In a quiet leafy neighbourhood up a gentle slope in Meghalaya’s Tura lives Dillash M Marak, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s local unit. But that is not why almost everyone in the town knows the way to “Dillash ka ghar”, a sprawling structure amid the wilderness complete with many dogs, cats and fowls. The soft-spoken man, who easily breaks into a laugh, once used to be the leader of a much-feared outlawed militant group, the Achik National Volunteer Council.
The group, which wanted a separate state for the Garos, ran a violent campaign for over a decade, targeting not only government forces but civilians as well. In 2004, it signed a ceasefire agreement with the central government. But by the time the outfit officially disbanded and signed a memorandum of settlement with the government – 10 years later, in 2014 – much had changed both within the group and outside.
Internally, there had been a split. Bernard N Marak, a suave English-speaking graduate who had joined as a “civil officer”, launched a splinter group in 2011, christened the B group of the Achik National Volunteer Council. This group too signed the peace agreement.
More significant, though, was Sohan D Shira leaving the original group to float the Garo National Liberation Army in 2009. The outfit, which turned out to be more violent than its predecessors, is still active, if diminished.
In the last Assembly election held in February, both Dillash Marak and Bernard Marak were candidates. Another candidate, Jonathone N Sangma of Nationalist Congress Party, was killed in a blast. It is alleged the Garo National Liberation Army was behind it. A week later, Shira himself was gunned down. The police claimed credit for his killing. Then, a few days after the government led by the National People’s Party assumed office, eight members of the Garo National Army – reportedly its “last batch” – surrendered. Home Minister James Sangma called it the “beginning of the end of militancy in Meghalaya”.
The central government too responded, citing improvement in the state’s security situation to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on April 23. The controversial law gives the military sweeping powers to search and arrest, and to open fire with a degree of immunity from prosecution. In Meghalaya, the law was restricted to areas bordering Assam which were used by bigger armed groups to bring in men and material, often with the help of Garo militants.
Conversations with former militants reveal an intricate web of connections with other armed groups in the North East, raising the question: has the Garo militancy truly ended?
But first, what was it all about?
The first strains of Garo nationalism, according to the historian Milton S Sangma, can be traced back to the years just before India’s independence. “As the two-nation theory was proposed, there were murmurs that the plain areas of the Garo Hills could go to East Pakistan and that made people here feel very insecure,” said Milton Sangma, the founding pro vice chancellor of the North East Hill University’s campus in Tura. While that did not happen, the historian recalled, there were also apprehensions about “the fate of Garos, a small tribe, in the Indian nation, and what might happen to the community if they are not able to preserve their identity”. That was “the beginning of Garo nationalism”.
To address such concerns, a conference of all Garos was called in 1946. “That is the first recorded instance of Garos from all parts of the North East assembling together,” he said. Around the same time, the first Garo political party, the Garo National Council, was formed.
The Garo Hills was then part of Assam and remained so until Meghalaya was made a separate state in 1972. “There were no real objections to being part of Assam, but there were fears of being forced to assimilate,” said Milton Sangma. Specifically, the “fear of Assamese imposition”. “Sometimes, Garo boys would go to schools and prevent the teaching of Assamese,” he recalled. But such fears never got out of control as the Garos had “great trust in Gopinath Bordoloi”, Assam’s first chief minister.
This first wave of Garo nationalism, Milton Sangma said, was largely benign and never secessionist. “I have never heard of any Garo not identifying himself as Indian,” he said.
Insurgency takes wing
The second wave, which started in the late 1980s, was much more militant. It was triggered, Milton Sangma said, by concerns that “Garos will be a minority in their own homeland” in the wake of “an influx from Bangladesh and other parts of India”.
It was around this time that Meghalaya’s first militant group began to take flight. The Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council, founded on “anti-outsider” sentiments, comprised both the state’s major tribes, the Khasis and the Garos. The unity, however, did not last long. The group split down the middle as the two tribes soon developed differences over reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Explaining the split, the Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim once remarked, “Inclusion and ethnic aspirations do not mix well.”
The division resulted in two new groups – the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, claiming to represent Khasi interests, and the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army, fighting for a sovereign Garo state. According to Sanggra S Sangma, who teaches history at Tura’s Don Bosco College, the birth of the Achik Army – the Garo also call themselves Achik – in May 1991 “with the help and active support of Naga underground leaders” was the beginning of the “insurgency movement in the Garo Hills”.
