L Syiem, the policeman in charge of a Meghalaya anti-infiltration outpost at Byrnihat on the Guwahati-Shillong route, and two of his associates whistle to flag down a passing sedan taxi. He asks the tourist family and the driver inside about where they have come from, requests for identification and peeps inside the car. Minutes later, he is satisfied and signals to the driver to go ahead.
Syiem lets a few Assam-registered private cars go through after asking them to slow down but stops public vehicles and taxis on the highway that winds its way through the hills.
A week after the draft National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published, in which more than 40 lakh people were excluded, the Meghalaya police have stepped-up checks at its borders to stop “illegal foreigners”.
Though officials said this process of checking of vehicles from Assam to track and “push-back” suspected “illegal foreigners” has been on for long, regular travellers told The Indian Express Monday that the intensity of checks on the highways have increased after the draft NRC was published. Now, they said, all travellers are asked to stop, while earlier, it was sporadic at best.
A Guwahati resident who works at a bank in Nongpoh, a town around 30 km from Byrnihat towards Shillong, and travels every day on a motorbike, said: “After the NRC draft, each and every car and two-wheeler is strictly asked to stop and show any ID. Before this, the checks were sporadic and limited to taxis carrying large groups of people, particularly workers.”
According to Syiem, the police checked vehicles to prevent “illegal foreigners” from travelling to into Meghalaya. “This check-point is quite old and I have been posted here for the last six months. We often catch labourers without any documents and push them back into Assam, asking them to return with a valid document,” he said.
“On some occasions in the past, we have asked 10-15 people of a group of workers to go back and return with a document that proves their Indian citizenship. This push-back is not new or related to the publication of the draft NRC in Assam. We have always disallowed entry to people without valid papers. The only requirement is any valid ID proof. Please carry any valid document and you can travel easily.”
He also said that on some inter-state routes, certain “non-government organisations” had tried setting up their own check posts and that had caused the controversy.
Unhappy with the efficacy of at least seven anti-infiltration checkpoints on the various Assam-Meghalaya routes, the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) had set-up their own check posts, stopped travellers from Assam and questioned their identity just a day after the NRC draft was published on July 30.
Donald Thabah, general secretary of the KSU, said that the union should get credit for the new improved checking initiative by the police on inter-state routes. “The checkposts have been there but they were understaffed and no personnel was doing any checking. It was only after our protests and setting up of independent check-gates that the government woke up and assured us that they will increase the checking,” he said.
“Our intention in setting up the check-gates was two-fold. First, those excluded in the NRC draft should not come to Meghalaya and second, draw the attention of the government to the deplorable condition of the existing check-gates.”
According to Thabah, Meghalaya Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong had assured the KSU that the vigil on the inter-state routes would be enhanced. He said that Meghalaya has a porous border with Bangladesh and since the adjacent state of Assam is carrying out the NRC exercise, it is important to carry out the checks on all routes.
The independent check posts have come under fire, particularly after Silchar MP and Congress leader Sushmita Dev wrote to Home Minister Rajnath Singh that the “Meghalaya Police is not letting the people from the Cachar district to move into the state of Meghalaya without showing citizenship papers.”
Dev also alleged in her letter the KSU were “doing the policing themselves and are also beating people up”. Videos circulating on social media showing vigilantes asking travellers in taxis to alight and show their documents.
Superintendent of Police (infiltration), Debangshu Sangma, said that people travelling to Meghalaya will be checked for any valid document and that the anti-infiltration department has been doing it for a long time.
A senior Meghalaya police officer said that people in his state “got apprehensive” after the publication of the draft NRC on July 30 in Assam. “Non-government organisations put up their own check-gates saying they had no confidence in the police and then there were reports that they harassed travellers coming into Meghalaya from the Cachar district of Assam. The Guwahati-Shillong route did not see any disturbance. But soon after the setting up of check-gates by organisations, the administration and police got into action to stop them.”
Sangma clarified that police personnel are trained and will not harass travellers. “It is just that we will check everyone coming into Meghalaya and we will let them pass after they show any valid government-issued document, like ration card or driving license or anything. A dubious village head certificate will not do. And we are absolutely not asking whether a person’s name is in the NRC draft or not,” he said.
Cachar SP Rakesh Roushan acknowledged that there was controversy after the anti-infiltration department of Meghalaya checked documents of people travelling to Meghalaya. “It’s all right now, no such complaints about harassment has been made to us,” he said.
Incidentally, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal spoke to his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma on Saturday and requested him to take “urgent measures for ensuring smooth movement of people and vehicles of Assam passing through Meghalaya”. Police in both the states are also in touch to ensure no untoward incidents, a source said.
The KSU, which had aborted their check posts after assurances from the government, said that they would “keep an eye on whether the personnel of the anti-infiltration department were doing their job properly or not”.