This past week, ending with Independence Day, was a strangely eventful one in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. On August 10, around 1.30 pm, a loud blast reverberated through the busy neighbourhood of Laitumkhrah in the heart of the city. The police, followed by a bomb disposal squad, arrived. It soon emerged that a small improvised explosive device had caused the explosion. Two people received relatively minor injuries. Nonetheless, the blast, claimed by a militant group called the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, or HNLC, was a cause of some excitement and consternation. The once-feared group had been largely inactive for well over a decade.
Then, on August 13, around 3 am, a Meghalaya police team reached the house of a former militant commander, HNLC’s “retired” general secretary Cherishterfield Thangkhiew, 56, who had formally surrendered in 2018. Thangkhiew lived on the upper floor of a two-storied house with two of his sons. The police barged into the house and proceeded to put a single bullet into him at close range, allegedly after he attacked the police team with a knife. His death, which Thangkhiew’s sons alleged was in a fake encounter, brought protesting mobs out on the streets for his funeral on August 15.
The stone-pelting mobs attacked passing vehicles, including those of the police and the Central Reserve Police Force. Some of the masked protesters captured a Scorpio SUV owned by the police, with three rifles inside, and drove it around town in the middle of the day, brandishing the weapons, before setting it on fire. By evening, Shillong was under curfew, mobile internet had been suspended in four districts of the state, and home minister Lakhmen Rymbui of the local United Democratic Party had written to chief minister Conrad Sangma to be relieved of his duties while demanding a judicial inquiry into the alleged fake encounter which he was at pains to distance himself from. That night, Sangma’s private residence came under attack, with a petrol bomb thrown into the compound. The chief minister and his family do not currently stay there.
Other political parties were equally quick in their condemnation, because the former militant’s killing had angered powerful organisations representing the local Khasi tribe. BJP legislator and Sangma’s former minister Alexander Hek said the police account of the raid didn’t sound right, and demanded a judicial inquiry. Congress leader and former minister Ampareen Lyngdoh, in whose constituency the Shillong blast took place, demanded an inquiry by the Meghalaya Human Rights Commission. Sangma, who leads a coalition government headed by his National People’s Party, has said a police report has been submitted to the National Human Rights Commission, which will inquire into the matter. He has also ordered a judicial inquiry. A human rights organisation based in Delhi, the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, has sought a CBI inquiry into the case.
Shillong remained under curfew at the time of writing this report. Pressure groups in Meghalaya now want the state’s police chief, R Chandranathan, to be removed from his post. Chandranathan has defended the police’s actions claiming there was “incontrovertible evidence” of Thangkhiew’s involvement in an earlier IED blast on July 14 that targeted a police reserve in the coal mining town of Khliehriat in the Jaintia Hills, and evidence of his links to the Shillong blast as well. There were no casualties in the Khliehriat blast, which security sources say was triggered using a remote-control mechanism, unlike the Shillong one which used a timer.
The ability of the HNLC to demonstrate capability of carrying out blasts that do negligible damage has been a feature of its sudden return from the dead. The group was practically unheard of in Shillong for the past 17-18 years. The predominantly Khasi group suddenly began making noises in the Jaintia Hills area of Meghalaya about a year ago, with extortion demands to coal traders and cement companies. An incident of gunfire and a couple of small blasts followed as the group sought to back up its demands for “income tax” with threats of violence.
The group’s sudden return was greeted by politicians across parties speaking to the press about possible peace talks between the HNLC and the Indian government, an absurdity given that the group, according to a statement by the police chief, has 16 active members, all in Bangladesh, and a handful of overground supporters numbering about 30. Those arrested after the latest blasts include a man named Ranjit Kumar, described by the police as a drug addict who had been paid to carry out the Khliehriat blast.
Nonetheless the sudden and unexpected return of the near-defunct group has already had its impact on the state’s politics, with the home minister quitting. The chief minister is yet to relieve him of his charge and has said he will decide on the matter at an appropriate time.
The political pressure is building up on the state government, which was forced into a corner first by the blasts, and then by the clumsy encounter killing and the strong reaction to it. The government weathered a crisis early in its tenure when an altercation between a few individuals from different communities blew up into riots targeting Shillong’s tiny Dalit Sikh community. The then home minister, Conrad Sangma’s brother James, asked to be relieved of the portfolio a year and a half later amidst pressure from allies over another controversy related to the transport of coal which had allegedly been mined illegally. Rymbui, who succeeded him in the job, lasted one and a half years before asking to be relieved of the portfolio.
The state now awaits the appointment of its third home minister in as many years, and clarity on the actual circumstances and reasons surrounding Thankgkhiew’s violent death.