A conflict in Meghalaya

Print edition : November 04, 2005

Supporters of the Garo Students Union at the Tura Civil Hospital. They were injured when the police fired at a rally on September 30. - RITU RAJ KONWAR

The proposed revamp of a school education board gives rise to a major controversy involving the Khasi and Garo tribes, with the latter threatening to demand a separate State.

MEGHALAYA is caught in a never-ending political crisis over the issue of restructuring the Meghalaya Board of School Education (MBOSE). The issue has already snowballed into a larger conflict between the Khasi and Garo tribes.

The conflict, which is over four months old, took an ugly turn on September 30 when nine protesters were killed when the police opened fire on two Garo Students' Union (GSU) rallies in the headquarter towns of Tura and Williamnagar in the Garo Hills. Seven of them were school or college students.

The incident, which came in the middle of an agitation spearheaded by the influential GSU and several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in the Garo Hills, has once again disturbed the political equilibrium in the volatile hill State.

Two Garo political stalwarts resigned after the police firing. Former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno Agitok Sangma resigned his Tura parliamentary seat while his rival, Deputy Chief Minister in charge of Home and Education, Dr. Mukul Sangma, quit the Congress-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government.

P.A. Sangma resigned in protest against "barbaric" police action on the students. In his resignation letter to the Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee he said: "Responding to people's sentiments I am resigning from my Tura Lok Sabha seat with immediate effect." The Deputy Chief Minister resigned owning moral responsibility for the police firing.

P.A. Sangma, who had won from Tura for a record eighth time in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, told reporters after submitting his resignation: "I will now tour the constituency to assess public opinion and intensify the campaign to oppose the State government's decision to bifurcate the Meghalaya Board of School Education." The former Lok Sabha Speaker also announced his plans to formally rejoin the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), of which he was a founding member but which he left ahead of the Lok Sabha elections following differences with Sharad Pawar over electoral alliance with the Congress. He then joined Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress, which was re-christened the Nationalist Trinamul Congress (NTC). His resignation came hours after NCP spokesman D.P. Tripathi told reporters in New Delhi about Sangma's imminent "home-coming".

Asked whether he would rally support for a separate Garo Hills State if his demand was not met, he said: "We shall ascertain the minds of the people on the issue before taking any such step." The ruling coalition saw his move as "political opportunism to gain entry into the NCP and avoid attracting the anti-defection law".

The turmoil started when the Khasi Students' Union (KSU) and other Khasi organisations launched a movement demanding the bifurcation of the MBOSE headquartered in Tura. The GSU and other Garo organisations opposed the demand. The KSU's agitation gained momentum after the organisation's former president, Paul Lyngdoh, resigned as Sports and Youth Welfare Minister. He heads the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM), which is a constituent in the ruling coalition.

The KSU demanded the appointment of a full-time Chairman and two Secretaries, one at the Tura office and another in Shillong, as part of the process of revamping and strengthening of the MBOSE.

Bandhs, blockades and rallies by the KSU affected life badly in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The conflict reached a flashpoint when some leaders from both sides started demanding the bifurcation of Meghalaya - one for the Garos and one for the Khasis and the Jaintias.

The GSU asked all the 24 Garo legislators in the 60-member State Assembly to quit. "All the MLAs [Members of Legislative Assembly] of the Garo Hills must resign, as these representatives were not there for their own people and remain mute even today on the massacre of innocents. They must resign on moral grounds or they will not be welcome in Garo Hills," it announced.

With P.A. Sangma showing the way and seven legislators of the NCP, the main Opposition party in the State, also indicating their willingness to quit the House, pressure will mount on other Garo legislators, particularly the 11 Congress MLAs, to pay heed to the student body's appeal. Such a situation is sure to trigger a major political crisis and might force fresh elections in the State. If the NCP, bolstered by Sangma's return, succeeds in its political game plan of isolating the Congress in the Garo Hills, then the Congress may lose its foothold in Meghalaya. Eleven of its 29 legislators are Garos.

Chief Minister D.D. Lapang finds himself in a tight spot. The KSU has warned that it will be `compelled' to launch a fresh agitation if the government fails to implement the recommendations of the State Level Committee (SLC), which has already been approved by the Cabinet. The KSU had called off its agitation after the Lapang Cabinet approved the recommendations.

