DATELINE Guwahati /Wasbir Hussain
The Meghalaya Government’s failure in protecting civil liberties in the Garo Hills region has forced the High Court to issue a directive to the Centre, asking it to consider enforcing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to tackle lawlessness arising out of kidppings, killings and extortions by militants in the area. The judiciary being forced to step in to compel the Government to initiate tough measures to protect life and property of citizens is something unprecedented. The Meghalaya High Court’s directive comes at a time when there is continuing protests in the Northeast and elsewhere against alleged high-handedness by the armed forces in the me of tackling insurgency. The charge is that the Army can afford to commit excesses because they get enough immunity in accordance with the provisions of the stringent AFSPA.
The Court directive clearly indicates that people are frustrated and angry at the failure of the State Government in taming the insurgents or check their depredations. For instance, while directing the Centre to consider using AFSPA and deploy the Army and the paramilitary, the Court says the forces must be out to aid the local civil and police, but must not be put under their command until normality is restored. There are reasons for the Court to turn so stern. Statistics furnished to the Court by the Meghalaya Government shows that between January to October 31 this year, insurgents had abducted 87 people in Garo Hills mainly for ransom. This includes 27 businessmen, 25 private sector employees, five government employees, and five teachers. The Block Development Officer (BDO) of Chokpot in South Garo Hills district, a Meghalaya Civil Services officer, was released on November 3 after a week in captivity of the dreaded Garo tiol Liberation Army (GNLA). An Intelligence Bureau official was kidpped and killed in the area in recent weeks. This unusual Court directive has not come overnight. The GNLA has crossed all limits of violence attributed to insurgents in the Northeast. For example, the rebel group made the region witness the first Taliban-style execution on June 3, 2014. Five GNLA militants armed with AK 47 rifles barged into the home of a 35-year-old mother of four at the remote village of Raja Goera Rongat, near Chokpot, in South Garo Hills district. They locked the woman’s husband in a room, and, according to the police, tried to molest and rape the lady. When she resisted, two of the five rebels opened burst fire on her from point-blank range, in front of her children, all minors, killing her on the spot. “Her head was almost blown off her body by the impact of the gun shots,” a police officer had said.
It is the brutality of the crime that has made people compare the killing to assassitions carried out by the medieval Talibans in Afghanistan. And yes, a defiant GNLA claimed responsibility for the cowardly killing saying the woman was a ‘police source’, meaning she was a police informer. A GNLA statement at the time said she was ‘responsible’ for the death of the outfit’s training instructor med Kram. The man was killed in an encounter with security forces in the first week of May 2014. One is aware of the treacherous terrain of the Garo Hills and the region’s proximity to Bangladesh. But what is surprising is the ibility of the police and the paramilitary in checking the activities of the GNLA that is officially stated to number less than 300. If the terror run of the GNLA cannot be controlled by such crack Meghalaya Police units like the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Team), who were trained by the Indo Tibetan Border Police, or the specialized CRPF units, then we would be forced to conclude the counter-insurgency strategy in the area needs a drastic review or overhaul. Army operations to neutralize the GNLA is the ‘last option’ and with the Court directive now, the Government may be forced to use it.
The Meghalaya Government has a lot to answer as to why it has failed to achieve results in the operations against the trigger-happy GNLA. The Court appears to mean real business and has also directed the Union Home Secretary to place the matter before the Centre besides asking the Principal Secretary at the Prime Minister’s office to bring the matter to the Prime Minister’s notice. But, the real need of the hour is to take stock of the measures undertaken by the security establishment to deal with the situation all these months. Question also arises as to the end-use of the funds allocated by the Centre for police modernization, which also involves training and weapons upgradation. Also, if there is to be a probe ever, one of the aspects that must be looked into is whether there has been a politician-militant nexus in the Garo Hills like several other parts in the Northeast. Answers may not be forthcoming, but questions will have to be raised again and again to ascertain the truth. One hopes, the political class in Meghalaya does not decide to sing the ‘we-are-ready-for-talks’ line as a strategy to tackle the situation!