Debating India

MEGHALAYA

Pay Up Or Else...

SASHINUNGLA

Monday 19 April 2004, by SASHINUNGLA

When a demand comes from the militant of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) or the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), no law enforcer or constitutional authority can protect those who do not pay up.

Extortion is the backbone of insurgency in the Northeast and Meghalaya, host to two insurgent groups, is no exception. Media reports suggested that the presence of uniformed private security personnel in the business establishments of Police Bazaar and Barra Bazaar in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, is intended to protect shop-owners from extortionists. But, the common belief is that when a demand comes from the militant of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) or the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC), no law enforcer or constitutional authority can protect those who do not pay up. In several cases in the mid-1990s, defaulters were simply eliminated, and the case of Rajesh Saigal of Saigal Motor Accessories in Laitumkhrah is fresh in public memory.

In the early 1990s, outfits like the ANVC depended on forest contractors for the major share of their funds. However, with public expos?s of forest scams and the ban on the timber trade, the focus of extortion shifted to the lucrative coal trade, and eventually brought businessmen, ministers and government officials into its ambit. In September 1997, a state Minister who happened to run a weighing bridge on lease was given an extortion note demanding fifty thousand rupees. Around the same time, seven top businessmen were asked to pay amounts ranging from Rs 1 to 2 lakh and, gradually, increasing numbers of traders and businessmen found themselves targeted by the insurgents’ ’tax’ network.

Police sources indicate that, during March 2003, the ANVC had served extortion notes to most businessmen in the East and West Garo Hills districts. Government servants in these districts were also asked to pay a certain proportion of their salaries every month. Truckers engaged in coal transportation were also asked to pay from fifteen to twenty thousand rupees annually to the outfit. Besides this ’annual tax’, ’every truck carrying coal and other commodities is directed to be ready to pay any amount at any moment whenever the militants are in need of money’. Approximately four hundred trucks ply daily carrying coal from the Garo Hills.

"Receiving demand notes, negotiating on the amount and the nature of payment has become a part of our business skill. When even the laborers working in the coal business are not spared, I can’t think of defying the militants demand not only for the continuation of my business but also for my own safety", rued a frustrated businessman, who owns a coal field in Borsora.

According to rough estimates, Meghalaya exports coal, limestone and boulders worth Rs 200 crore annually to Bangladesh. Between October 1989 and March 1990, the Meghalaya Mineral Development Corporation (MMDC), in charge of the official export, exported 36,000 tonnes of coal to Bangladesh, worth Rs 3.35 crore. The average transshipment of coal to Bangladesh from South Garo Hills through land customs stations alone is of the value of Rs 2 to 2.5 crore. Although no accurate estimate is available of the proportion of this total trade that finds its way into the militants’ coffers, it is certain that the coal trade alone could meet most of the financial requirements of the ANVC’s operations.

To elude the police dragnet, the militants have adopted varied methods of extortion. Shunning the earlier practice of sending its own men to collect the ransom, the ANVC, in 2003, started sending extortion notes demanding between Rs 10 lakh to Rs 40 lakh by Registered Post from Williamnagar, to businessmen and government servants in Tura. The group also engages college students, auto rickshaw drivers, common people and some of its overground members for the distribution of extortion notes.

In November 2003, police arrested one Jerry Marak, a 1st year Pre-University student from Tura, in this connection. In a recent interview, a Shillong-based businessman disclosed that, "Such demands from the militants are often conveyed through a middleman... and even the middleman has another person through whom the demand and the payment is done, which makes the whole business more elusive". The extortion notes are often delivered by scooter-borne youth.

The abduction of government officers and businessmen for ransom is another method used by the outfits to procure funds. A Customs official, posted in Dawki, speaking to this writer, maintained that "the abduction of businessmen and government officials by militants is often for ransom, while village headmen and school teachers in the village are often abducted on the suspicion of being police informers"

Among the recent incidents involving significant sums of money are:

- September 2, 2003: ANVC militants demanded Rs 15 lakh as ransom for the release of the abducted Manager of the state Bank of India’s Bajengdoba branch in East Garo Hills, Salyban Pateh.

