chief Minister D.D. Lapang handed over a letter to the President of the Garo Baptist Convention (GBC), Grover C.R. Marak, authorizing him to negotiate with the ANVC. The ANVC has, however, continued to maintain that talks would have to centre on the issue of the creation of a separate Garoland (Land of the Garo tribes).
Political instability in the State has also been a prime factor in the failure to resolve the insurgency problem. Successive Governments have their own approaches, with each new phase being abandoned once power changes hands. In December 2001, the then State Chief Minister, F. A. Khonglam, promised to set up a Cabinet sub-committee to help the Government bring ANVC and HNLC to the negotiating table. With Khonglam’s departure from the seat of power, the proposal lapsed into political oblivion.