Meghalaya: Uncertain Peace

The security situation in Meghalaya has improved considerably over the last few years.
by Afsara Shaheen

On January 8, 2024, the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government spokesperson and Cabinet Minister Ampareen Lyngdoh asserted that the state government was committed to peace talks with the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC):

As a government, we are committed towards the progression of peace talks with this particular banned outfit [HNLC] and we would like to see that there should be an amicable understanding for long-term peace.

Members of Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) [File Photo]

The statement came following HNLC's withdrawal from tripartite peace talks on December 31, 2023. HNLC's 'general secretary cum publicity secretary' Sainkupar Nongtraw declared,

The purpose of this communication is to formally announce the decision of the HNLC to withdraw from the negotiation table. This decision has been made in response to the government's lack of seriousness in addressing our core demands.
On the same day, in a letter addressed to A.K. Mishra, Advisor (Union Ministry of Home Affairs, Northeast), and signed by HNLC's 'chairman-cum-commander-in-chief' Boby Marweinm and Sainkupar Nongtraw, the HNLC stated,

This decision has been made due to the unfortunate circumstance that our general demands have not been met. Furthermore, we have concerns that if these fundamental issues remain unaddressed, our political demands will also be dismissed. It is with a heavy heart that we witness the peace process reaching such a critical point. If the government continues to disregard our voices at the negotiation table, resorting to violence becomes the only option on the battlefield.

Further, in a detailed press release on January 3, 2023, signed by Marweinm and Nongtraw, HNLC listed five primary demands ‘crucial’ for the accomplishment of the peace process. These included the establishment of safe passage for central leaders, appointment of a representative to communicate with the government, removal of the ban on HNLC, the withdrawal of pending cases by granting general amnesty to its leaders and cadres, and the release of individuals associated with HNLC currently in jail.

Significantly, the Central Government has accepted only two of these five demands – the establishment of a safe passage for central leaders and appointment of a representative to communicate with the government. The core demands were originally submitted to the Central government by HNLC’s former ‘general secretary’ Cheristerfied Thangkhiew, on January 16, 2021. Thangkhiew was killed on August 13, 2021, in a Police encounter at his residence at Mawlai-Kynton Massar in Shillong, East Khasi Hills District. 

Indeed, the denial of the other demands which, according to HNLC, are critical for talks to continue, is the reason behind the organization’s withdrawal from talks. Not surprisingly, on January 8, 2024, HNLC reiterated that its leaders were ready to reconsider the decision on withdrawal, with the condition that the state government will not be reluctant in dropping the cases against the leaders of the group and granting general amnesty to them.

Tripartite peace talks between the Centre, the Meghalaya Government and the HNLC began on June 24, 2023, at Umiam in the Ri Bhoi District of Meghalaya, near Shillong. Earlier, after receiving the Government of India's nod, peace talks between the HNLC and the Meghalaya Government had been initiated on March 11, 2022.

Nevertheless, the HNLC has not signed any ceasefire with the government as yet, and continues to constitute a security threat in the state, despite the stabilization that has resulted from most of the other prominent insurgent groups of Meghalaya – the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and Achik National Volunteer Council-Bilash Marak (ANVC-B) – having become inactive on the ground. While the GNLA had more or less been neutralised in the aftermath of Operation Hill Storm  between July 2014 and September 2016, the ANVC and ANVC-B signed Memorandums of Settlement (MoS) with the Government in 2014 and dissolved themselves. The last killing linked to GNLA was reported on February 24, 2018, when the then ‘commander-in-chief’ of GNLA, Sohan D. Shira, was killed in an encounter by Meghalaya Police at Dobu A’chakpek in the East Garo Hills District.

According to partial data compiled by South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Meghalaya has not recorded any insurgency-linked fatality since September 14, 2021, when an over ground worker (OGW) of the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) and A’chik Songna An’pachakgipa Kotok (ASAK) was killed in an encounter near Sherwood School on the outskirts of Tura in the West Garo Hills District. The last civilian killing in such violence was reported on May 12-13, 2019, when a villager residing along the Indo-Bangladesh border in Lapalang village in the East Khasi Hills District was killed in an attack by insurgents. The last fatality in the Security Forces category was reported on February 18, 2018, when four persons, including Jonathone N. Sangma, the then National Congress Party (NCP) candidate from William Nagar constituency, and two SF personnel were killed, when militants ambushed the convoy of the candidate and exploded an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) at Samanda in the East Garo Hills.