The group was led by Wilbur K Sangma with Desang M Sangma as his deputy. Dillash Marak, as “defence secretary”, was the third in command. The Achik Army announced its arrival, Milton Sangma said, by robbing a bank in Rongjeng, East Garo Hills.
Dillash Marak recalled that most of the Achik Army’s activities were conducted with “the help of ULFA friends”, referring to the Assamese insurgent group, the United Liberation Front of Assam. “I wanted to protect my people as everyone knew the Garo Hills was going to be another Tripura,” he said, explaining his reason for picking up arms. In Tripura, fears about a changing demography – the state’s indigenous tribes, once the majority, now account for just around 30% of the population – had led to similar discontent.
The Achik Army’s journey was short-lived, however. Struggling for want of resources, the group surrendered in 1994. While most of its cadres, including Wilbur Sangma and Desang Sangma, were granted immunity in exchange for surrender, a few accused of serious offences were jailed. They included Dillash Marak and another senior leader Jerome Momin.
After a few months in a Shillong district jail, though, Momin and Dillash Marak fled. “We were helped by HNLC and NSCN (IM),” Dillash Marak recounted, referring to the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). “After that we reached Bangladesh where we met Paresh Baruah and Arabinda Rajkhowa.” Baruah is the ULFA’s “commander-in-chief” while Rajkhowa was its chairman until his arrest in 2009.
Dillash Marak and Momin soon floated the Achik National Volunteer Council. Unlike its predecessor, the new group did not demand sovereignty. Its stated objective was the creation of a separate state for the Garo people. The proposed state, comprising the Garo Hills and parts of Assam, was called Garoland or Achikland.
The ULFA trained the Achik Council’s cadres in its camps in Bangladesh and helped it procure arms from North Korea and Cambodia, said Dillash Marak. The primary source of funds for the new group was coal traders in the area from whom it routinely and mercilessly extorted. It was also generously funded and plied with arms by the NSCN (IM) but the arrangement did not last long as the “NSCN tried to dominate us”, Dillash M Marak recounted.
Slowly, riding on an elaborate extortion network and favourable geography that security forces found difficult to penetrate, the Achik Council grew strong. The region’s thick forests and mountainous terrain came in handy for another purpose: as a transit route to smuggle in arms from Bangladesh. According to Dillash Marak, his outfit smuggled arms for at least three armed groups in the North East – the ULFA in Assam, the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup in Manipur. “Our job was to carry arms coming in from Bangladesh to ULFA’s camp in South Goalpara,” he said, referring to a place in Assam. “For every 50 guns we carried, we got 7-10 as a note of thanks.”
Apart from the ULFA, the Achik Council also worked closely with the Bodo militant group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.
Killing their own
However, the group’s ruthless extortion network meant it enjoyed limited popular support in the Garo Hills. Initially, only non-Garo residents were targeted for extortion but eventually the Garos were not spared either. “The only support they had was in villages,” said Milton Sangma. “Poor villagers who were given hope they would become big people if Garoland came into being.”
The group also resorted to killing Garos it suspected of being police informers. “Villagers were caught between the devil and the deep sea,” the historian said. “They were often forced at gunpoint to provide food and shelter to the militants, and if the police found out they would harass the villagers. The police’s mishandling made the problem bigger than it was then.”
In 2000, the Indian government outlawed the Achik National Volunteer Council.
Half a truce
As blood continued to be spilled, church leaders started reaching out to the group’s leaders, asking them to give up arms. According to Dillash Marak, they were convinced by “church elders to come out of the jungle and talk” in 2003.
Soon, the Indian government also started sending missives. Zoramthanga, a former militant leader who had become chief minister of Mizoram, played a part as well. “I sent some of my subordinates to talk to him and the home ministry in Bangkok,” said Dillash Marak. “Since he was experienced, we listened to him. He had also spent time in the jungle like us.”
Finally, after a series of meetings that also involved the Garo Baptist Convention, the Achik Council agreed to a ceasefire in 2004. “We never surrendered, we just laid down our arms,” insisted Dillash Marak. “I have no regret about what I did. They call us militants but we are revolutionaries.”
