Shillong, many would believe to be a dream destination for availing relief from the scorching summer heat of the plains. No doubt it is. I’m from Shillong, and I cannot imagine a life outside this place. But, like all other places, Shillong, this state, and this region too have their own set of problems to deal with. With the festive season approaching (its festive season here from Diwali to Christmas), the demand for money by self-styled NGOs arrives too. On the target list are: Businessmen, traders and their own loyalists.
Extortion in the Northeast by numerous pressure groups self branded as NGOs, militant organisations is an under-reported yet uncontested truth. With little to no attention from national media, in the northeast have proliferated several groups- ‘NGOs’, NGOs connected to militant groups, and militant groups, all which engage in extortion with varied levels of hostility.
For someone who has lived through the Shillong of the 80’s and 90’s, fleeing was the only relief at the time. What else could one think of when one would be a direct witness to random and indiscriminate killings of tribals and non-tribals alike? At the time, the HNLC was the organisation calling the shots in the Khasi Hills. The HNLC, a militant organisation, operated on the premise of seeking an end to the rule of the Indian State. They despised India from the bottom of their hearts. Of course, if the Indian state decided to throw some money at this organisation and its offshoots, India would be their heaven, and secession would no longer be a demand. The fundamental goal of the erstwhile HNLC, and the current pressure groups, is money.
Money is the ideology, money is the cause, and money alone is what legitimises the functioning of these pressure groups to this day. One would be an abject fool to believe that what these pressure groups masquerading as NGOs stand for has anything to do with the interest of the people they claim to represent. In the 80s and the 90s, the HNLC extorted money from businessmen in the state.
Then, they stumbled upon the lucrative coal mining business, so the extortion of cash was initiated on that front as well. Those who obliged regularly to this loot were spared their lives. Those who resisted, even for genuine reasons, were eliminated, quite often, in broad daylight. The regularity of such killings made the common dwellers indifferent to such acts. Of course, non-tribal’s bore the brunt of extortionists the most. At occasions, tribals who were in the line of fire suffered collateral damage, and the entire city and its residents would stand up to the HNLC and send shivers down the spine of the organisation.
The HNLC had only one credential to validate their existence: the support of the people. While majority of the people were indifferent to the killings of non-tribals, some spoke out against it. The patrons of the HNLC who controlled operations of the organisation from Bangladesh were direct beneficiaries of the loot and bought for themselves coal mines and farmhouses. They would further lend the money extorted to people seeking loans.
Many businessmen have been killed, assaulted or threatened for refusing to be a contributor to the proliferation of this militant organisation, while others obliged to merely keep themselves and their loved ones alive. Though the HNLC has been wiped out, the extortion still continues.
The NGOs, who do no beneficial work for the society, have usurped the role of extorting money. Not that they were not already in the scene, but they now reign supreme when it comes to looting and fooling people. These pressure groups are usually ‘student unions’, though the numerical strength of actual students who are a part of these unions is a debate for another time. The seasonal violence which these pressure groups indulge in is no secret. However, these groups do not inflict brutality on its victims just yet, unlike the HNLC. Moreover, there is a fear of law which prevails and prevents these groups from going all-out. The proof of such activities is given by the fact that the unions are not transparent about their funding and sources of income.
The largest student union in the state, the Khasi Student Union (KSU) has regularly been in the news for extortion. Its targets include rich and small (especially non-tribal) businessmen, Meghalaya’s coal barons and almost anybody they want to extort from. Other unions are involved in such illegal acts too. The KSU has been on the forefront of demanding the ‘Inner Line Permit’ system for Meghalaya, intended at regulating the entry of ‘outsiders’ from the rest of the country. Agitations for ILP in the past few years have led to several instances of violence and murder of non-tribals.
Many a times, the tribals themselves have to face the brunt of the lavish demands of these unions and pressure groups. Now that the coal ban has been lifted from the state, the unions would be rejoicing as a major roadblock to their income is lifted.
The situation in the entire northeast region is grim. Ironically, northeastern tribals do not have to pay income tax to the government when the militants of Nagaland, particularly the NSCN-IM run an almost parallel tax collection system in the region they call ‘Nagalim’. They therefore extort not only within the state of Nagaland, but also Manipur and Assam. The two factions of the NSCN; the IM and the Khaplang factions, both collect taxes from the people (Nagas and Non-tribals alike) at the rate of 25 and 24 percent respectively, refusing to which is not a choice. The presence of such groups is the reason why we have seen resistance against highway development projects, as the state of Nagaland more integrated and well-connected with India, is detrimental to the monetary interests of these groups.
While in Meghalaya the influence of militant organisations like the HNLC, ANVC, GNLA, etc, is next to non-existent, Nagaland continues to suffer at the hands of these self-vested insurgent groups.
However, time is bringing change with it. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that the HNLC in Meghalaya would be a non-existent organisation? From a city which saw complete shutdown on Independence and Republic Days, to now celebrating both with great vigour, we’ve come a long way in Shillong. The people are realising that these pressure groups are nothing but self-vested unions who seek nothing but monetary profits for themselves, and occasional violence to make their lives exciting. Over time, as more and more people withdraw support to these groups, they too will cease to have any clout in the state. Of course, the state must deal with an iron fist with such elements to ensure that the mafia of extortion is stopped. For that, politicians must stop being beneficiaries of extortion themselves.