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August 2007 
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Meghalaya: Secret Deal, Open Surrender


Wasbir Hussain
Member, National Security Advisory Board, India, and 
Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi

 

Anything is possible in the murky politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency. On July 24, 2007, Meghalaya Chief Minister D.D. Lapang surprised journalists by presenting before them a fairly important insurgent leader in northeastern India, Julius Dorphang, Chairman of the banned Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), and four of his colleagues. They had apparently ‘surrendered’ the day before, on July 23, 2007, after having crossed over into Indian territory from Bangladesh.

 

The HNLC, one of Meghalaya’s most potent insurgent groups, representing the majority Khasi tribe, was formed in 1992, following a split in the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), the State’s first insurgent outfit. The HACL ceased to exist and the other group that came into being with the split was the Achik Matgrik Liberation Army (AMLA), comprising Garo tribes-people and seeking to push the interest of their community.

 

The HNLC, established a nexus with the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), and is known to have enjoyed the patronage of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The group was primarily involved in extortion and bank heists, and had killed several policemen, besides attacking a paramilitary post in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, with over 600 rounds of automatic gunfire in August 2000. It was eventually banned on November 16, 2000.

 

Before assessing the impact of the rebel leader’s giving up on the group itself as well as on insurgency as a whole in Meghalaya, it is useful to take a look at the manner in which the ‘surrender’ took place. Local media reports give different versions: some suggest that Dorphang surrendered to the Meghalaya Director General of Police (DGP) B.K. Dey Sawian on the night of July 23, while others claim he formally gave up before Chief Minister Lapang.

 

Talking to this writer, Sawian clarified that Dorphang’s surrender was the result of a "process set in motion by the State Government quite sometime back". The DGP said Dorphang entered Meghalaya from Bangladesh through a point between Dawki and Muktapur on the international border in the Jaintia Hills District. "We had kept the Border Security Force in the know of things and a Meghalaya police officer was the pointsman waiting at the pre-arranged entry point to receive them before they were brought in to Shillong," the police chief said. He denied that the Indian authorities had received any assistance or cooperation from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) or any other Bangladeshi agency in this case.

 

Dorphang has always been a moderate among the HNLC leaders and was sending out regular peace overtures to the Indian authorities, indicating his desire for a negotiated political settlement of the rebellion. In that sense, his surrender has not come as a surprise, though the denial of Bangladeshi facilitation is unexpected, particularly after senior Meghalaya Police officials have admitted noticing a ‘definite change’ in Dhaka’s approach to the northeast Indian insurgents operating from within that country after the Army-backed Interim Government took over power in January 2007. Dhaka, according to Indian officials, now seems prepared to acknowledge that it was alive to the problem of northeast Indian rebels operating from Bangladesh.

 

The surrender has rightly generated no more than a cautious optimism among the authorities in Meghalaya. As the Police Chief expressed it, "The situation has just partially got better." That’s because the group’s recalcitrant ‘commander-in-chief’, Bobby Marwein, and ‘general secretary’, Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, have stayed back in Bangladesh to carry on with the insurrection. This is the puzzle that is rather hard to solve: here was a group of HNLC leaders led by the Chairman himself who was supposed to have set out from somewhere in Sylhet, in Bangladesh, on the morning of July 23 before entering Meghalaya, unnoticed by the Bangladeshi authorities, and at the same time Dhaka remains apparently unaware of the whereabouts of Marwein and Thangkhiew who have chosen to stay back in that country. The jigsaw fits in place only if one is to accept that the latest development in Meghalaya was part of a secret deal resulting in an open surrender.

 

It is difficult to hazard a guess as to what the deal could have been, but one can easily deduce from comments made by senior officials in Meghalaya that Dorphang was a surrendered rebel with a difference. "We are not treating him like a surrenderee and have not picked his brains yet on the internal rift within his organization and things like that," the State Police chief told this writer two days after Dorphang came over ground. The fact that he was allowed to hold a news conference was a demonstration of the extraordinary status he is being accorded.

 

Again, the statements that Dorphang made at the news conference in Shillong on July 26, 2007, were significant because they indicated that he had charted out a course to push ahead with his pro-Khasi demands by remaining over ground and shunning violence, while he worked for a solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. To that extent, the secret deal, if any, is welcome, but care must be taken to ensure that the HNLC leader does not whip up emotions and simply give another and new dimension to the sub-nationalist movement in Meghalaya. Dorphang, for instance, said that his group would press for an independent Khasi state through a ‘non-violent struggle’. Significantly, he emphasized the need for a ‘special status’ for the Khasi people and made it clear that he would like to achieve his goal through talks with the State and Central governments.

 

To what extent is the HNLC weakened by Dorphang’s exit? Meghalaya Police chief Sawian described the uncertainty of the outcome succinctly: "We can’t really say. But the fact remains that its Chairman has come out. He was the group’s brain and was himself a great organizer. To that extent, the HNLC has certainly weakened." But if one is to examine what Dorphang himself said on the matter, it appears that the HNLC is still far from a spent force. For instance, Dorphang still maintains that the recalcitrant Bobby Marwein and Cheristerfield Thangkhiew are the main "stumbling blocks in the peace process." Dorphang clearly recognizes the duo’s capacity to put up roadblocks to the peace process in Meghalaya.

 

It is, nevertheless, the case that the Government has got a much needed breather in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills Districts with this development and can hope to put the leftover HNLC elements under check through normal Police operations. Authorities estimate that between 75 and 100 HNLC cadres, including women’s wing members and couriers, now remains to be tackled and this would not be too great a challenge. The State Government’s strategy appears to be clear: put the peace process on the fast-track now that Dorphang has come over ground, and continue with the counter-insurgency offensive against the anti-talks faction of the HNLC, even as efforts are made to broaden the scope of negotiations. As Sawian put it: "We shall continue with the police action, but the Government has not shut its doors to anyone."

 

Problems, of course, can arise once the stage is set for an agreement with the HNLC rebels, say, with Dorphang’s group. That has the potential to infuse new life into the otherwise rag-tag Garo rebel outfits pushing for a separate Garo homeland. If the Khasis are set to achieve something, how can the Garos be left behind? Such is the politics of ethnic insurgencies in India’s northeast.

                                                                                                                                                                                                   

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