From July 2007:
It always makes me smile when people who have never, ever, encountered any form of terrorism, haven’t been within a hundred kilometres of a terrorist strike, pontificate on it. I’ve seen terrorists; I interviewed a former terrorist leader; and I’ve seen the aftermath of a terrorist operation. Read on…
A thin middle aged man with high cheekbones, vaguely reminiscent of a well-nourished skeleton, sits next to a fat man with a fishlike face and blinks nervously at the media. He is dressed in a grey suit over a white T shirt and seems to be the focus of considerable attention. Despite his utterly nondescript looks, he may be able to claim that he is a celebrity.
The date is 24 July 2007. The venue is the Chief Minister’s office in the Secretariat building in Shillong. The fish-faced fat man is the Chief Minister of the state of Meghalaya, DD Lapang. And the well-nourished skeleton is the chairman of the Khasi terrorist outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), Julius K. Dorphang. The occasion is his formal surrender to the authorities.
Time was when the HNLC (whose flag is above) literally ruled the eastern half of the state of Meghalaya - this state, that is - when its writ ran so completely that it seemed the government had surrendered all its authority. Today, it is so shattered that the surrender of one of its three top men causes hardly a ripple.
How did this come about?
In order to understand that, we need to know a little bit about the HNLC and how it came into being, a potted history, as it were, of its meteoric rise and protracted fall.
The origins of the HNLC were somewhere in the late eighties – the exact date isn’t germane to the discussion, but is variously described at between 1988 and 1990 – at a time when setting up rebel guerrilla outfits was quite a fashion in North East India. The original outfit was called the Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC) and the idea – so far as it had an idea – was to “liberate” the state of Meghalaya from Indian rule. The Hynniewtrep in the name referred to the Khasi and Jaintia tribes of the eastern half of the state while the Achik were the Garo tribe which inhabits the western half. Since the Garos and the Khasis have never hit it off, the outfit split almost immediately (1992) to form the HNLC and the Garo outfit, the Achik Liberation Matgrik Army (ALMA). The ALMA surrendered in the early nineties and was supplanted by a new group, the Achik National Volunteer Congress (ANVC) – which isn’t really relevant to this discussion.
Now, the Hynniewtrep branch of the old HALC formed the HNLC, its three top men being Julius Dorphang as chairman, Cheristerfield Thangkhiew as general secretary, and John Kharkrang as commander.
All this was in the early nineties, when I was over 1600 kilometres away studying in Lucknow. I hardly got any news of what was going on here except when I came home briefly on vacation. So I have to depend on media reports…
The first I heard of the HNLC was when the outfit itself shot dead its own commander John Kharkrang. To this day I don’t know what his sin was, but I suspect it had something to do with sharing out funds. Anyway, Kharkrang was – I remember reading about his demise in the paper – chased down a busy road in a commercial area of the city (Laitumkhrah, for those who know this town) in broad daylight, until he ran into a post office for shelter, and was shot dead even as he was begging for someone to save him. Although the shooting was in front of a hundred witnesses, none of his killers was apprehended. This was something that would become increasingly frequent as time went on. Bobby Marwein replaced John Kharkrang as commander.
Before I go further I have to say a few things that have to be kept in mind.
First, “insurgency” in North East India has almost nothing to do with the popular conception of the term. “Insurgency” here is utterly without any trace of ideology or purpose and is for one purpose only – monetary gain. Get that right, monetary gain.
How does insurgency square with monetary gain?
Well, in the first place, terrorists have guns. The ordinary citizen not only does not have guns but wouldn’t know what to do with them if they had them. And since the average Indian citizen knows well enough not to trust in the state to protect him or her, the way to buy safety is to pay protection money. All right so far?
So, the modus operandi of the typical North East Indian terrorist group is this: “demand notes” are handed out to businessmen and traders, especially of those belonging to minority ethnic communities. These poor sods are often fingered by their business competitors and if they don’t pay they have a choice – to be shot or to be forced right out of business. Most often, they pay a hefty amount of protection money. So the terrorist group has a substantial sum of money in its war chest.
