Armed conflict in western Assam’s Goalpara district and the adjoining Garo Hills in Meghalaya is assuming new dimensions with dangerous ramifications. Rag-tag rebel groups with their continued subversive activities have taken the people of the area to ransom. The otherwise peaceful area where the Garos and Rabhas have been living side by side for centuries is now turning into a killing field, giving security forces a tough time, especially considering that the stretch in Garo Hills has open borders with Bangladesh.
Mayhem caused by little known rebel groups like United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) in Goalpara and adjoining Garo Hills matches the havoc created by the Black Widow or the Jewel Garlossa faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD-J) militants in the NC Hills district of Assam before they called a ceasefire and subsequently signed a peace accord with the Government in October 2012. UALA is a breakaway group of the ANVC-B (Achik National Volunteer Council-Breakaway), formed in February 2013 and is led by Singbirth N Marak alias Norok. It is a small outfit with a cadre strength of about 30 and was conceptualised after the Garo-Rabha conflict in December 2010-January 2011.
On 3 November 2013, UALA rebels triggered a brutal attack on innocent Rabha people at the remote Gendamari village under Agia Police Station in Assam’s Goalpara district, killing seven and injuring six seriously. Suspected Rabha National Liberation Front (RNLF) militants retaliated by firing and lobbing bombs in a Garo village and by kidnapping one person. The possibility of another massive ethnic clash between the Garos and the Rabhas could be a bitter reality.
The mushrooming of militant groups in Garo Hills becomes a cause of worry. While the Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) and its splinter group, ANVC-B, are officially under ceasefire with the government, the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) and the Achik National Liberation Army (ANLA was formed in October 2013), are active in the interior areas of Garo Hills and in adjoining areas of Assam and West Khasi Hills. Again, there is the GNLA-F led by former GNLA militants Reading T Sangma, Jack Baichung and Savio R Marak. Meanwhile, ANVC suffered a further split in mid-November 2013 when seven members deserted the designated camp where they have been living since the truce and formed a new outfit, adding to the murky scene.
The idea of a Greater Garoland state consisting of the present Garo Hills in Meghalaya and a part of the Kamrup and the Goalpara districts in adjoining Assam, which came to forefront with the formation of ANVC in December 1995, and the demand for sharing administrative power by the Rabhas residing in the Garo Autonomous District Council area could well be the main factors for the sustained unrest, but most often, ambitious militants are seen taking advantage of the public causes. An area of rampant extortion, here traders prefer to buy peace instead of informing the police due to dearth of security.
The genesis behind the Garo-Rabha conflict, however, revolves around the issue of providing Scheduled Tribe status claimed by the Rabhas living in the Autonomous District of East Garo Hills area. Their counterparts living in Goalpara in Assam enjoy Scheduled Caste status. When the Garos were opposed to the claims made by the Rabhas, the latter started declaring bandhs to press their demand. Regarding the bandhs as an economic blockade, the Garos started to retaliate. The immediate cause of the conflict between the two tribes, however, was a bandh call by the Rabhas during Christmas in December 2010 and some Rabha groups beating up a pastor that led to violent clash among the Rabhas and Garos. Scores were killed and thousands displaced in the Assam-Meghalaya border areas.
The Goalpara district covers an area of 1,824 sq km and its southern part is bordered by the West and East Garo Hill districts of Meghalaya - a state that shares a 443 km international border with Bangladesh. The strategic location of the district, combined with the illegal arms trafficking through it, makes it extremely vulnerable to diverse troubles, including ethnic conflict. According to Home Department records of Assam, Goalpara topped the chart in the category of ‘arms recovered from extremists’ in the state in 2012.
On 6 November 2013, the Assam and Meghalaya Police, the CRPF and the Army, launched a joint counter-insurgency operation against two Garo outfits - the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and the United Achik Liberation Army (UALA) - along a 68 km stretch of inter-state border in western Assam. The security establishment, alarmed by the impending danger triggered by the bloody clashes between the tribes in Assam and Meghalaya, have no doubt joined hands to fight the militants. But, what is needed is stringent vigilance across the area by the security forces. The involvement of community leaders, educationists, cultural personalities and civilians on the ground to cultivate communal harmony and spread the message of peaceful cohabitation is the need of the hour.