The trouble over the MBOSE can be traced back to a leak and shortage of question papers in Shillong. The MBOSE is responsible for the conduct of examinations, which includes the setting of question papers, their printing and distribution, collection and correction of answer scripts, tabulation of marks and finally, publication of the results of the secondary school-leaving examinations.

The government initially turned down the KSU's bifurcation demand and announced its decision to strengthen the board by filling all vacancies.

In an effort to placate the KSU, the Chief Minister conceded on June 20 its basic demands for a full-time Chairman-cum-Chief Executive Officer for the MBOSE, to be appointed in Tura, and two Secretaries, in Shillong and in Tura, without bifurcating the Board.

Paul Lyngdoh welcomed the announcement and indicated that he would withdraw his resignation, but the Garo Hills erupted in anger. A quick shut-down was called in the Garo Hills areas. The Garo Hills Citizens Forum (GHCF) at a meeting on June 21, passed a resolution demanding bifurcation of the State to create "Garoland" unless the government revoked the decision.

Sensing trouble, the State Cabinet, on June 24, reviewed its earlier announcement and entrusted a committee headed by Chief Secretary P.J. Bazeley with the responsibility of working out a solution to the problem. This fresh move only fuelled a strong outburst from the KSU and the GHCF. Emotions ran high and sentiments favouring separate States gained strength among both Khasi and Garo leaders. However, things cooled down in the Garo Hills for a while when the Garo organisations suspended their agitation in the first week of July to allow the committee to look into ways to reorganise, restructure and revamp the MBOSE without bifurcating it.

On August 29, the committee submitted its report, which recommended the appointment of two directors - one for Tura and the other for the Shillong office, which has now been upgraded into a regional office. The agitating groups of Khasis and Jaintias were satisfied with the recommendations, which were approved by the Cabinet. But the agitating groups in the Garo Hills viewed them as a move to split the MBOSE and launched a fresh agitation.

The probe into the state of affairs of the MBOSE has also exposed the laxity on the part of successive State governments in monitoring its day-to-day functioning and taking timely steps to revamp it. The SLC report revealed that the accounts of the board had not been audited for years.

"There is neither regulation for exercise of financial powers nor any delegation of Financial Power Rules. The accounts of the Board from April 1, 1994, to March 31, 1998, have been prepared but have not been audited. Accounts for period after March 31, 1998 have not been prepared as yet," the report said. It also pointed out a number of shortcomings in conducting examinations and in the evaluation system, which justify immediate intervention by the State government.

The MBOSE Act says: "If in the opinion of the State government, the Board has shown its incompetence to perform or persistently made default in the performance of the duties imposed, or exceeded or abused the powers conferred upon it by or under this Act; the State government shall formulate in writing specific charges against the Board in respect of those matters and shall forward a copy of such charges to the Board with direction to submit any comments or explanations in respect thereof to the State Government within such period as may be specified in this behalf. After considering the comments or explanations of the Board, the State government may if it thinks fit, by notification supercede the Board and thereafter reconstitute the Board in accordance with the provisions of Section 4 of the Act and in every such case, the State government shall, as soon as may be, lay before the State Legislature a copy of the said notification together with statement of the reasons which led to such reconstitution."

By all indications, the MBOSE issue is going to remain alive for the next six months, with a byelection to the Tura Lok Sabha constituency becoming a necessity after Sangma's resignation. Any hasty move by the government would only sharpen the divide. While the KSU and other Khasi bodies have viewed the MBOSE as apathetic towards students of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the GSU and other Garo bodies view any move to create a new office in Shillong as bifurcation of the Board to placate the Khasis. There have been indications by Garo NGOs that any move to bifurcate the MBOSE will force them to seek the bifurcation of the State.

Reflecting the strong sentiments of the Garo people, who feel they have been "treated as second class citizens and neglected by the rulers in Shillong", Sangma told Frontline: "MBOSE is the only presence of Meghalaya as a State in the Garo Hills. All other offices that have come up in Garo Hills over the years belong to the Central government. Now they want to take even the MBOSE away from the Garos." He alleged that the people of the Garo hills were always discriminated against and everything was "Shillong-centric".

The statehood demand is not new in the Garo Hills. The militant Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) has been fighting for a homeland called "Achik (Garo) land" and the Garo National Council has been fighting for a separate Garo State.

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