The posters started surfacing a week ago. “Whichever place a person may belong, if anyone votes for Jonathone N Sangma, you will be killed with AK-47,” they said.

On Sunday evening, Sangma, a 43-year old Nationalist Congress Party candidate from Williamnagar constituency in Meghalaya’s East Garo Hills, was killed in an explosion. The state is headed for assembly elections on February 27. Three more people died in the blast: Baichung Momin, Cribinath D Shira and Shamim Hassan.

Hassan was Jonathone Sangma’s personal security guard. Shira and Momin, according to the police, were the candidate’s aides. Momin, formerly a senior commander of the banned militant outfit, the Garo National Liberation Army, was said to have be involved in a series of crimes, including murder and extortion. He had surrendered in December 2016. Three others injured in the explosion are being treated at a private hospital in Guwahati, in neighbouring Assam.

According to a press statement issued by the East Garo Hills district administration, a “probable IED” Improvised Explosive Device blast had taken place in Sawilgre village, some 7 km north of Williamnagar, between 7 pm and 7.30 pm. The police team that responded to the call found four vehicles at the site of the blast. Thirty people, according to the police, were part of the convoy that was attacked.

Elections now stand postponed in Williamnagar, where eight other candidates are in the fray.

‘Not new to threats’

The press statement put out by the district administration said that one of Jonathone N Sangma’s aides had approached the deputy commissioner on February 16 with “a complaint about the posters of threat from some miscreants”. A first information report was filed the next day.

A poster warning the residents of Williamnagar not to vote for Jonathone Sangma.

But the Nationalist Congress Party candidate was no stranger to threats, the press statement noted. Since 2011, two personal security guards had been assigned to him by the state police. In the run up to the 2013 Assembly elections, which he had contested as an independent candidate, Sangma had filed a police complaint alleging that the Garo National Liberation Army was intimidating voters.

While the complaint did not name anyone, a police investigation yielded the name of Deborah C Marak, among others. A Congress candidate, Marak had won the election from Williamnagar in 2013, defeating Sangma by a little less than 3,000 votes. She is also the state’s incumbent education minister.

Marak figures in a chargesheet filed by the state police, named for for criminal conspiracy, using undue influence in elections and criminal intimidation. In November 2014, she was granted bail in the case, which is pending trial. The minister was not available for comment.

The Garo National Liberation Army, which claims to be fighting for a “sovereign Garoland” in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, was formed in 2009. As the group grew in strength, so did the violence unleashed by it. The group faces multiple charges of murder, extortion and abduction.

The group was declared a terrorist organisation by the Centre in 2012. Beginning 2014, the state government stepped up its counterinsurgency operations, which resulted in setbacks for the Garo outfit. In 2016, when Baichung Momin had surrendered, the state police claimed that it was “the end of GNLA”. The same year, the militant outfit expressed a willingness to talk.

The East Garo Hills were at the heart of Garo National Liberation Army’s activities.

Fresh threats

Jonathone N Sangma’s relatives say that he had been worried about fresh threats in the recent past. “Last time when I visited him in January, he was telling me that though he is confident of winning, he is scared,” said Jaynie Sangma, a cousin.

Jaynie Sangma claimed these anxieties had prompted him to ask Baichung Momin to accompany him on campaign tours. “He didn’t feel secure to visit the villages on his own, you know they are still infested with militants, so he told the GNLA guy: ‘You people have surrendered, you have to help me this time, you have to come.’” Her cousin did not have any links with the Garo National Liberation Army, Jaynie Sangma said, he had sought help from Momin only because he had surrendered.

So far, no militant group has claimed the attack. A senior Meghalaya police official also affirmed Jonathone N Sangma had “no direct links” with the Garo National Liberation Army.

A crowd protests against Jonathone N Sangma's killing outside his home in Williamnagar.

Politics and extortion

Both the family and the police say there might have been political motives behind the killing. The constituency was expected to be a tight contest, with several high-profile candidates fighting for the seat. “This is a fallout of internal politics, we suspect,” said the officer, who did not want to be named. Jaynie Sangma also thought “political rivalry” led to her cousin’s murder.

She did not rule out the possibility of an extortion demand, either. “Maybe they asked him money, but he didn’t tell us,” she said.

Jonathone Sangma had declared assets worth over Rs 4 crores in the 2013 elections, including two weapons. He was a coal exporter who had studied till Class 10. In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole mining of coal in the state, but the court has intermittently allowed the transportation of coal that was extracted before the ban.

The ban on coal mining is supposed to have hit the financial resources of the Garo National Liberation Army, which relied on extortion money from coal traders and miners.

‘Out of the blue’, say police

The murder has shocked party colleagues, activists and even the police. Saleng Sangma, the head of the Nationalist Congress Party in Meghalaya, said he was “totally surprised” by the incident. He had spoken to the Williamnagar candidate just hours before he was murdered. “We spoke at 5 pm and he was happily campaigning in his constituency,” said Saleng Sangma.

Barring the posters, he added, Jonathone N Sangma had received no “proper warning” from anyone. “We thought this time it might be a gimmick,” Saleng Sangma said. “We never thought this thing would happen in real.”

Meghalaya’s chief minister, the Congress’s Mukul Sangma, also posted his condolences on Twitter and promised the perpetrators would be brought to book.

Activist Agnes Kharshiing, an activist with the Civil Society Women’s Organisation, accused the state police of not being alert enough. “He had received threats earlier also, everyone knows who are the core groups in the Garo Hills,” she said. “How could it still happen?”

A senior police official posted in the state police headquarters in Shillong, however, insisted that was no “specific input” and that the attack was “completely out of the blue”.

“Measures would have been taken otherwise,” he said. “Yes, there was a threat perception and we had provided him security for that.”