The Meghalaya election has claimed its first victim. Although there had been cases of arson and fisticuffs in the past, no candidate has ever been killed. This time the Nationalist Congress Party candidate from Williamnagar, Jonathone Sangma and three of his aides were blown apart by a powerful IED blast attributed to the vicious militant group, Garo National Liberation Army.
The rebel group had put up posters in the constituency warning the people not to vote for him. But this was not the first time that Jonathone was warned. He had received similar threats in 2013 as well and had filed an FIR at Williamnagar police station but the law dragged its feet because this was is a politically-sensitive case.
Now there is a clamour from civil society groups for a probe by the impartial National Investigating Agency as the people have lost their faith in the state police and administration. This does not bode well for Meghalaya.
This time, the poll campaigns in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya were marked by ugly bickering and slugfests. In Meghalaya, the BJP even came out with a document titled “Charge sheet” listing out malfeasance in the eight-year Congress rule headed by Mukul Sangma. But all that is part of democracy. What is not expected was the cruel violence unleashed by the GNLA, which is now reduced to a mercenary. This is unacceptable. So too are the series of political killings in Tripura including that of a journalist who covered an election rally. All these are ugly portends of our democracy.
Meghalaya has been rocked by insurgency since the early 1990s but that was under control by 2000 because of the resistance efforts of civil society groups, which worked in tandem with the government to bring a halt to gun culture in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills. Unfortunately, although the government of the day gave a free hand to then home minister RG Lyngdoh to deal firmly, a section of politicians from the Garo Hills halted his efforts. Militancy has now come to roost in that district and politicians must answer for the saga of bloodshed.
Speaking of militancy, the one chief minister who has not stooped to derive benefits by doing deals with militants is Tripura’s Manik Sarkar. He is also the only CM to revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from the North-east. Others in his shoes have not had the inclination to do so because they all have an insidious connection with militant outfits.
It is a matter of concern for Meghalaya that the state could not assure a safe environment for campaigning for the elections scheduled for 27 February. It is not as if the IED blast was unexpected. Jonathone Sangma contested the 2013 elections too and even then he was threatened by the GNLA. He alleged that a Congress candidate was involved. The police investigated the matter but went slow and literally sat on the complaint.
This time Jonathone and his aides paid with their lives. In a sense, the Meghalaya police must be held partly responsible for the death because first, the threat to Jonathone was not new and second, apart from providing security personnel to the deceased, they did nothing to sanitise the grey areas where people are regularly intimidated by militants.
Even in the Songsak constituency, the second from where chief minister, Mukul Sangma is contesting, the GNLA has put up all kinds of warnings not to vote for him. It appears that the GNLA wants certain candidates to win and patronise them. On Facebook, its supremo Sohan Shira regularly puts up hate posts against his potential enemies indicating that the cyber security cell of the police is not alive to this. Hate posts that threaten death and destruction should be treated as cyber crimes.
Frankly-speaking there is no insurgency as such in Meghalaya. The GNLA have now degenerated into a mercenary to eliminate political enemies. That is why it is important for an impartial probe into this horrific incident. That it was a repeat incident gives one the feeling that the police have not done enough to sanitise the constituencies from gun-toting rogues that feed on blood money.
Meghalaya is not the first state where pre-election deals were struck with militants. In Assam this happened during the National Games in 2006 when the ULFA threatened to disrupt the Games until a deal was allegedly struck with them. Such mercenaries ought to be dealt with firmly by the state.
While the constituency of liberals tend to take a lenient view of insurgents calling them “freedom fighters”, for the ordinary citizen any individual or group that threatens free movement, stands in the way of free speech or prevents one from pursuing his/her livelihood must be checked. Such activities cannot be condoned.
Shira has made tonnes of money from extortion. Sources in the security establishment say that he wants general amnesty now so that he can invest that money in business; preferably the coal sector. But Shira has blood on his hands. It would be the height of injustice to all those who have lost their lives and to those of their family members if such mercenaries are granted amnesty.
We have the example of Julius Dorphang, a former militant, who led the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council. He made a deal with former Congress chief minister DD Lapang to support the Congress after he came overground. He contested from Mawhati and won.
But his behaviour thereafter tells us that the ugly facets of his roguish character have not changed. Dorphang is now serving a jail term for raping a 14-year-old girl at a local hotel, which he and his associates frequent. That hotel ironically belongs to the Meghalaya home minister’s son. Such are the dichotomies of Meghalaya’s sordid politics. This proclivity to tango with militants is what compromises law and order in the North-eastern states.
In the case of Jonathone Sangma, it appears that the villages under his constituency were given a strong warning not to vote for him or to attend his election meetings. So last Sunday when Jonathone and his supporters went to Jongmegre and Sawilgre under the Samanda Block they could sense an eeriness that should have warned them that all was not well. They waited to have an election meeting there at a public playground since the villagers had said they wanted to meet their candidate. But except for a few chairs there no one was around.
After waiting for a while Jonathone and his team were returning to Williamnagar when the powerful IED blast occurred. It would be intuitive to know why Jonathone was called there. Did the GNLA compel the villagers to draw the prey to that unfrequented place where they could easily trap the victim? If the villagers were unaware of the lurking danger why did they not turn up for the meeting? These are other pertinent questions that cry for an answer.
More importantly, the question is to the state police who, despite sensing the imminent danger to Jonathone’s life, did nothing to warn him not to go to that particular election venue. And if they did not know the lurking danger then this is a case of complete intelligence failure.
The cycle of violence does not end with Meghalaya. Just last week we were told that there was an assassination bid on a BJP candidate from Bhandari constituency of Nagaland, Mmhonlumo Kikon. The attackers used machetes and also fired at the vehicles of Kikon. All these do not auger well for the people of Nagaland and Meghalaya. It is time for the states to take a serious call to end this culture of violence.
The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]