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Black flag protests, cars set afire — how Mukroh firing is testing strained Assam-Meghalaya ties

Meghalaya govt says Assam police & forest guards entered the state & 'resorted to unprovoked firing' that left 6 dead. Assam govt says personnel fired to save their own lives.

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Guwahati: Cars bearing Assam number plates were set ablaze and the Khasi Students’ Union held protest marches across Meghalaya as the state remained tense in the aftermath of the Mukroh firing that left six people dead Tuesday.

According to preliminary accounts, the six who died fell to bullets fired by Assam police and forest guards in Mukroh village, located 2-3 km from the Assam-Meghalaya border. Among the deceased were Thal Shadap (45), Nikasi Dhar (65), S. Talang (55), Tal Nartiang (40) and Shirup Sumer (40) — all residents of Mukroh village. The sixth person who died was identified as an Assam forest guard.

The anger of the Meghalaya government was palpable as it claimed that the Assam police and forest guards entered the state and “resorted to unprovoked firing”. The Assam government on the other hand said that the incident took place when their forest officials tried to stop a truck smuggling out illegal timber, and that the personnel fired in order to save their own lives.

Assam and Meghalaya already have a tense relationship due to disputed areas along their 884.9 km interstate border, and the Mukroh incident has put further strain on ties.

On Wednesday, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma visited the families of the deceased and handed them ex-gratia cheques of Rs 5 lakh each. Around the same time, the Khasi Students’ Union organised black flag rallies in district headquarters across the state, demanding justice.

“The Meghalaya government strongly condemns the incident where the Assam Police & Assam Forest Guards entered Meghalaya & resorted to unprovoked firing,” Sangma had tweeted Tuesday. 

Reacting to the incident, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reportedly said Wednesday that the Assam Police “should not have been so aggressive in dealing with the situation”.

“The police fired more shots than what was required in dealing with the situation,” he added.

Sarma also said that the incident “does not fall in the purview of the border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya”, and can be termed as a “conflict between Assam Police and the people of a village in Meghalaya”.

A delegation led by Sangma is slated to meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi Thursday to demand an investigation by a central agency, either the National Investigation Agency (NIA) or Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), into the matter.

The Assam government, on the other hand, has instituted a one-member inquiry commission headed by a retired judge of the high court to probe the incident and a report in this regard is likely within three months.

Also Read: Public rally over unemployment turns violent in Shillong, raises bogey of ‘outsiders’ again

Varying accounts

While there are varying accounts of the events that transpired in Mukroh, local MLA Nujorki Sungoh claimed the incident took place around 6.30 am Tuesday when Assam Police and forest guards stormed into the village to “arrest three residents”.

“That’s when the villagers started coming out to question them. That’s when they fired,” he had told ThePrint earlier.

In a purported video of the incident circulating on social media, villagers carrying wooden sticks can be seen gathering on a road, following which firing can be heard and villagers can be seen fleeing the spot.

However, the Assam government claimed in a statement issued Tuesday evening that the firing incident “took place between Assam Forest Officials and unknown miscreants at Mukhrow under Jirikinding PS (police station) under West Karbi Anglong District”.

According to the statement, the incident “reportedly took place when the Forest Party attempted to stop a truck smuggling out illegal timber”.

“When the truck was stopped by the forest party personnel, they were gheraoed (surrounded) by unknown miscreants who resorted to violence. In order to save their lives, the forest party resorted to firing. In the incident, three civilians and one forest guard died,” read the statement.

Deputy Commissioner of the West Jaintia Hills district (where Mukroh village is located) Batlang Samuel Sohliya, told ThePrint: “This area is well within Meghalaya and falls under the Nartiang police station. It is in fact a census village of Meghalaya. The disputed land is further from this place.”

He further said that a part of the nearby disputed area is community forest land claimed by the Khasis.

Asked about the details of the incident, Sohliya said, “We have initiated a magisterial inquiry, for now, to look into this.”

Aftermath & border dispute

Tensions escalated in Meghalaya after Tuesday’s incident with one video surfacing on social media showing cars with Assam number plates being set on fire in Shillong. “After the incident, three vehicles bearing Assam number plates were set on fire last evening. There has been no incident since then,” said Silvester Nongster, Superintendent of Police (SP) of East Khasi Hills district.

Meanwhile, the Assam Police reportedly stopped vehicles plying to Meghalaya at the interstate border for safety reasons. A taxi driver from Shillong, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint: “There is a little fear, we are scared to keep the cars outside. Only 30-40 per cent of cars are plying on the roads of Shillong today.”

The incident comes at a time when talks are ongoing between Assam and Meghalaya over disputed areas along their border. So far, both governments have resolved disputes in six of 12 areas, while discussions are ongoing to resolve issues in the remaining six.

Blaming tensions between the two states for the incident, civil society groups like the Northeast Students’ Organisation (NESO) and the Khasi Students’ Union called for governments in Assam and Meghalaya to resolve the border dispute amicably. 

“This is not the first incident where forest officials have come into the village forest. The Khasis have a community forest and sacred grove that can be used by the Khasi community, that is the age-old tradition,” said Donald Thabah, general secretary of the Khasi Students’ Union.

He added, “We are demanding that the border dispute should be resolved amicably and in such a way. Khasi should govern this Khasi communal land.”

NESO in a statement said it “would also like to call upon all the indigenous peoples that this issue is not an ethnic issue but of border dispute in which the respective state governments are duty bound to solve”. 

It added that if a solution is arrived at “whereby borders will be properly demarcated with a unanimous settlement”, the move will usher in peace between the two states and the “people residing along the borders can live without fear and in harmony amongst themselves”.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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