Illegal timber smuggling or snatching tribal lands: Assam-Meghalaya border killings raise worrisome questions
5 villagers from Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills have reportedly been killed, while an Assam Forest Guard also lost his life due to the violence.
Tensions are running high at the border of Assam and Meghalaya following a brutal clash between Assam’s forest officials and local villagers from Meghalaya on Tuesday morning. 5 villagers from Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills have reportedly been killed, while an Assam Forest Guard also lost his life due to the violence.
Reports say that the Assam Forest Guard chased and intercepted a vehicle laden with illegal timber that was travelling to Meghalaya from West Karbi Anglong district.
Citing the incident as inhuman, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma bashed the Assamese forest guards and police for entering Meghalaya and firing at the villagers without provocation. On their part, The Assam Police reiterated that they resorted to firing in self-defense after a mob of villagers surrounded them.
However, Assam has transferred the West Karbi Anglong Superintendent of Police, while suspending the Jirikinding police station officer-in-charge and Forest Protection Officer of Kheroni Forest Range. This raises eyebrows.
Meanwhile, the Meghalaya government has suspended internet services in seven districts – West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills, Ri-Bhoi, Eastern Khasi Hills, Western Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills, citing law and order situation.
It has also closed the border shared with Assam, allowing only vehicles from Meghalaya to enter the state. This only points to the conclusion that the government is trying its best to contain this incident from turning into a full-fledged blood bath.
PTI reported that a group of villagers from Meghalaya vandalised and burnt down a forest office in Assam's West Karbi Anglong district, while a car with an Assam number plate was also burnt in the Meghalayan capital Shillong.
People are being asked not to go to the hill state for now, especially from Assam, barring commercial vehicles.
"Since yesterday, we have been advising people not to go to Meghalaya till the situation completely normalises. We are only requesting the private and small car owners not to travel as miscreants are targeting such vehicles there," Deputy Commissioner (East) of Guwahati Police Sudhakar Singh told PTI.
Some taxi drivers, who returned to Guwahati on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, said that the Meghalaya Police escorted them to the Assam border, but still, stones were pelted on their vehicles by onlookers while on the move.
Cachar Superintendent of Police Numal Mahatta said they asked vehicles from Assam and other states not to travel through Meghalaya as per requests from the hill state.
"The Meghalaya Police had requested us to control vehicles going inside their state following the disturbances. Restrictions have been put in place as a precautionary measure for the safety of the people," he added.
The worrisome outcome of this incident is that Mukroh village – the site of the violence – falls in one of the six disputed border areas that both states are laying claim to.
A round of discussions for the remaining six phases was to commence by the end of this month, but this incident has, in all probability, shut down all prospects of a peaceful resolution.
Shillong’s famed Cherry Blossom Festival, an extragavanza which brings lots of tourist money, is also part of the collateral damage.
Other reports suggest that what Assam officials considered to be illegal timber was actually taken from Meghalayan tribal lands which are disputed.
Putting a political spin to it, Trinamool National Spokesperson Saket Gokhale tweeted, “This tragedy is a result of a brazen border MoU signed by @SangmaConrad & @himantabiswa where Meghalaya land has been given to Assam without consulting the locals who are Scheduled Tribes. 6 lives have been lost which includes 5 Meghalayans & 1 Assam Forest Official. The govt of Assam BJP CM @himantabiswa has snatched away tribal lands with connivance of BJP-controlled CMs like @SangmaConrad. BJP's disregard for tribal lives & attempts to seize their land to open casinos is sickening.”
The Meghalaya CM announced an ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh each for the next of kin of the deceased from his state. The Assam government too said that it will provide Rs 5 lakh to the families of each deceased as compensation.
A team of Meghalaya ministers will meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah on November 24 to seek a central agency probe into the matter. The Assam government, however, said that it will hand over the probe to a central or neutral agency.
(With inputs from PTI)