Shillong Violence: On Independence Day, Rule of Law Collapses
In a shock to the people of Meghalaya, police on 13 August shot Cheris, claiming he was still involved with HNLC.
Friday, the 13th is always ominous. It heralded a black day for Meghalaya two days away from Independence Day.
A week ago, the proscribed Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) formed way back in 1991 had warned the public not to venture out on Republic Day and Independence Day and had said that they planted the low intensity IED at the Laitumkhrah market in the heart of Shillong, because the people of the area always defied their bandh call.
The HNLC publicity secretary who goes by the name of Sainkupar Nongtraw warned media houses not to trash their press releases calling for bandhs if they are really a free press serving a public cause.
Cheris, Longest Serving Cadre of HNLC, Is Shot
The Meghalaya High Court had in an order in 2015, directed that media should not report on bandh calls from banned outfits. For now, the media finds itself between a rock and hard place.
Intrigued by who Sainkupar Nongtraw is and the tone and tenor of his missives, The Shillong Times deputed two of their reporters to meet with Bah Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, the longest serving cadre of the HNLC, its founder member and general secretary until his surrender in October 2018 at his residence on Thursday, 12 August.
The reporters went there and met with his family members but were told that Cheris was not at home. They managed to get his mobile number and sent it to this writer. I called up Cheris twice and also sent him a message that I needed to talk to him. He never replied to the calls or the message.
When I heard that he was shot in what is euphemistically termed as “police shooting in private defense” because Cheris came at them with a knife, I was shell-shocked. For some reason, it became a very personal thing.
In the past this writer, who was then an activist had along with other like-minded colleagues, formed an organisation called “Shillong We Care,” in 1998.
We campaigned extensively against violence, extortion and the gun culture; had street corner meetings and street plays using young people who also believed in peace and non-violence. We openly defied the bandh calls of HNLC and would come out on the two national days.
In 2000, Meghalaya had a no-nonsense Home Minister in RG Lyngdoh, who dealt firmly with the HNLC and filed FIRs against all those who were paying extortion money to the outfit.
Several business persons in and around Shillong filed anticipatory bails and had to henceforth choose between paying the HNLC or being arrested for aiding and abetting militancy.
When funding to the outfit dried up, many of the cadres came overground and were assisted with small loans by Government, so they can start life afresh.
In October 2018, Cheris came overground after having had an understanding with the present MDA Government. To the government, he was yet another ‘surrenderee,’ but Cheris calls it his retirement from the HNLC. So, there’s a difference of perception there too.
What Led to the Killing of Cheris?
On 13 July this year, the HNLC triggered an IED blast at a Police Reserve in East Jaintia Hills. The outfit said this was just a demonstration that they can plants an IED any time, any where they chose to.
They were trying to put pressure on the Government to call them for talks. The Government on its part wanted them to first surrender with arms and ammunition and only then would they talk to the outfit. It is this battle of nerves that the HNLC is engaged in and the IED blasts are meant to send a message that they still have fire power.
On 10 August, this year the HNLC placed a low-intensity IED at a busy marketplace at Laitumkhrah. Fortunately, only two people were injured in the blast.
Following that blast and the public outrage, Meghalaya’s Home Minister gave a public statement that there was an intelligence failure. Perhaps this is what set off the police. In the wee hours of Friday 13 August, a posse of policemen led by the SP of East Jaintia Hills, JS Dhanao went to Cheris’ home, broke into his bedroom and claiming that he tried to lunge at the police with a knife they shot him dead.
From the accounts of his two sons who slept in the same room as their father, after Cheris was shot the police took him to the Civil Hospital at Shillong, where he was declared brought dead.
'Former Militant Became Urban Legend'
Meghalaya’s DGP claimed in a press conference after the killing of Cheris that the police had incontrovertible evidence that Cheris was still involved with the HNLC and was giving them all kinds of inputs on IEDs etc. This claim is strange since Cheris was also unofficially a sort of interlocutor between the HNLC and the Government.
