The Central government is facing a piquant situation in Garo Hills where the Meghalaya High Court believes there is a strong case for imposing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. The court order comes at a time when there is much debate and soul-searching over the draconian AFSPA, which gives the armed forces untrammelled powers to arrest without warrant and shoot to kill. Whether in the Northeast or in Jammu and Kashmir, the AFSPA has been a much hated law with Manipur’s Irom Sharmila recently completing 15 years of hunger strike against it. It is another matter that Manipur firmly continues to be under the AFSPA — after the NSCN(K)’s deadly strike against the army at Chandel in June last, as well as the threat of growing activities of over 40 militant groups in the State. But the extent to which law and order has collapsed in Garo Hills of Meghalaya seems to have left the High Court with no option at all. Insurgent groups like the Garo tiol Liberation Army (GNLA) and several hardline breakaway factions of the A’chik tiol Volunteer’s Council (ANVC) are running amok with extortion, abduction and killing sprees, leaving security forces trailing in their wake. The court has quoted Meghalaya police figures from January to October this year, during which as many as 87 people were abducted for ransom, with the victims ranging from ordiry civilians to businessmen and contractors, government and private sector employees, as well as teachers. The situation has reached such a pass that even judges are reportedly receiving threatening calls of revenge attacks after their retirement.
Noting that the police and civil authorities in the five Garo Hills districts have failed in controlling the situation, the full Bench of the High Court while hearing a petition against militants calling bandhs — issued an order that the Central government can consider enforcing AFSPA to deploy the armed forces. ‘We are also not oblivious of the fact that with great power comes great responsibility to exercise self-restraint, especially in the exercise of powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, but now since the law and order situation in the Garo Hills has deteriorated beyond redemption, we have no option but to issue certain serious directions in order to protect the civil liberties and fundamental rights of the common citizens as well as the public servants’, the court stated in its order. Significantly, the court also observed that ‘even the police and civil administration stealthily fulfil the illegal demands of the insurgents’, thereby clearly directing in its order that armed and paramilitary forces be deployed ‘in the aid of but certainly not under the command of civil and police authorities’. This observation is a pointer to the alarming situation on the ground with armed rebel groups virtually running a parallel administration in Garo Hills, with widespread allegations of a nexus between militants and politicians.
Two years back, the Meghalaya police launched Operation Hill Storm against the GNLA, gunning down several militants, seizing weapons and forcing many cadres to surrender. The GNLA recently retaliated by kidpping the BDO of Chokpot, demanding that the Meghalaya government put a stop to its ongoing counter-insurgency operations. The BDO Jude RT Sangma was released on Tuesday after common citizens joined government employees in peace marches across the State. The kidpping comes close on the heels of the kidpping and murder of an IB officer and a cloth merchant by A’chik Song An’pachakgipa Kotok militants. As of now, AFSPA is applied to a rrow belt along Meghalaya’s border with Assam. It remains to be seen what inputs the Union Home and Defence secretaries give about the High Court order to the Prime Minister’s Office and how the Principal Secretary puts it up before the PM. Meghalaya, after all, is Congress-ruled, so the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre will have to take all political factors into account. The fiasco in Aruchal Pradesh in May this year left the Modi government smarting, forced as it was to take back its order of extending AFSPA to twelve Aruchal districts bordering Assam. The step was ostensibly taken to curb the movement of NDFB(S) cadres across the inter-state border, but New Delhi had to beat a hasty retreat after the outcry in Congress-ruled Aruchal. With the Congress now on a high-voltage tionwide collision course against the BJP across several fronts, will the Modi government have the stomach to open yet another front in Meghalaya? Meanwhile, the majority of the seven lakh Garo population continue to suffer, totally at the mercy of sundry militant groups with their never ending threats and demands.