Monday, November 29, 2021

Unravelling The Shillong Discord



News headlines such as ‘One Militant killed in an encounter or ‘Militant shot dead’ are not uncommon in the North-Eastern states. But the news that carried the death of a surrendered rebel leader, Mr. Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, who was killed in an alleged encounter with Meghalaya Police at his Mawlai residence on ‘Friday the 13th’ of August caused unrest in the otherwise peaceful city of Shillong.


A day after India celebrated its 75th year of Independence, the people of Meghalaya witnessed something extraordinary- hundreds of people from Mawlai Shillong, shouted ‘ long live HNLC’ as the mortal remain of Mr. Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, the former General Secretary of Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, was taken to be laid to rest. Reportedly the slain ex- militant occasionally served as a mediator between the Government and HNLC, a banned militant outfit that claims to represent the cause of Khasi-Jaintia people and aims to free Meghalaya from the clutch of ‘outsiders.’ This incident of people openly supporting the militants and chanting pro-militant slogans at Mawlai, Shillong must be a first not just in the state of Meghalaya but the entire North East, in recent times.


“Every time my friends from mainland India asked me a place to visit in North East India, ‘Shillong’ would usually be my answer without even a second of pause. ‘Meghalaya is not only beautiful but one of the most peaceful states in North East India,’ I’d on the whole opined,” tweeted a user in Twitter. Most people have the same idea about Shillong- different from other NE states like Nagaland and Manipur, which still are categorised as disturbed areas and have long-pending militancy issues to deal with albeit in a much-improved environment. They must be wondering now, ‘What has happened to Shillong?’


The Meghalaya Government is initiating a judicial inquiry into the incident to probe whether the former rebel leader was killed in a fake encounter as alleged by the deceased’s family or in self-defence according to the police’s version. It matters little as to whose version is true. What matters is the death of a person in the hands of people, who are supposed to protect people. Since the matter is now sub-judicial, it will be in the best interest to let the concerned people do their task. However, going even by their version that the person killed had a knife with him, the Meghalaya police will have to come up with an extraordinary explanation as to why ‘killing’ was considered the only option available for self defence. 


What is worrying in Mr. Cherishterfield’s case is the manifestation of how the public has so little faith in the Government and the rebirth of public sympathy for militants. That an incident of bomb blast a few days earlier had many people fuming and even cursing the development- of the emergence of militancy issue in the state again after decades of peaceful atmosphere. A few people however dismissed the incident as being a desperate attempt by some organisation to proclaim their existence and that nothing serious should be attached to the incident. All in all, the public was unsympathetic, if not wary of militants in Shillong and Meghalaya. And all that changed overnight with the death of Mr. Thangkhiew. 


While there are understandable concerns of civilians being subjected to up-teem hardships due to restrictions on account of the pandemic and the curfew and internet shutdown imposed upon them, the move to prevent public unrest does temporarily provide some respite. The Meghalaya government appears to have done its best to manage the mess it found itself. The urgent formation of a committee comprising CSOs, student leaders, headmen, and various stakeholders is a commendable step; there were sufficient pieces of evidence that indicate that the much volatile situation could develop into serious law and order issue. 


 That Mawlai Headmen refused to participate in the peace committee until the police personnel involved in the killing of the ex-rebel leader and their resolve to govern on their own is worrisome. Unfortunate more than the decision to excommunicate the Government itself is the prevalence of such an environment which warranted such development. As opined by many people, the best thing would have been for the Meghalaya Police to not kill Cherishterfield but since that is now not possible, the Government should avoid covering it up with another mistake- denying the family and people of Meghalaya the whole truth that happened. 


The Meghalaya Government could salvage some faith by sincerely co-operating the judicial inquiry, revamping its policies on policing and involving CSOs to find an amicable solution. Another area the Government should have a relook is the chain of command in the home ministry, where the concerned minister itself is allegedly not taken into confidence for the operation on that fateful night. And ifreports of the HNLC withdrawing from peace talks post the killing of Cherishterfield are true, it will take a sincere commitment on the part of the Government to find ways to regain its lost image as being a trustworthy authorityIn the effort to re-establish Shillong to its original name and fame asbeing an educational and tourist hotspot that routinely attracts thousands of people from far and wide, the most important step would be to ensure that peace and tranquility bloom once again in the Scotland of the East. 

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