Whenever he was called for interrogation to the police station, he would diligently be present. Moreover, the 57-year-old Cheris was, according to his brother already suffering from chronic renal failure and had difficulty even climbing up the stairs to his house.
As soon as news of the death of Cheris spread across the city there was rage and all-round condemnation. The former militant became an urban legend, a martyr of sorts.
Since Cheris’ body was brought rather late in the evening of Friday, the family decided to bury him on Sunday, 15 August, since as per tradition the body of a deceased person has to be kept at home for at least one day for family and friends to pay their tributes.
Youth Barge Into Police Outpost, Burn Police Vehicle
Hundreds flocked to pay their last respects to “Bah Che” (Bah means brother in Khasi and is a commonly used to address an elder brother). Some pressure groups comprising the Hynniewtrep Youth Council and others gave a call for people, especially the young to come from across the Khasi-Jaintia Hills to converge at Mawlai Kynton Massar where Cheris lives so that they could take out a funeral procession.
Before that on Saturday a call was given to switch off the lights at exactly 7 pm as a mark of respect for Cheris. People were told to carry black flags as a protest against the cold-blooded killing.
It was evident that there would be a law-and-order fall-out as the rage of people across age groups was palpable. But it appears as if the state was unprepared.
Some youth barged inside a police outpost at Mawkynroh, Mawlai after vandalizing the gate, overpowered the policemen there, took away a Scorpio vehicle with weapons in it and drove around the city in it.
The person in the front seat stood with a gun and showed it proudly. Having demonstrated their strength, the youth then took the vehicle to Jaiaw, not too far from Mawlai, the place where all the action is, and set the vehicle ablaze.
Home-Minister Resigns, District Administration Imposes Curfew to Control Violence
Another group on motorcycles that led the funeral procession, shouted “Long Live HNLC.” This is the first time ever that people mustered courage to openly side with a proscribed outfit.
Sunday, 15 August, was memorable in many ways.
Meghalaya’s Home Minister who had gone for the flag hoisting ceremony at Nongstoin, headquarters of West Khasi Hills District, which is 62 kms from Shillong. On his return to the capital city, he heard of all the unpleasant developments.
His party the United Democratic Party (UDP) called a meeting and he was told it was better he submits his resignation before there was a public hue and cry. Accordingly, Home Minister, Lahkmen Rymbui sent his resignation letter to the Chief Minister on Sunday evening. As of writing this article it is not known whether the resignation letter has been accepted.
The district administration having failed to contain the situation and seeing the videos of vandalism and arson flying thick and fast, decided to take the easiest step. Internet was banned for 48 hours from August 15, 2021 in four districts of Meghalaya adjoining East Khasi Hills District where the Meghalaya capital of Shillong is located. Curfew was also imposed on Greater Shillong area from 15 August to 18 August.
'Public Anger Over Bad Governance Was Let Loose on I-Day'
This is a double whammy for the people of Shillong who are already reeling under the pandemic. Incidentally Mawlai is also the one place where Covid cases has been consistently high.
With all the drama and crowding that happened since 13 August, there is no knowing what the consequences will be. One thing is clear though. The public have lost confidence in the MDA Government headed by NPP President Conrad Sangma.
Under this Government, illegal coal mining has continued unabated. Coke factories using coal as a raw material have come up by the dozens in East Jaintia Hills and West Khasi Hills.
These coking units are highly polluting and it is surprising how they got clearance from the State Pollution Control Board and the single window agency headed by the Chief Minister.
Recently, there was a huge public protest against the coke plants. There is the alleged scam related to the Saubhagya Scheme for supplying electricity to rural home in Meghalaya, based on a preliminary report of the Accountant General.
All these add up to bad governance and loss of public trust. Public frustration and anger that has been pent up was let loose on India’s 75th Independence Day – a day that will be etched in Meghalaya’s annals – a Black Day indeed in every sense of the term.
((The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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