Seven years later, the Achik Council split. The reason, according to Bernard Marak, was that it had become “difficult to negotiate with the government” because of Dillash Marak’s “clandestine ways”. Specifically, Bernard Marak charged, his boss had not disclosed that around 80 operatives of the group were still active and hiding in the jungles with help of the NSCN (IM). “They had their arms with them and Dillash wanted to keep them as backup if the talks did not work out,” he said. “But the intelligence agencies were aware of their existence.”
Bernard Marak convinced the “hidden operatives” to join him in a separate group, he said. Thus was formed the Achik National Volunteer Council (B) in October 2011.
In 2014, both factions signed a settlement with the government. Instead of a separate state, the deal provided for adding more seats to the elected district councils in the Garo Hills and bringing 13 new departments under them. The councils, moreover, would be funded directly by the Centre.
In the meantime, a new force had emerged that made the Garo Hills militancy even more sinister.
Sohan Shira’s story begins after the Achik National Volunteer Council signed the ceasefire agreement in 2004. He got involved in arms smuggling, selling guns previously used by the Achik Council to another Garo outfit, Liberation Achik Elite Force, propped up by Naga armed groups. The Elite Force was led by a rogue Meghalaya Police commando Peter Marak. The outfit, which Shira subsequently joined, was formed almost exclusively by the Garos in Nagaland, said GHP Raju, a police officer who led anti-insurgency operations in the Garo Hills from 2010 to 2016.
After Peter Marak was killed by the police in 2007, Shira surrendered. Two years later, however, Shira, along with a former police officer, Champion D Sangma, launched perhaps the most extremist of all Garo groups, the Garo National Liberation Army.
Shira’s group “were barbarians”, said Milton Sangma. “People led very insecure lives, they would receive demand notes all the time,” he added. “Bureaucrats stopped going to work in rural areas because they feared they would be kidnapped or killed. The administration of rural Garo Hills was practically run from Tura.”
Stories of the Garo National Liberation Army’s brutality are well documented. In June 2014, its cadres pumped six bullets into a woman’s face allegedly for resisting rape. In a statement owning the murder, the group accused the woman of having being a police informer and warned that it “shall never spare anyone responsible for the death of our cadres”.
In its initial days, the outfit, like its predecessor, gained greatly from its association with the NSCN (IM). But after some time, Raju said, the group “distanced itself from NSCN and moved to ULFA for explosives, ammunition, training”. The outfit’s point person in the ULFA was Drishti Rajkhowa, a Rabha from Assam married to a Garo woman. Drishti Rajkhowa, who also goes by Manoj Rabha, is known to be a close aide of Baruah. In return, the Garo group helped the ULFA move its cadres and weapons from Bangladesh to Assam, said Raju.
Additionally, Raju said, the militant outfit “procured arms and ammunition from Nagaland”. “Meghalaya police have arrested many Dimapur-based arms smugglers and recovered arms and ammunition meant for the GNLA,” he said.
Countering with faith
To counter the Garo National Liberation Army, the government again sought help from church elders, appointing a group of them as interlocutors in 2015. Not long after, 16 operatives of the militant group surrendered, a development that is widely believed to have broken its back. “The church and the society worked together,” said Reverend Fritting Sangma, pastor of the Hawakhana Baptist Church in Tura who was among the interlocutors. “We convinced the government to pardon them and not send them to jail if they hadn’t committed heinous crimes.”
At the same time, the police penetrated into the interior villages where the militants were known to take refuge. “We occupied the villages and denied logistic support to the militants,” said Raju. “We held the ground for months. This caused immense trouble for militants as they could not procure ration from these villages. Many militants deserted the GNLA camps and ran away.”
In 2016, Meghalaya raised an elite commando force, Special Force-10, to deal with insurgents. This, a senior police officer said, was done to avoid calling in the Army and, thereby, antagonise local people. It was Special Force-10 that is said to killed Shira. “Because once you call in the Army, it is outsiders versus locals, but the SF-10 is a homegrown force made of our boys,” said the senior officer who asked not to be identified.
The commando force’s head, Jerry Fischer K Marak, turned down multiple requests for interview.
Yet, many observers say successive governments did not do enough to quell the insurgency – and that politicians of all hues benefited from the militants, particularly during elections. There have been intermittent demands by civil society groups to investigate the alleged politician-militant nexus in the Garo Hills, but to no avail.