Now, the group uses part of the funds to pay to have some of its men trained by other terrorist groups, those with established bases of their own, like the Kachin narcoterrorists of Myanmar. Later, once it has enough men and fund, it sets up its own camps. Most of the groups can also be assured of covert support from any government in power in Bangladesh. Military or civilian, the Bangladeshi government cheerfully hosts Indian terror groups.
Then, as more and more money starts coming in, from an ever-widening circle of extortion, the group starts getting political patronage. A large paramilitary organisation is something no politician worth his cut in every deal going can ever afford to pass up – and Indian politicians are the world’s most venal. Especially in the villages, the terrorists get the politician’s will done while in the government, the politician becomes the group’s patron and protector. Usually everyone knows perfectly well who the patrons are, but nobody can do a thing. The terrorists are far too powerful.
By this time there will be so much money with the terrorists that the unemployed youth, seduced by the image of glory and power, will flood into its ranks.
. Around the same time the terrorists will begin intimidating the media, which never really requires much in the way of intimidating, and begin influencing such things as which firm gets government contracts.
So, as you can see, more and more money keeps flooding in.
By this time, the terrorist group’s bosses will have begun keeping aside a major portion of the funds for their own use. Most of it will go into the businesses they invest in, whether in Bangladesh or Thailand or Amsterdam or wherever. The terrorist group leaders get rapidly rich on the group’s earnings and on their investments, so it becomes absolutely in their interests to keep the movement going as long as possible.
In some states, like Manipur or Nagaland, the terrorists become so powerful that they openly get a percentage of the salaries of government employees as “tax” and none dare say them nay. I’m not making this up.
With me so far?
Now to get back to the HNLC. Some of the HNLC’s “exploits” are posted in the link I put up above.
As one can see, they never really amounted to a hill of beans, but the figures don’t point to the absolute sway the HNLC had over civil society in those days. You couldn’t pick up a local paper, for instance, without finding the latest pronouncements of the HNLC plastered in banner headlines on the front page. The local press in effect became the mouthpieces and cheerleaders of the HNLC, and if any HNLC were ever killed in a firefight you could be assured of the local media screaming of how the government was murdering innocent tribal youth.
The HNLC, despite its open violence, wasn’t banned till November 2000 – and after it was banned, I remember the local politicians falling over themselves blaming each other for the ban. About the only politician who condemned the HNLC and supported the ban at the time was the old and infirm former chief minister, Brington Buhai Lyngdoh.
On 5 January 2001, I was in my clinic when HNLC terrorists attacked an electronic showroom (Aristo Enterprises) barely a hundred metres from my clinic. I remember it as a bitterly cold day with heavy clouds. It was mid-afternoon when a gang of HNLC in camouflage uniforms drew up in front of the showroom in a taxi and opened fire through the glass panes. They shot five people – three salesmen, Bengali “outsiders”, and two customers, who happened to be Khasis like the terrorists themselves. The reason for the strike? The owners of Aristo hadn’t paid a sum demanded of them.
Now here is an illustration of the sort of thing that kept happening in those days. Till a couple of days before the attack, a regular armed police picket had been posted just outside Aristo. Abruptly and for no known reason, that picket had been withdrawn. (When the government was asked about it – that picket had been there for years – the minister concerned said the picket “had done its quota there and had been routinely rotated.” I guess someone forgot to tell the terrorists that the place was no longer on their hit list.)
After the shooting, the HNLC gang got back inside the cab and calmly drove off with absolutely no attempt by police to either block them or to take any action. All that happened was the state police chief, one G Raju, thundering about how he would track down and annihilate the HNLC responsible for the attack within twenty four hours. 24 hours? It’s been five and a half years.
Oh, incidentally, the local media condemned that attack. They condemned the fact that two Khasis had been killed. They almost ignored the deaths of the other three. The HNLC, too, “apologised” for the deaths of those two, but for nobody else. Still, this episode was to have a substantial long term effect on the HNLC’s future. How, I’ll discuss in a moment.