- March 4, 2003: The ANVC ambushed a General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF) vehicle killing 3 personnel and looted Rs 70 lakh at Rongjang in East Garo hills.

- February 28, 2003: The NDFB/ANVC cadres abducted six persons from RC Agarwalla Coal Exporting Company and Customs official Dipak Mahanta from Gasuapara for a ransom of Rupees 4 crore. After this incident, operations in 13 land customs stations spread over Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura, which screen export of coal, boulders and limestones to Bangladesh were suspended through March.

- December 19, 2002: ANVC cadres abducted P.N. Bezbaruah, District Health Medical Officer (DHMO) and member of the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council for a ransom of Rs 30 lakh. He was released on January 29 after 41 days in captivity, after a substantial amount of money had changed hands. The HNLC’s criminal and extortion network is no less efficient. The HNLC since its inception, according to rough estimates, had collected more than Rs 5 crore by 1997. Till that year, the group had looted 14 banks, offices and petrol pumps, harvesting Rs 65 lakh through such exercises. The arrest of the HNLC ’finance secretary’, Fullstar Rani, on June 7, 2003, revealed that the group was receiving more than Rs 4.

2 crore annually through extortion and other illegal activities. Most of the money collected is sent to ’Chairman’ Julius K. Dorphang and ’General Secretary’ Chrisstarfield Thangkhiew in Bangladesh. During May 2003, the police had alleged that the HNLC had opened bank accounts in Bangladesh in the name of some Khasi-Bangladeshis, with millions of rupees deposited.

Till very recently, everybody who mattered paid up to the HNLC in Shillong. Documents seized from HNLC cadres in 2003 revealed that Patel Engineering, which has taken up the construction of PHE dam at Mawphlang, had ’donated’ about Rs 1.4 crore to the outfit. In July 2003, the police identified 152 businessmen against whom cases were filed at five police stations for allegedly funding the HNLC.

The police also filed First Information Reports (FIRs) against 14 government employees at three police stations on charges of funding militants to the tune of Rs 6 lakh every six months. Even ’Teer’ (local lottery) counters in Shillong provide a significant income to the HNLC. The Special Operation Team of the Police, on November 3, 2003, arrested the Vice President of the Archery Association, Risting Khonsngi, from Wahingdoh, and the General Secretary, Herbok Laloo, hailing from Mawkhar, for contributing money to the militant group. According to media reports in 2003, government Departments like the Public Health Engineering (PHE) and the Public Works Department (PWD) were funding the outfit.

During a recent interview with this writer, L. Sailo, Director General of Police, Meghalaya, conceded the fact and even explained how the mechanism works. "Unlike the businessmen for whom the collection is monthly, government departments pay up annually, mostly during the last financial month. The departments pass separate bills for such demands." Senior Police officials also disclose that the ’secretary’ of the HNLC’s finance cell had recently built a bunglow in the Mawlai area of Shillong.

To aggravate matters, politicians in the state have also been accused of colluding with the militants. In April 2003, former Garo National Council Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Clifford R. Marak accused former Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) speaker Purno Sangma of giving Rs 3 crore to the ANVC during the February Assembly Election. "It was an open secret that Sangma donated Rs 3 crore to ANVC to ensure that the Nationalist Congress Party Candidates emerge victorious in the elections", Marak said in a media interview.

The police chief, however, sounded confident that things are changing for better. "HNLC cadres are running away from the camps after we busted their finance cell. So they hardly have much finance now and though the situation in the two districts of Garo Hills is still not calm, in the recent times the situation in the city has considerably calmed down, except in the border areas like Borsora, which is still very sensitive."

Notwithstanding the Police Chief’s assertion regarding the restoration of control over the urban centers, it is not clear whether the state Police force will also be able to rein in the militants in the remote areas of the state as well. On August 9, 2003, fifteen families belonging to the 25th Mile village under Hima Langrin in West Khasi Hills vacated the area in the wake of the expiry of ANVC’s deadline to pay Rs 30,000 to the outfit by August 10. Earlier, the ANVC terrorists had killed the headman of Rajaju village in West Khasi Hills suspecting him to be a police informer. As things stand today, extortion continues in every nook and corner of Meghalaya. And the state of affairs is likely to remain bleak unless strong correctives are put in place.

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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