More recently, the timing and circumstances of Shira’s killing – there were no other casualties during the gunfight, which took place days after Jonathone Sangma’s death – have raised fresh questions. How could Shira, Meghalaya’s most wanted man with a bounty of Rs 10 lakh on his head and a reputation of being extremely guarded about his movements – be caught off-guard at a time when the police were known to be hot in his pursuit?
On their part, ex-militants admit to having helped politicians. “We used to help in our early days because we thought they would help us with Garoland when they came to power but they never did, so we stopped,” said Dillash Marak. Bernard Marak seconded him, before going on to blame politicians whose “entire focus was on political gains and not the development of Garo Hills”. The insurgency, he claimed, was the Garo people’s “voice for development”. “We were demanding tribal empowerment with a different administrative setup,” he added.
Rebels without a cause
The Garo Hills has indeed been struggling with underdevelopment. The largely rural area has more people under the poverty line than any other part of the state. To add to that, most districts in the area have literacy rates lower than the state average. But few residents, beaten down by years of extortion by militants and excesses by the police, believe a separate state would solve all their problems.
Alva Sangma said militancy was “not the answer we were looking for”. “No one was ever consulted by these groups,” said the journalist-turned-entrepreneur who lives in Tura. “It would be like, okay, we have formed a new group, we want a separate state. There have been so many of these groups, one after another, it has become a cottage industry, all about earning easy money.”
Hazards of coal
Apart from the efforts of the church and the police, people acquainted with the dynamics of the Garo militancy point out, the ban on rat-hole coal mining, imposed by the National Green Tribunal in 2014, hastened the Garo National Liberation Army’s downfall. Like its predecessors, the outfit’s operations were largely funded by money extorted from coal traders. “For any militancy to survive and thrive, two conditions are essential – funds and shelter places,” Raju explained. “In Garo Hills, the money from coal business and the thick forests and hilly terrain ensured militancy thrived.”
This is why the new state government’s plan to find a way around the ban and restart mining has people worried in the Garo Hills. “Believe me if coal comes back, militancy will be back,” cautioned Alva Sangma. “It is all about money anyway.”
Raju agreed, saying a resurgence was likely considering the availability of arms. “Sohan had accumulated a large quantity of arms, ammunition and explosive material,” he said. “He buried them somewhere in the jungles of Garo Hills and a few of the surrendered GNLA cadres know where. There is every possibility of some elements gaining access to these hidden weapons and forming a new outfit. Illegal weapons are freely available from smugglers in Nagaland as well.”
Indeed, earlier this month, the police discovered a large cache of arms and ammunition, suspected to be hidden by the Garo National Liberation Army, in East Garo Hills.
Fritting Sangma also cautioned against writing off the militant group. “The lure of money”, he said, makes it difficult to eliminate the insurgency completely. “The youth here have seen how to make easy money by extortion,” he said. “And during the heyday of the GNLA, everyone was making money. Petty criminals, NGOs, everyone extorted.”
A former militant who did not want to be identified was more candid: “Just the face will change now, the ULFA will call the shots more directly. It was always Drishti Rajkhowa who was guiding Sohan. He is still alive. There are all these arms the police have no idea about. How can they say insurgency is over?”
Milton Sangma was more optimistic, suggesting that the lack of a credible leadership may act as a check. “So far nobody has shown up as a replacement to Sohan, so that’s good news,” he said. “Also, the weakening of groups such as NSCN and ULFA means it will be tougher for them to regroup.”
Former insurgents claim the old fault lines still persist. “It has been almost four years but none of the points in our agreement with the government has been implemented,” pointed out Bernard Marak. “At the grassroots, people’s lives have not changed at all.”
Champion Sangma, who was recently granted bail by the Supreme Court, said resentment still ran high among unemployed Garo youth because of their “stepmotherly treatment” by the government. “That is why all the groups are demanding that Garo Hills be separated from Meghalaya,” he said. “And people support that demand.” His former comrade Dillash Marak echoed the view. “We may have laid down our arms but the struggle for Garoland is going on,” he said. “It is what the Garo public wants and supports.”
Do the Garos really want a separate state, or support its proponents? Going by the result of the last election, the answer is a resounding no. The Garo National Council, the only party which explicitly supports the demand, failed to win a seat. Both Bernard Marak and Dillash Marak suffered embarrassing defeats, even losing their deposits. “There was hardly ever any support for them,” said Alva Sangma. “There was only fear.”