Deaths in police firing fan tensions near Assam-Meghalaya border | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Deaths in police firing fan tensions near Assam-Meghalaya border

ByTanmay Chatterjee and David Laitphlang, Mukroh
Dec 06, 2022 03:49 PM IST

In February 2003, Myrten’s elder brother Dia, and five others from Mukroh were killed in a militant attack on the village. Nineteen years later, Myrten’s husband, Thal Shadap, 48, and the four others from Mukroh were killed after being chased and shot by policemen and forest guards from Assam on November 22. Their deaths that have triggered a furore, and rekindled a five-decade old border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam.

At 7 am on the morning of November 22, Skhem Myrten was attending to her three grandchildren in her two room hut in the village of Mukroh, on the Assam Meghalaya border. She remembers the early morning quiet in the hills. Then, she remembers the sound of the gunfire that pierced the air; staccato and deadly. Her heart grew cold; her husband wasn’t at home. The next time she saw him, he was dead, his body wrapped in a sheet. “I am going to the paddy fields, my husband said before leaving home that morning. Those were his last words to me,” the 48-year-old said.

An Assam police officer at the spot of the firing (HT Photo) PREMIUM
An Assam police officer at the spot of the firing (HT Photo)

At 7 am on the morning of November 22, Skhem Myrten was attending to her three grandchildren in her two room hut in the village of Mukroh, on the Assam Meghalaya border. She remembers the early morning quiet in the hills. Then, she remembers the sound of the gunfire that pierced the air; staccato and deadly. Her heart grew cold; her husband wasn’t at home. The next time she saw him, he was dead, his body wrapped in a sheet. “I am going to the paddy fields, my husband said before leaving home that morning. Those were his last words to me,” the 48-year-old said.

She is not new to tragedy. In February 2003, Myrten’s elder brother Dia, and five others from Mukroh were killed in a militant attack on the village. Nineteen years later, Myrten’s husband, Thal Shadap, 48, and the four others from Mukroh were killed after being chased and shot by policemen and forest guards from Assam on November 22. Their deaths that have triggered a furore, and rekindled a five-decade old border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam.

THE KILLINGS

Two weeks later, inside the homes of Mukroh, the grief persists. Myrten stares blankly at the roof of her 14ft X 12ft hut made of wood and bamboo. All 545 households in Mukroh are of people from the Jaintia tribes. The Jaintias speak Pnar, and are into subsistence agriculture. Myrten leans against sacks of rice that her husband collected during the ongoing harvest; at the other end of the room is a pit oven dug into the floor that acts as the kitchen. Next to the pit is a bottle of cheap edible oil, a stack of tin cans, and clothes piled into several heaps.

100km east of the state capital of Assam, Mukroh is idyllic and visually stunning, with lush green hills dotted by fields and streams. But its huts tell the story of lives without support. “Not all villagers are enlisted for central welfare schemes. Most are farmers, growing turmeric, paddy and wheat for centuries. The only healthcare facility is a primary centre at Barato town five kilometres away. It caters to 10 villages. The secondary school is also at Barato,” said Nehemayah Tyngkan, a social activist and local Congress leader.

The bodies of the five villagers from Mukroh were found on the winding interstate highway that leads to Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district, with the authorities in Assam claiming that they chased and then came under attack from a group of timber smugglers. The villagers counter these claims, and allege that the conflict is the result of residents of all border settlements being forced to pay extortion money to Assam authorities. The four other villagers who died in the firing were Sik Talang, 55, Chiruplang Sumer, 39, Talis Nartiang, 40, and Nikhasi Dhar, 65. A sixth victim was identified as Bidiyasing Lekhte, a volunteer forest guard from Assam.

“Doctors who performed the post mortem on Lekhte said he died of an injury that could have been caused either by a bullet or a very sharp weapon. It is possible that he was attacked,” a senior police officer said at Jowai town, the West Jaintia Hills district headquarters located around 30km to the west of Mukroh.

Pyndap Pale, 32, claimed that on the morning of November 22, he was returning home in a Maruti 800 with two sacks of paddy when a team of the Assam police and forest guards stopped his car on the interstate highway at around 6am. “They started hitting the car with rifle butts. I sped to Mukroh to inform others. The firing took place soon after that, when the Assam police stopped another vehicle that was carrying timber,” Pale said.

A senior Meghalaya police official told HT that as many of 65 spent shells of four kinds were recovered from the spot, indicative of indiscriminate firing. “They used 9 mm pistols and rifles of .303, 7.65 mm and 5.56 mm calibers,” the officer said.

“The situation is now under control. I have told the villagers they can collect paddy without fear,” said the district superintendent of police, Vikram D Mark, who went inside West Karbi Anglong on November 22 and brought back three villagers arrested by the Assam police.

Both the Assam Police, as well as Conrad Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya have doubled down on the narrative that the administration was stopping timber smugglers. But Sangma has also condemned the firing and demanded an independent probe. Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has sought a CBI probe, and has also taken disciplinary action against two senior Assam police officers and a forest department officer.

While the Assam police did not issue any official statement, the state’s information department issued a press release which claimed Mukroh as a part of Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district.

“It may be noted that on November 22, a firing incident took place between Assam forest officials and unknown miscreants at Mukroh under Jirikinding police station under West Karbi Anglong District (in Assam). The incident reportedly took place when the forest party attempted to stop a truck smuggling out illegal timber,” the statement said.

“When the truck was stopped by the forest party personnel, they were surrounded by unknown miscreants who resorted to violence. In order to save their lives, the forest party resorted to firing,” it added.

