Shillong: Meghalaya's hope of seeing through a peaceful Assembly election was reinforced when the state police on Saturday morning announced that Sohan D Shira, active chief of the dreaded militant group Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), was killed in an encounter between 11 am and 12 pm with Special Force-10 commandos in Adangpak village, near Dobu, in Songsak, an hour away from Williamnagar constituency of East Garo hills district.
Deputy inspector general of police (IG) (western range), Tura, Onimus Pasi, confirmed the information. Pasi said after 3 pm on Saturday that the forces were still combing the area and Shira was the only casualty in the encounter, according to latest reports.
Reacting to the news about Shira’s killing, Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma said, “The committed endeavour of the government to strengthen our internal security apparatus with a zero tolerance policy for militants has started showing positive results, especially with this latest incident.”
“My deep sense of appreciation to the women and men of the organisation that have led an untiring effort and commitment to eliminate enemies of the state like Sohan D Shira,” the chief minister said.
Congratulating the Meghalaya police for their success in eliminating the GNLA chief, BJP national spokesperson Nalin Kohli said, “The fact that they could do it shows that when there is no political interference, they (police) can do an excellent job.”
It was last Sunday on 18 February when once again, violence was used to make a point ahead of Meghalaya elections, as NCP candidate Jonathone Nengminza Sangma and four others were killed in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast, while campaigning in Williamnagar constituency. Behemsing Marak, 57, who was on life support since being injured in the attack on Sangma, succumbed to his injuries on 22 February in Guwahati.
There was little doubt about who could have planted the IEDs since GNLA had allegedly put posters across Williamnagar a few days ago, threatening people with dire consequences if they voted for Sangma.
It has been reported that Jonathone’s wife Krenilla R Marak will contest from WIlliamnagar on an NCP ticket.
The GNLA was thought to be a spent force with many of its cadres either deserting the outfit or getting arrested, but the brazen attack on Jonathone’s campaign group came as a chilling reminder that the militants possess enough firepower.
According to police, GNLA cadres — who numbered around 200-250 when the group was founded in 2009 — have gone down to 20 at present, operating mostly from dense jungles of East Garo Hills district. The outfit, police sources said, had planted over 30 IEDs in and around East Garo Hills to sabotage the ensuing Assembly elections, which they consider an apt occasion to press their demands.
GNLA was led by Shira after the arrest of Champion Sangma, a former deputy SP with Meghalaya Police who, along with Shira, had founded the outfit in 2009, but is now in Shillong jail. The militants were purportedly peeved since the Centre had asked the state not to hold any talks with them until they stop carrying out violence and illegal acts of abduction and extortion in Garo Hills region.
Threat perceptions, reportedly intercepted by intelligence agencies, in the aftermath of Jonathone’s killing, have seen Willamnagar MLA and Cabinet minister Deborah C Marak’s family being shifted out of Garo Hills under armed protection.
SP, East Garo Hills district, Ringrang TG Momin, said the police had got a lead that GNLA was involved in the IED blast that killed Jonathone. He said the villagers are being interrogated since they suspect presence of overground GNLA workers among the villagers.
Momin attributed GNLA’s capabilities with IEDs and sophisticated weapons to their collaboration with Assam-based outfit ULFA(I).
Pasi said the GNLA is no more a powerful organisation and their operation is confined only within some areas of East and South Garo Hills districts. “GNLA has become weak because of the intensified operation of the security forces,” the Dy IG said. “We have strengthened our force to ensure a peaceful election.”
The NCP has claimed the killing of its candidate as a “political murder” with its Meghalaya unit working president, Vijay Raj, saying, “Someone has to gain from it politically.”
Questioning the timing of the murder, Raj said that in 2013, when Jonathone contested as an independent candidate, an FIR was filed after he had received similar threats. Since then, however, he faced no threats, but was targeted soon after the polls were announced, Raj pointed out to drive his point about the attack being a politically motivated one.
Alleging that the NCP candidates are being targeted under the influence of some political parties, Raj said the house of another NCP candidate from Rongjeng constituency, Desang Sangma, was burnt down a couple of weeks ago.
Chief Minister Sangma said his government has never compromised on tackling insurgency and restoring peace in the state.
While condemning the killing of Jonathone and four others, Dr Sangma had earlier said, “The blood of innocents spilled by the enemies of the State will not disturb the peace in Meghalaya. This desperate act will not be tolerated. The perpetrators of the crime will be apprehended expeditiously and brought to book.”
The chief minister has time and again reiterated that his government will invite the GNLA for talks only if they give up arms and violence.
The BJP, who during a meeting with an Election Commission team last week, raised the issue of revival of militancy in Garo Hills, believe this is a ruse by the chief minister to rig elections in his constituency.
Kohli said the number of Central security forces should be increased to ensure that vulnerable segments of the population, especially in the Garo Hills but not excluding Khasi and Jaintia Hills, are protected. Condemning Jonathone’s killing, Kohli said, “These incidents shouldn't take place in a state like Meghalaya.”
The Church, which was instrumental in bringing many of the youths who had gone astray back to the mainstream, has asked authorities to examine the outfit’s demands.
The Unified Peace Movement for Garo Hills (UPMGH), an umbrella organisation of Church and NGOs leaders from Garo Hills, said the only solution is to bring them to the negotiating table. “This will be a big step forward in bringing back normalcy in Garo Hills,” the UPMGH said.
The GNLA has a history of violent incidents, kidnapping and extortions.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since its formation GNLA has been involved in at least 184 fatalities (74 civilians, 28 security forces personnel, and 82 GNLA cadres; data till September 10, 2017).
(Kyrmenlang Uriah is a Meghalaya-based journalist and and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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Updated Date: Feb 24, 2018 18:14:12 IST