February 26, 2001


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The Rediff Special/Ramesh Menon

PART I: Fear in the Air
PART II: 'Our leaders are like frogs in a pond'

Meghalaya was one state in the northeast untouched by insurgency. Not anymore. Insurgency is now common. The state government has done little to rein the insurgents in. Young boys are just using the gun to make a fast buck, says Roving Editor Ramesh Menon.

If you are a non-tribal in Shillong and have a good source of income, you might soon get a notice from the insurgents asking for a donation. That is, if you have not got it already. A few days after you get the notice, a youngster will walk into the shop and ask for the money.

You pay.

If you do not, you might just get shot.

A non-tribal shopkeeper learnt this lesson the hard way.

He was closing shop one evening when a couple of insurgents came in and asked him to pay up. The elderly shopkeeper said he did not have the money. One of the insurgents pulled out a pistol, thrust it into the man's mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through his brain.

Soon after this incident in downtown Shillong, no businessman had the nerve not to pay. All of them quietly paid up. The notices got more frequent.

Governor M M Jacob says the insurgents are out to make fast money and have no committed agenda. Says a police officer: "They do not have the commitment to live in a hardy forest. They freely move around, living a good life."

Says Finance Minister Scot Lyngdoh: "Militancy in Meghalaya is still in its embryo. But we should not allow it to go out of hand. We are not clear what they want."

The insurgents want money. Everyone knows that.

A few weeks ago, the family of a kidnapping victim paid Rs 250,000 to gun-toting insurgents. The police are collecting records of the insurgents's bank accounts and other nefarious activities, which includes getting pretty women to entertain them at the city's hotels.

Says an intelligence source: "It is very lucrative to be a militant here. Life is great. They have the best Scotch whisky and beautiful women who entertain for a price. They go abroad every year for vacations to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. If they are in India, they are cavorting in five star hotels in Calcutta, Bombay or Pune."

Points out G H P Raju, district superintendent of police, East Khasi Hills: "The insurgents are going around issuing notices for payment to non-tribal businessmen even after they have been banned."

Claims a senior police officer: "North Indian businessmen are not as innocent as they seem. Many of them earlier used these insurgents to secure government and private contracts. Now as the businessmen are being asked to pay the insurgents regularly, it has begun to hurt. They are begging us to help. In the early phases, insurgents had the patronage of businessmen."

The Meghalaya police plans to freeze bank accounts operated by the banned Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council. Intelligence reports say the HNLC has around Rs 100 million (Rs 10 crores) stashed away in different banks.

That is a lot of money.

According to intelligence reports, the insurgents have been sending large sums of money to Bangladesh. It uses this money to buy arms and service their leaders's lavish outings and shopping bills. The HNLC reportedly bought sophisticated communication equipment recently.

The police in Meghalaya has an unenviable job.

There is tremendous political pressure not to act against the insurgents. "If one of them is killed, there is an enquiry. If businessmen, non-tribals or policemen are shot dead, no one bothers," complains a police officer.

But Chief Minister E W Mawlong told that he has given the police a free hand. There is absolutely no political control as far as dealing with the insurgents are concerned, he says.

It is a statement that security forces privately refute.

They allege that politicians have links with the insurgents and use them to stay in power and push their private agenda.

The Centre's ban on the Garo Hills-based Achik National Volunteer Council and the HNLC is something Mawlong and his ruling coalition do not want to associate with. Mawlong has all along said his government had nothing to do with the ban.

Says the chief minister: "We want to talk to them. After all, they are our boys. But our offer for talks with the militants have not met with any positive response."

But what can they talk about?

Ironically, both groups do not have any real demands. Both operate out of the jungles in Meghalaya and strike at will. They are well armed after having been trained by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland.

The new year began with a wake up call to the chief minister from the insurgents. In a few days, there were 10 murders. HNLC insurgents rushed into an electronic goods shop in the heart of town and opened fire. Five people were killed. Three were non-tribal employees, two were Khasi shoppers.

There was condemnation because of the Khasi deaths. Shillong witnessed its first-ever protest march against the insurgents. Embarrassed, the HNLC apologised, but only for the Khasi deaths.

In the state assembly, Opposition member Clifford Marak from the Garo National Council recently alleged that two ministers were involved with the insurgents. Both men denied the charges.

Independent observers say the insurgents could not have thrived in the hills without political patronage.

Former Lok Sabha speaker Purno Sangma -- an MP from Meghalaya -- has admitted that some of the state's politicians were involved in the insurgency.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has announced the Centre's decision to appoint a retired Supreme Court judge to probe the politician-terrorist links in the northeast.

Who are these militants? Why are they into militancy?

Governor Jacob, a former Union minister of state for home, puts it thus: "The insurgents appear to be anti-socials out to make fast money. If they had a committed agenda, they would have at least had a course of action. They operate and strike on the order of other northeastern militant groups."

Design: Lynette Menezes

Part IV: 'If there is political will, the militants can be finished in no time'

The Rediff Specials

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