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Explained: Why the killing of a former militant triggered a crisis in Meghalaya

The death of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, a former militant of the outlawed Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), in a police operation has led to a crisis in Meghalaya. Who was he, and what are the political ramifications?

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:47:42 am
Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, Cherishterfield Thangkhiew death, Meghalaya news, Meghalaya violence, Shillong violence, Indian ExpressStone pelting, vandalism and arson rocked Shillong on Sunday, and it has been placed under curfew until August 18.

The death of Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, a former militant of the outlawed Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), in a police operation has led to a crisis in Meghalaya. Stone pelting, vandalism and arson rocked Shillong on Sunday, and it has been placed under curfew until August 18. Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui has resigned calling for a judicial probe “to bring out the truth”. The Internet has been blocked for 72 hours in four districts and central forces have been deployed.

Who was Cherishterfield Thangkhiew?

Thangkhiew, 57, was the founding general secretary of the separatist HNLC. In October 2018, he came overground in Shillong — while the government claimed he had “surrendered”, he maintained he had “retired”, mostly because of ill health.

However, the Meghalaya Police say Thangkhiew had become “active” in the last six months and they had “clear indications” of his involvement in two low-intensity blasts — in Khliehriat, East Jaintia Hills in July, and in Shillong’s Laitumkhrah market last week, in which two people were injured. Meghalaya DGP R Chandranathan told The Indian Express that they had “clinching evidence” of his involvement, and a tip-off that another blast was being planned. “We went to pick him but this unfortunate thing happened.”

As per a police statement, Thangkhiew attacked the team with a knife in an attempt to escape and the police exerted their right to “private defence” by firing a single round, which hit him. He died on the way to hospital.

Thangkhiew’s family describes the killing as a “cold-blooded murder”, and local residents accuse the police of a “fake encounter”.

What is the history of separatist militancy in Meghalaya?

According to the Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS) an independent research centre in Assam, insurgency in Meghalaya “started as a movement against the domination of the ‘dkhars’ (outsiders)”.

The first prominent separatist militant tribal organisation of the state, Hynniewtrep Achik Liberation Council (HALC), was formed in the mid-1980s, with Thangkhiew as co-founder. ‘Hynniewtrep’ refers to the Khasi and Jaintia communities, and ‘Achik’ to the Garo community. The HALC later split into HNLC, which represented the Khasis and the Jaintias, and the Achik Matgrik Liberation Army, which represented the Garos and was subsequently replaced by the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC).

“The HNLC, of which Thangkhiew was one of the co-founders, wanted independence from India, while ANVC wanted a Garo homeland, but within the Constitution of India,” said an observer from Meghalaya, who did not want to be named. The former’s demands stemmed from a strain in Khasi political thought that Khasi territory was never a part of India, even in colonial times.

“The HNLC were seen as representative of Khasi identity and pride… most of the top leadership, including Thangkhiew, were based out of Bangladesh,” said the observer.

How active are militants today?

In the early 2000s, the HNLC would frequently call for bandhs, boycott Independence Day, carry out extortions etc. According to the CDPS website, “sustained counter-insurgency operations, over the years, weakened both the outfits”. “Since July 23, 2004, the ANVC is under an extended ceasefire agreement with the government… while HNLC’s top leadership, based in Bangladesh, continue to resist any type of peace deals,” it said.

Patricia Mukhim, Editor of Shillong Times, said that in 2000, Home Minister R G Lyngdoh “dealt firmly with the HNLC” and funding to the outfit “dried up”, with many of the cadres coming overground.

Over the last several years, militancy in Meghalaya was seen as declining. Police sources said the HNLC was trying to initiate talks with the government, but on its terms. Mukhim added: “The government on its part wanted them to first surrender with arms and ammunition and only then would they talk to the outfit. It is this battle of nerves that the HNLC is engaged in, and the IED blasts are meant to send a message that they still have firepower.”

What explains the public reaction to the militant leader’s death?

On Sunday, hundreds joined a funeral procession for Thangkhiew, and a conglomerate of pressure groups called for a “black flag day” and put up banners in Shillong demanding justice for him.

“The former militant became an urban legend, a martyr of sorts,” Mukhim said.

Amid violence across the city, two petrol bombs were hurled at CM Conrad Sangma’s home in Upper Shillong.

Observers feel the display of anger does not necessarily mean that the public is sympathetic to the cause of the HNCL, but it was also a reaction to the way the state government has been functioning of late.

“Their lackadaisical attitude through the lockdown, the corruption has made people weary — the encounter killing was the last straw,” said the observer.

Mukhim added: “Illegal coal mining has continued unabated, there are alleged scams… all these add up to bad governance and loss of public trust,” she said.

What are the political ramifications?

The resignation of Home Minister Rymbui, who belongs to the United Democratic Party, an ally of CM Sangma’s National People’s Party, has put the government in a spot. In a video statement, he said he had taken the step after consultation with his party’s leadership.

At a press conference on Monday, Sangma said he had received Rymbui’s letter but “not made a decision yet”. “As a chief minister, I have to look at all aspects of the state’s security and overall situation… Keeping all these aspects in mind, I will examine and take a decision at the appropriate time,” he said.

Observers say all this highlights divisions in the alliance.

On Monday, the Cabinet announced it would constitute a judicial enquiry into the death. It also announced a “Peace Committee” to be chaired by ministers, with members from civil society, religious organisations, community heads, etc. A separate Security & Law & Order subcommittee headed by Sangma has also been formed “to look into aspects of law & order”.

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