You might have seen the footage of masked youths dressed in black taking a black SUV for a joyride brandishing weapons through thoroughfares watched by pedestrians. You might have instantly thought that the place of occurrence is Afghanistan or Iraq. When you learned that the incident took place on 15th August in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, it certainly shocked you. Later it was revealed that the Scorpio, with a cache of arms, was taken away from a police outpost. After the public display, the miscreants set the vehicle ablaze.
The dramatic visual was only one incident among many. Images of stone-pelting at police vehicles and public buses, vandalism and arsons, clashes with central forces went viral on social media. All unfolded while the rest of the country celebrated the 75th Independence Day. Law and order collapsed. By late evening, fearing that the situation could deteriorate and spread farther, the government clamped curfew in Shillong and suspended internet service in four districts. When curfew was imposed, petrol bombs were hurled at the residence of Chief Minister Conrad Sangma. News trickled in that Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui tendered his resignation citing ‘gravity’ of the situation while recommending a judicial inquiry. Unfortunately the Home Minister’s tenure was marked by coal and coke illegalities and at least two mining tragedies.
The city plunged into lawlessness after Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, a top surrendered leader of an insurgent group called Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) was killed in an alleged police fake encounter on 13th August. A team of police officers raided the residence of the former militant post-midnight but ended up shooting him in ‘private defence’ in his bedroom alleging he attacked them with a knife. He was rushed to a hospital where he was declared brought dead. Two of his sons who were sleeping in adjacent rooms were also taken to a police station suspecting them to be associates of the deceased.
Family members rejected the police version and termed it a ‘cold blooded murder’. They revealed that the 54-year-old was a chronic renal patient who could hardly climb the stairs besides being incapacitated by a broken right hand. Hence it was not possible for the frail man to resist arrest let alone confronted the armed personnel with a weapon.
On 14th July an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded in a Police Reserve in the headquarters of East Jaintia Hills district where a cop was injured. Another low intensity IED bomb went off in Shillong on 10th August injuring two persons. The HNLC claimed responsibility for both the attacks. During investigation, the police found that Thangkhiew was directly linked to the explosions, particularly the first one. Hence the pre-dawn operation was conducted. The police claimed they seized a firearm, digital documents in his laptop and mobile phones.
Thangkhiew co-founded the HNLC in 1991 and served as founder general secretary for 27 years but had surrendered in 2018. In the mid and late 90s, the HNLC created a fear psychosis in the ‘Abodes of Clouds’ with attacks on security forces, extortions, killings and encounters with the police. It was proscribed in 2000. The HNLC, in a Facebook post, denied its former ideologue had any connection with the outfit except the role of a peace ‘mediator’ with the government.
A Black Day
Soon after the sensational killing, pressure groups of all hues condemned the police action and called for an independent probe while demanding punishment for the responsible police personnel and resignation of the Home Minister. The controversial slaying evoked a wave of sympathy, rage and sharp voices of anger and resentment. The funeral was fixed for 15th August. A conglomeration of pressure groups of a locality named Mawlai, where Thangkhiew resided, calling itself ‘The Voice of Mawlai,’ appealed to people to observe 15th August a ‘black day’. Black flags and banners were put up in different localities of the city.
Hundreds converged at the funeral, making it one of the biggest in recent memory. Youngsters rode their vehicles and bikes bearing black flags to vent their feeling. During the funeral service, while paying tributes to the deceased, speaker after speaker condemned the police, the Chief Minister, and the Home Minister while demanding an independent inquiry.
The truth of the tragedy is not known yet. Why the past midnight break-in? What does ‘firing in ‘private’ defence mean? Does it mean that the trigger-puller fired on his own? Was the chronic renal patient able to retaliate to escape given his medical condition? If the police can’t arrest an incapacitated person armed with a knife in a room, how can they get hold of hardened goons with such weapons? How can they apprehend criminals armed with guns and other lethal weapons? Does it mean the police have to shoot and kill them?
The professionalism of the police is under question. Their training level is under scrutiny! The implication is serious as killing can be justified just because someone is accused of possessing a knife or a gun. Anyone can be a victim of police action. The police can also make up stories of being attacked to escape the process of law. There was no independent witness that Cheristerfield was in possession of a knife and firearm.
In the past similar incidents had happened and the public still don’t have the answers. A ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of another militant group, the Garo Hills Liberation Army (GNLA), Sohan D Shira, was gunned down. A gang leader and jail-breaker Fullmoon Dkhar was also shot dead. As their nexus with politicians was alleged it was suspected that they were eliminated to spare big wigs. The life of ordinary citizens is threatened by the law keepers who turn law breakers. Criminals too have the right to life. Killing criminals in fake encounters is a crime. Human rights are violated on orders of higher-ups to seal cans of worms.
The police have alleged that Thangkhiew had links with his former colleagues to mastermind blasts. It has also been reported that the erstwhile dreaded militant was used by Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Special Branch (SB). Thangkhiew might have known the HNLC’s modus operandi. He could very well reveal the unholy militant-politician-official nexus. Was then he silenced forever?
Encounter or extrajudicial killings are frequent in India. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) says that between 2002 and 2008 there were 440 cases and from 2009/10 to 2013 the cases rose to 555. In Gujarat, between 2002 and 2006, 22 police encounter killings were reported, the most high-profile being the Sadiq Jamal, Ishrat Jahan case, Sohrabuddin Sheikh case and Tulsiram Prajapati case in which Amit Shah, who was State Home Minister, was allegedly involved.
Fake encounter killings are supposedly in self-defence but often they are with the intention to eliminate the suspects for being ‘hard core’ criminals and to prevent the beans from being spilt.
Cheristerfield is now hailed a hero, a martyr and a legend though he was an outlaw. Besides being a former militant he made no commendable contribution to society to merit a huge farewell. As a founder ideologue he motivated many a youth to join the organisation. A war against the state was waged with many carders perishing prematurely. Instead of being made to answer for the deaths of men in uniform and civilians, for pains and grief caused and for bringing Meghalaya under insurgency map, the deceased insurgent was honoured disproportionately. No one condoned the acts of violence but the genesis might have originated from breaking the law in the first place. Youths in Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, in some North Eastern states and elsewhere look up to gunmen because of the abuse and highhandedness of security forces. One of the reasons for the Talibans, ISIS and other terrorist outfits to have huge following is because American and NATO soldiers are seen as occupiers and abusers of human rights.
The Shillong crisis exposed leadership vacuum. While leaders of all and sundry pressure groups were omnipresent in social media, political leaders were on hibernation mode. Except the Chief Minister, no Minister uttered a word. No one appealed for peace. A few legislators who issued statements perhaps inflamed rather than calmed the situation. The most visible reason for the fall of Afghanistan was because the political leadership fled the scene and the armed forces gave up the fight without firing a bullet. So the general public had no choice but to embrace the invading fundamentalist Taliban.
News has come in that the chairperson of NHRC will probe the alleged fake encounter. Hope normalcy will return soon. Hope the unbelievable madness of 15th August in Shillong will be an aberration.