Then, another time, a large portion of the top brass of the HNLC, including Bobby Marwein, was surrounded at a meeting in a forest called Sonapani near Shillong. It looked like they had no hope. Armed police had surrounded the forest with armoured cars and were pushing in on all sides. Ah, but you forgot the politicians. As darkness fell, the police were withdrawn to resume the advance the next day. By “withdrawn” I mean withdrawn all the way to their homes. Nothing was left around the forest, not even an observation team. Well, the HNLC not being completely brainless, by morning they had all long since left.
Around that time one would also keep reading articles in the press about how so-and-so of the HNLC had been captured by the police. I remember some of those. In one instant, Mangkara Pakyntein, said to be Bobby Marwein’s bodyguard, was captured in Shillong. I recall reading of it in the paper. This was about 2002. Well, the next year, Mangkara Pakyntein surrendered to the authorities. He wasn’t the only HNLC to be arrested or surrender more than once. There were many in those days who were quietly released after capture because the politicians wanted it that way.
Those were the days when the HNLC almost completely controlled the large suburb of Mawlai in the north of this city. It’s a maze of lanes and residential houses, where one can easily duck after firing shots at the police, and with forests nearby where one run when things get too hot. In other words, it was ideal urban guerrilla country.
Those were days when the police began putting up notices around town in collaboration with an organisation called Shillong We Care, which read along the lines of “Are you extorted? Phone 100” – which is the police control room number, the equivalent of the US’ 911. I found out for myself what these notices meant.
In the same building as my clinic is an electronics showroom – not the same as the one which was attacked. (This particular showroom is well known for illegal practices like reselling used appliances as new, overcharging, denying free gifts, and so on.) Well, one of the employees at the time was a friend, Ricardo, who came one day to me when I was free and asked me if I wanted to see the HNLC in action. So I went over with him and stood just within the door and watched what was going on. There were three young men sitting opposite the owner and talking to him. Apart from one, who was bespectacled, in a white shirt, very short and crewcut, the other two were utterly ordinary. Ricardo told me there were there to negotiate their extortion demand – he had already told me that they had served a demand note on the owner several days ago. He then pointed out a couple more of them waiting on the pavement as lookouts.
That night I decided to do something in the fight against terror. Also, I was sure that sooner or later these scum would come round to me – they had no scruples about targeting medical professionals either. So, I took the police posters at face value and phoned 100. I described in detail what I had seen, and even told them when the HNLC were next to be expected. What happened? The guy on the other end listened courteously, made humming noises, and after I’d finished said “This is nothing to do with us, please phone…” and gave me a totally unknown number. I quit at that point. For all I knew it was the phone number of someone in the HNLC. I believe the owner later gave the HNLC 2 million rupees and a box of the (then) latest mobile phones.
Now there is one thing that you need to keep in mind - the victims of any terror group come overwhelmingly from the people the group claims to represent. Although the HNLC tried a few attacks on policemen, killing a few, more and more they began preying on their own Khasi tribespeople. The reasons might be many – a young man refuses to join, so shoot him. Someone’s suspected to be an informer, or was just seen at the wrong place at the wrong time, so shoot him or torture him to death. Also, the extortion drive caused many non-Khasis to leave. So the HNLC had to turn to extorting from Khasis to keep raising money.
Again, the Khasi people – unlike the Nagas to the east – have never been historically violent or anti-India in their outlook. Right from the beginning, most of them hated and feared the HNLC and were disgusted by their violence, but could be terrorised into remaining silent so long as it wasn’t they who were on the receiving end. But after the Aristo shooting and subsequent murders of Khasis, the people began turning against the HNLC in large numbers. The police were getting more tips than ever, and if the HNLC was still being warned of raids it wasn’t the people’s fault. By 2002-03 about 85% or more of the HNLC’s victims were Khasis, including many of their own men who wanted to surrender. The HNLC had to resort to stunts like massive firing in the air all around the city on the eve of Independence Day, 14 August 2002, to frighten people into line.
