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‘Kept like animals by Assam cops’ — in web of claims on Meghalaya firing, villagers recount ordeal

Firing took place while trying to stop timber smuggling, says Assam. Mukroh headman claims similar incident occurred in January but adds there were no casualties.

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Mukroh (Meghalaya): On Tuesday morning, police and forest guards allegedly crossed over from Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district into Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills district and opened fire. Six lives were lost in the episode.

Officials from the two states have varying statements on what took place, but those from Mukroh, the village rocked by the tragedy, have a common tale of misery and woe.

Skhem Sten lost her husband Thal Shadap in the firing. Wrapped in a shawl and sitting in front of a rundown house, the 38-year-old woman said, “I have four sons and one daughter. How will I raise them now… We are paddy farmers. We don’t have anything.”

“We want to see the perpetrator get punished. That’s all,” demanded Tloda Sumer, 49, whose husband Sik Talang was among the six victims.

Both Assam and Meghalaya governments have said they will seek an investigation into Mukroh firing by a central investigating agency. Tuesday’s tragedy is the latest in a long line of incidents that mark the Assam-Meghalaya border dispute.

‘Beaten by Assam personnel’

On Thursday afternoon, a deafening silence hovered over Mukroh, which, according to the villagers, is located at a mere five to six km from the Assam-Meghalaya border.

Tucked away inside a remote part of West Jaintia Hills district, 50 km from the district headquarters of Jowai, the village is home to 545 families, most of whom are from the Khasi sub-tribe of Pnar (who are also known as the Jaintias).

About 200 m from the centre of the village, personnel of the Meghalaya Police patrolled the spot where the six, including an Assam forest guard, were killed. Mukroh residents — Thal Shadap (45), Nikhasi Dhar (65), Sik Talang (55), Tal Nartiang (40) and Chirup Sumer (40) — were the remaining five victims.

The body of forest guard, identified as Bidyasing Lekhte, was returned over to Assam by Meghalaya.

A small pool of blood had dried up on a patch of mud and grass on the road were the firing took place on Tuesday morning. “There were bodies lying there, and one had even fallen over the stone barrier on the side of the road,” recollected 60-year-old Barlin Langshiang of Mukroh.

The road on which the firing allegedly took place | Photo: Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint
The road on which the firing allegedly took place | Photo: Angana Chakrabarti | ThePrint

The villagers claim that the Assam Police and forest guards arrived in the area at least twice between 2 am and 7 am on 22 November. “They first came and arrested three people, farmers who had been returning from the field around 2 to 3 am,” claimed Langshiang.

“Three of us were coming back with our bags (filled with paddy harvest) in a Maruti 800 when they (police and forest guards) intercepted us with their car,” claimed 23-year-old Budky Sumer. “They didn’t say anything about why they were picking us up. They just beat us up and took us to a nearby Assam forest guard outpost. We were beaten and kept like animals without food.”

The forest guards and the police returned a few hours later, claimed Mukroh residents. “I was at home when we got to know that they had come to our village. So, we went to the spot,” said Thwanly Salaha, who is part of the village defence committee.

The village headmen, secretary and several other leaders were among those who reached the area. According to the eyewitnesses from the village, the group tried to engage in dialogue with the police and the forest guards.

“But the police and forest guards then suddenly started firing into the sky,” Salaha said.

The villagers fled the spot and when they returned a few minutes later, they saw six people had died. Those who were held at the outpost were released after the six deaths took place, Sumer alleged.

Also Read: ‘Unprovoked firing’ by Assam Police, foresters killed 6 along interstate border, says Meghalaya

What both sides said after firing

A PTI report had quoted West Karbi Anglong police chief Imdad Ali as saying that a team from the forest department had intercepted the truck carrying that was illegally carrying timber. Ali was later transferred Wednesday.

The vehicle’s driver and handyman and another person were then apprehended, though others managed to escape, he told the news agency, adding that police reinforcements were brought in around 5 am.

Meanwhile, the Assam Government had claimed that the incident was related to a case of illegal timber smuggling. “When the truck was stopped, the forest personnel were gheraoed 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,” it said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday morning, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma along with cabinet ministers reached the village and handed ex-gratia to the families of the deceased. Sangma also met Union Home Minister Amit Shah Thursday in New Delhi. Shah, he tweeted, had assured to constitute an enquiry under a central agency.

Assam has ordered a judicial enquiry into the matter. Apart from transferring the West Karbi Anglong SP, it also suspended the Officer-in-Charge, Jirikinding police station and a Forest Protection Officer, Kheroni Forest Range.

This is not the first such incident, says Mukroh headman Hamboide Sumer. He claimed that a similar incident occurred in January. “A pickup truck carrying timber had come in from Assam. Personnel from Assam had come in the village and fired. But no one had died at the time.”

Also Read: Assam’s Miya museum closed ‘for being in PMAY house’, ‘What’s new there except lungi?’ says CM

Conflicting statements 

The chief ministers of the two states have issued contradictory statements about whether this episode stems from the ongoing border issue.

On Wednesday, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma said that this wasn’t a border issue but a “conflict between Assam Police and the people of a village in Meghalaya”.

His Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma, however, had a different view. “Shared with Hon’ble Union HM that the root cause of the tension that has been building up in the area and the other areas has to do with the long-pending border issue between Assam & Meghalaya,” he tweeted Thursday night.

The two sides have also issued conflicting statements regarding which state the firing took place.

In the press statement Tuesday evening, the Himanta Sarma government had said the firing “took place between Assam Forest Officials and unknown miscreants at Mukhrow under Jirikinding PS (police station) under (Assam’s) West Karbi Anglong district”.

But, ThePrint had earlier quoted Deputy Commissioner of West Jaintia Hills district Batlang Samuel Sohliya as saying that the area fell under Meghalaya’s Nartiang district.

Back at Mukroh, villagers want a speedy resolution as their livelihoods are threatened. “Our farmlands are close to the border. We are now scared to go. Meghalaya and Assam should resolve their issues soon. We want a permanent outpost of Meghalaya Police or a paramilitary battalion here,” said Map Sumer, who lost her brother-in-law Sik Talang in the firing.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

Also Read: ‘Give & take’: How Assam & Meghalaya struck an agreement on a 50-year-old boundary dispute


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