The Violence That Rocked Meghalaya Last Week Is Manifestation Of A Rot Afflicting The Hill State

Jaideep Mazumdar

Aug 20, 2021, 04:50 PM | Updated 04:50 PM IST

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.
Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.
  • The protests that rocked Shillong are only a manifestation of widespread disaffection with the government.
  • Conrad Sangma and others who administer Meghalaya have to realise that the root causes of people’s anger have to be addressed urgently.
  • Meghalaya, no stranger to violence, was rocked by angry protests, arson and attacks on some private properties triggered by the death of a surrendered militant belonging to a proscribed group in an alleged ‘fake encounter’.

    The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), a banned militant outfit which is said to have links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had claimed responsibility for two back-to-back low-intensity IED blasts over the past two months.

    The first blast was at the police reserve in East Jaintia Hills district on 14 July while the second was at a market in state capital Shillong on 10 August.

    The two blasts did not cause much damage — only two persons received minor injuries in the one in Shillong — but they were a major embarrassment for Chief Minister Conrad Sangma who had been claiming credit for improving law and order in the state and curbing militancy.

    Sangma declared that he had given the police a “free hand” to investigate and take action against the perpetrators of the “acts of terror”. That, say many in the state, was interpreted by the police as a ‘licence to kill’.

    In the small hours of 13 August, the police allegedly broke into the house of the former HNLC general secretary Cheristerfield Thangkhiew in Shillong. Thangkhiew, 54, had surrendered and come overground in 2018 and was ailing.

    According to the former militant’s sons who were present in the house, the police shot their father in the abdomen and carried out a search of the house over the next couple of hours instead of rushing the injured man to a hospital.

    The police also allegedly beat up the two sons on suspicion that they were ‘associates’ of the surrendered militant. State police chief R Chandranathan claimed that Thangkhiew had attacked the police team which raided his house with a knife.

    But there were few takers for the police version, especially since Thangkhiew had been bed-ridden for months and had nearly lost use of one of his arms.

    Also, the fact that the police allowed the man to bleed to death instead of taking him to hospital angered many.

    There were many other holes in the police version. Thangkhiew’s two sons, who the police thought were his associates, were arrested and taken to a police station from where they were bundled into a vehicle to be taken to East Jaintia Hills for ‘investigation’. They were returned after police realised their ‘mistake’.

    Thangkhiew’s funeral on 15 August drew huge crowds, and slogans like ‘long live HNLC’ were raised by some young men among the mourners.

    Violence broke out from that afternoon with bands of young men pelting stones at government vehicles and attacking people on the streets.

    Roads were blocked with barricades and burning tyres. The most alarming incident was that of a group of young men commandeering a police SUV that cops had abandoned on being attacked.

    Of the four policemen in the vehicle, three left their sophisticated assault rifles behind. The young men, their faces masked, drove the SUV through the streets of Shillong brandishing the seized assault rifles.

    This Taliban-style act best exemplified the shameful collapse of the law enforcement machinery in the state capital. The chief minister’s private residence was attacked with Molotov cocktails that evening.

    The state administration clamped curfew in the state capital and amidst widespread condemnation of the ‘fake encounter’, Home Minister Lakhmen Rymbui resigned. Rymbui also demanded a judicial inquiry into Thangkiew’s killing.

    The situation has, since then, improved and curfew was lifted in the state capital from dawn to dusk on Thursday and Friday. Chief Minister Sangma agreed to institute a judicial inquiry, and that helped cool tempers.

    But it would be wrong to conclude that the angry protests triggered by Thangkhiew’s death in the alleged ‘fake encounter’ was due to a resurgence of public support for the HNLC.

    The protests that rocked Shillong are only a manifestation of widespread disaffection with the government and acute anger over endemic corruption, misgovernance, growing income inequality, unemployment, lack of access to even basic facilities and many other ills that afflict the hill state.

    People, especially in the remote rural areas of the state, are poor and lack access to even basic healthcare and education. Life expectancy is low and while most women are anaemic, deaths due to malnutrition and other related ailments like tuberculosis are common.

    Meghalaya fares poorly and lags behind almost all other states on most development indices. There is widespread unemployment and government jobs are the only means of livelihood for many people.

    Beyond trading and a small service sector, there are few jobs in the private sector. There is a near-total lack of entrepreneurial spirit and private sector investments — except for the exploitative and ‘dirty’ mining and cement industries — are nil.

    Cost of living is high and even the middle classes struggle to survive. Most of everything that people in the state consume, including food, has to be imported.

    Against this grim backdrop is rising income inequality and an ostentatious lifestyle of the rich and powerful in the state.

    Right or wrong, there is widespread perception that Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and his brother James (he is the Power Minister now) are corrupt and have amassed huge wealth.

    Shillong is rife with rumours of the two brothers purchasing high-end and imported SUVs even during the lockdown, and owning properties all over the state. Drawing room conversations in Shillong inevitably veer to how much wealth the Sangmas have allegedly amassed.

    But it is not just the Sangmas who are accused of corruption, which is endemic in the state where poverty levels are high.

    Politicians, top bureaucrats, many government officials and contractors are widely perceived to have amassed wealth even as the poor live in misery.

    This has fuelled anger against the ‘ruling class’ among the poor and the unemployed. Frustration among jobless young men and women, deep anger among the poor and the deprived, and a general state of disaffection has made Meghalaya a volatile state.

    The killing of Thangkhiew was the spark that ignited the simmering anger and brought it all out in the open.

    The institution of a judicial inquiry and the Chief Minister’s soothing words may have calmed tempers, but that is only temporary.

    Conrad Sangma and others who administer Meghalaya, as well as the bureaucrats who run the state, have to realise that the root causes of people’s anger have to be addressed.

    All the welfare measures for the poor and the deprived — most of the schemes and projects are funded by the Union Government — have to be scrupulously implemented without any leakages so that the twin problems of poverty and hunger are addressed.

    Urgent steps have to be taken to halt growing economic inequality, and providing an honest and responsive government is the need of the hour. Corruption — which is widespread in Meghalaya — has to be tackled very sternly, and the Union Government has a special responsibility in ensuring this.

    All this has to be done immediately, and the corrective action being taken should be visible to the public. Or else, Meghalaya will not only lurch from one crisis to another, but the widespread disaffection among the masses will help fuel another bout of militancy in the state.

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