Around this time the HNLC began realising its own unpopularity. It set up a dummy organisation called the North East Red Army (NERA) under a cat’s paw named Ching Thangkhiew. This was made to do all the jobs that wouldn’t go down well with the public, like the kidnapping and murder of an old Khasi intellectual who had all along condemned the HNLC and the cult of violence. While the police always said the NERA was simply a front for the HNLC, the latter always denied it – duh. In the end, when the heat grew too much, it killed its own puppet Ching Thangkhiew and destroyed the NERA.
Then something happened, apparently unrelated, that sealed the HNLC’s fate. The Meghalaya state government collapsed (as it does regularly) and after a lot of wheeling-dealing and political shenanigans the chief minister’s place went to a rank outsider, a man who won the election as an independent and had no ties to any political party, Flinder A Khonglam. Khonglam was a doctor who had entered politics after retiring from his job in a hospital and he was made chief minister because he was the only candidate all the parties could agree on. They thought he was malleable.
Overall, Khonglam’s short tenure (less than two years) was eminently forgettable. But he – because he had absolutely no political axe to grind – did something that finished off the HNLC.
He simply gave the police a free hand.
Many times over the years I’ve made the single point – the police are the only people competent to destroy a terrorist movement. The police come from within the community. They know the people, they’re part of the people, and they have the intelligence sources that matter. Also, in North East India, the people – with excellent reasons – hate and fear the Army. They will never co-operate with the Army but they will co-operate with policemen who are their sons and husbands and brothers and lovers. The Meghalaya police was infiltrated with HNLC sympathisers in the lower ranks, but the killings of several cops and constant political interference had embittered even the sympathisers.
What the police did was set up a “special operations” plainclothes group. Most of these were young men in civvies armed with AK series rifles. Many of them were former HNLC members. And they were utterly and absolutely ruthless with the HNLC.
Again, remember that the HNLC were no suicide jehadis. They were in it only for the money. The killings of even a few sent jitters through the rest. Suddenly, they no longer thought that if they were arrested they would be quietly set free after two or three weeks. Suddenly, if they were caught, they would be lucky to get out of it alive at all.
Then we had the phenomenon of HNLC men “being arrested” in their own homes. This remarkable thing was always said to happen because the police were tipped off. Actually, it was the HNLC men themselves who were responsible for the tip-off. They would make sure they were arrested in front of their families and in front of the community leaders so the police couldn’t quietly take them somewhere, torture them for information, and then bump them off in staged gun battles. And if they were released, they would either take to normal jobs or at the most to petty crime. None of them returned to the HNLC.
And so, suddenly, the HNLC was running out of new recruits (who would ever join a defeated rabble?) and out of men able to undertake missions. The collapse was dramatic. They vanished even from their stronghold Mawlai, and retreated step by step to the borders with Bangladesh.
Today the remnants of the HNLC, a few score men, are all in Bangladesh, holed up in a few malaria-ridden camps, and mostly desperate to surrender. Many of them have died of disease or in internecine fights. Many have sneaked into India, like Dorphang did, to try and give themselves up. Even the local papers hardly mention the HNLC any more.
The stories the surrendered gave the media may have been tutored, but sound logical and hang together. They’re harrowing enough – tales of being without food and being forced to work as labourers in betel nut plantations while the top brass lived in luxury and never turned up to see what was going on; tales of beatings, torture and deprivation.
Bobby Marwein and Cheristerfield Thangkhiew are still hiding out in Bangladesh, but they have no way of enforcing any orders they might make. The HNLC is dead beyond recovery – even the businessmen are no longer obeying extortion demands.
OK, let me rephrase that – the HNLC is dead beyond recovery, to everyone except politicians. Now that all that remains is to write the group’s obituary, they are asking for it to “come forward for negotiations” – and if they could, they would be more than happy to revive it. As I said, terror groups are far too useful to politicians.
I mean, just look at Al Qaeda and George W Bush.