THE HISTORY OF THE BORDER DISPUTE

The 22,429 square kilometre state of Meghalaya with a population of 2.96 million according to the 2011 census was carved out of Assam in 1972 following the Assam Reorganisation Act, 1971. It was the result of a long movement by the tribes that live in the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills and was named Meghalaya, or, the abode of the clouds in Sanskrit.

Soon after its creation, however, a movement began in Meghalaya to “reclaim” parts of Assam’s Karbi Anglong and Kamrup districts where the customs, language and lifestyle of the local tribals are drastically different from the Karbis of Assam. These regions are referred to as Block 1 and Block 2. The issue raises its head before every election cycle in Meghalaya but successive governments have always settled on “status quo”.

Assam has historically challenged the demarcated border and has claimed the right to 12 regions inside Meghalaya, including Mukroh. The two states formed three panels in August 2021 to discuss these issues and submitted a draft resolution to Union home minister Amit Shah on January 31 this year.

Complicating the matter further is the presence of armed ethnic militant groups, mired in allegations of extortion. The Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF) was dominant in the early nineties, then replaced in 1995 by the Dima Halam Daoga (DHD) that subsequently broke into two factionsin 2004. These groups demanded the creation of a separate Dimaland comprising parts of Nagaland , and block 1 and 2 of Assam, targeting people that speak Pnar.

In 1995, another outfit called the Halam National Liberation Front (HNLF) emerged from the shadows. It carried out an attack on Mukroh in 2002, killing six people.

In opposition to these groups came the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) that claimed to represent the Khasi and Jaintia tribes and wished to free the state from “outsiders”. It was banned in 2019. HT spoke to two Pnar community leaders from Block 1, who said, “It is God’s blessing that the land in Block 1 is fertile but our people have no identity. Karbi leaders extort money from us for every activity and keep us under constant surveillance. Our villages have never seen any development. The Karbis call us illegal settlers. In the 2003 extremist attack, a Pnar woman was raped by 30 men. The HNLC was our saviour but it was banned.”

The second leader said, “It makes no difference to us whether the Congress is in power in Assam, or the BJP. We want to be listed as voters in Meghalaya. All Pnar villages boycotted the last district council election.”

But with Assam reiterating its claim on 12 areas inside Meghalaya, there is now a marked impasse. “Mukroh is and always will be a part of Karbi Anglong, Assam. We are fully committed to ensuring everlasting peace and tranquility in Assam-Meghalaya inter-state border areas,” Horensing Bey, BJP Lok Sabha member from Assam’s Autonomous District and a member of the consultative committee of the Union ministry of tribal affairs wrote on his Facebook page after visiting the troubled spot.

Tuliram Ronghang, the chief executive member (CEM) of Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council who accompanied Horensing Bey, said, “Mukroh villagers are illegal settlers.”

Reacting to this, the CEM of Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council, Thombor Shiwat, said, “The village is very much a part of Meghalaya as per the documents available with the council.”

For Meghalaya, which goes to Assembly polls in February 2023, this latest flashpoint is a renewed reminder that little has changed on the ground despite an “agreement” signed between Himanta Biswa Sarma and Conrad Sangma eight months ago, that resolved to untangle disputes in 36 Meghalaya villages that Assam has claimed. Union home minister Amit Shah called the March accord “historic” and said 70% of the dispute would be resolved with its signing. A second round of talks was then held in August.

Allantry Franklin Dkhar, vice-president of the United Democratic Party (UDP), a partner in Meghalaya’s coalition government, said, “Tribal people have the right to collect firewood. Why should one smuggle timber from Assam when we already have plenty? Assam has set up illegal forest check posts where our villagers are forced to pay tax. Assam police had the audacity to open fire inside our territory because our police were looking the other way.”

THE AFTERMATH

In Mukroh, these years of hostility and uncertainty mean a sense of betrayal and mistrust, and in some cases hatred. Skhem Myrten for instance accepted the monetary compensation of 5 lakh the Meghalava government gave to each of the families, but refused a similar amount from Assam.

This despite the fact that she has five children, the youngest of whom is seven, a paralysed elder sister, and three children of her elder daughter to take care of. “In February 2003, my elder brother, Dia Myrten, and five other villagers were murdered in Mukroh by extremists from Assam. And now, I have lost my husband. I cannot accept money from the Assam government,” she said.

On November 29, the Meghalaya cabinet decided to set up a state armed police camp inside Mukroh and border outposts (BOP) at Mooriap in East Jaintia Hills, Tihwieh in West Jaintia Hills, Rani-Jirang in Ri-Bhoi and Umwali, Lejadubi, and Langpih in West Khasi Hills district. “We will ensure that swift action is initiated for their functioning with adequate manpower and infrastructure,” chief minister Sangma said.

Residents of Mukroh welcome the police camp inside the village, but not the outposts outside. “Why is the Meghalaya government setting up border outposts so deep inside its territory and not at the Assam border where they should be?” said Mukroh village headman Hamboi Sumer.

Former Meghalaya chief minister and leader of the opposition Mukul Sangma said there was a noticeable rise in allegations of harassment against the Assam police in the last year and it was now the responsibility of “both governments to instill a sense of confidence”. “If there are instances of timber smuggling across the border, what stops the Assam government from taking it up with Meghalaya in the right perspective? Were they (Assam) allowing corruption? If it has been happening for so long, what were they doing?” he said.

Prof Henry Lamin, acting vice-chancellor of Meghalaya’s North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), and an MLA from 1993 to 1998 from Nartiang 1, of which Mukroh was a part till a delimitation exercise in 2009 suggested that people on the borders be given the final say on where they want to live peacefully. “Let the Centre under the rule of the BJP conduct the exercise. Those forests belong to the tribes.”

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