Last week, Meghalaya's capital city of Shillong was placed under an extended curfew after violent protests erupted in parts of the city. The protests were the result of the killing of former militant, Chesterfield Thangkhiew, of the banned military group, Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), during a police operation.
According to the Meghalaya Police, it undertook the operation following "irrefutable evidence" that the former militant was involved in the explosion of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Shillong. The raid, which took place in his home, has raised allegations of human rights abuse and has drawn widespread condemnation because of how the operation was conducted.
Soon after the operation, hundreds of Thangkhiew supporters marched through the city with black flags to attend his funeral procession. However, the funeral then became a hotspot for extremist militancy, as fringe elements seized the opportunity to whip up support. What initially began as a legitimate demand for accountability after the disproportionate use of force on the accused, eventually developed into a campaign for violence and extremism. Videos and photographs of crowds pelting stones at law enforcement officials went viral on social media. Society looked on in shock as visuals of masked men atop an SUV brandished rifles stolen from police personnel.
While the police operation itself must be condemned for the excessive use of force during the raid, the violence, arson and mayhem that followed are counterproductive, and thereby, a disservice to the cause.
The demand for accountability and an independent investigation was fulfilled by the state government, which announced that a magisterial inquiry supervised by the National Human Rights Commission would be conducted. A parallel inquiry by the Meghalaya Human Rights Commission directed the chief secretary to submit a report. These were then followed by the decision to appoint a judicial inquiry to investigate the operation, shortly after the state's home minister tendered his resignation.
The HNLC is responsible for a dark period in Meghalaya's history, when it reigned over brutal executions and extortion activities. A report from 2004 details how the HNLC received ₹4.2 crore annually from extortion and other illegal activities — which was sent to its leaders in Bangladesh. It was banned twice, first in 2000 (which was lifted), and then in 2019 by the central government. The Centre stated that its activities are detrimental to the sovereignty and integrity of India.
Thangkhiew was the founding general secretary of the HNLC, who surrendered in 2018. The IED blast in a market in Shillong injured two people who worked there. The HNLC, which claimed credit for the blast, received flak from across society for targeting innocent citizens, and rightly so.
Militant groups such as the HNLC have no place in Indian society. They must not receive societal support and their acts of extremism must be unequivocally condemned. There is no doubt about this. But, as this case has proved, extra-judicial killings are equally damaging to society.
Therefore, instead of advocating further violence against law enforcement personnel — which can be harmful to the campaign for an independent inquiry and also to the state — the way forward would be a thorough inquiry into the police raid. This can be a catalyst to ensure that a similar incident does not occur in the future.
The state government's inability to prevent a breakdown of law and order, coupled with the unacceptable actions of extremist groups, has resulted in a huge loss to our society. The state government's decision to extend the suspension of the internet, following the misuse of social media to spread propaganda and hate speech, hurts citizens across the four districts. It disconnects students from their teachers in a country reeling from the effects of a pandemic, impedes business activities, and stifles individual freedoms. There has to be a better way, for two wrongs cannot make a right.
Jade Lyngdoh is a constitutional law honours candidate, National Law University, Jodhpur.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.