At the peak of insurgency, Meghalaya recorded a total of 495 fatalities in 1997. The highest civilian fatalities, 266, were recorded in 1993, while a high of 111 SF fatalities was recorded in 1997. Overall fatalities remained in three digits between 1992 and 2000, and were contained within two digits between 2001 and 2016.  

In the last seven years, between 2017 and 2023, there were no fatalities in three years – 2020, 2022 and 2023, while they remained in single digits in 2017 (eight), 2018 (seven), 2019 (one) and 2021 (two). Of the total of 18 fatalities during this period, the GNLA was linked to 13, HNLC and United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) to two each, and one fatality was linked to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Saraigowra (NDFB-S).

According to state government data, HNLC was suspected to be responsible for at least five of the seven IED blasts that occurred in Meghalaya between February 2018 and January 2022. The perpetrators of the remaining two IED detonations are yet unknown. No violent incident has been reported in the State since January 2022.

However, on December 30, 2023, the HNLC issued a death threat to National People's Party (NPP) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Gavin Miguel Mylliem over the closure of Mawmluh Cherra Cement Limited (MCCL) in Meghalaya. The HNLC further extended an offer to the MCCL employees to join the outfit:

If they are willing to join our cause, we will provide them with a monthly salary of Rs [INR] 25,000. Eligible individuals should be below 45 years of age and undergo basic military training. If they demonstrate commitment to our cause and ideology, we will consider offering them an attractive salary.
Meanwhile, a new militant group, the National Liberation Council of Nongkyndong (NLCN), has emerged. Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Eastern Range), Davis Nestell Rangsa Marak stated, on August 16, 2023, that the new militant group intended to wage war against the government and to commit unlawful activities, such as procurement of arms and ammunition, extortion, recruiting armed cadres, training of armed cadres, establishing armed terrorist camps and conspiring to commit terrorist acts. Marak added, “The inputs also indicated that NLCN had tied up with other militant outfits of Nagaland and was supposed to send the first batch of cadres for armed terrorist training to Nagaland.”

In another development in early May 2023, reports claimed that Jingjang D. Shira had been appointed as the new GNLA ‘chief executive director’ and over 500 youth have been recruited and sent for training to Nagaland and Myanmar.  Following this, on May 28, the Meghalaya Police successfully foiled a suspected regrouping plot, arresting three suspected GNLA cadres from the West Khasi Hills District. Incriminating materials, such as camouflage uniforms and boots, were seized by the Police during the operation.

Another issue of concern is the long-standing border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam. On September 26, 2023, fresh clashes were reported from a disputed village along the Assam-Meghalaya interstate boundary between Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills District and Assam’s West Karbi Anglong District, as locals from both sides used bows and arrows and catapults to attack each other. No injuries were reported from the incident. This border clash came after both the Assam and Meghalaya governments began the second phase of border talks in May 2023. Six persons were killed in border clashes between Assam and Meghalaya in November 2022. The two states had 12 disputed sectors along their 884.9-kilometre boundary. The disputes in six of these sectors, however, were settled through an agreement signed on March 29, 2022, in the presence of Union Home Minister (UHM) Amit Shah. A meeting between the Chief Ministers of both States was held on September 30, 2023, in which the regional committees on the boundary dispute were asked to submit their reports by December 31, 2023. The reports, however, have not yet been submitted.

The security situation in Meghalaya has improved considerably over the last few years. However, the uncertainty over talks with the HNLC as well reports of attempts by the GNLA to regroup and the emergence of a new militant group could undermine some of these gains. Ensuring that peace talks with the HNLC are brought to a successful is, consequently, crucial. Any reemergence of insurgency must also be operationally thwarted on the ground.