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Why a Former Militant’s Killing Triggered 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. 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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