Garo National Liberation Army may be involved, say police

Seven people were killed and nine others injured when suspected terrorists opened fire on a group of villagers playing cards on Diwali evening, the latest in a string of lethal attacks linked to the spiralling ethnic conflict in lower Assam’s Goalpara district.

Though no organisation claimed responsibility for Sunday night’s attack, Superintendent of Police Nitul Gogoi told The Hindu suspicion pointed to the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA), a group earlier blamed for several bomb attacks, shootings and extortion-related killings.

In a statement, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi — currently in London on a private visit — asked for the Army to be deployed in the area. He also instructed Chief Secretary Jitesh Khosla and Director-General of Police Jayanto Choudhury to coordinate with their Meghalaya counterparts the hunt for the perpetrators. Four Ministers — Nilamani Sen Deka (Agriculture), Himanta Biswa Sarma (Health and Education), Rakibul Hussain (Environment & Forests) and Rajib Lochan Pegu (Water Resources) — were asked to rush to the site.

Police have enforced night-time curfew in areas along the Assam-Meghalaya border in Goalpara district following the incident, fearing ethnic clashes and retaliatory attacks.

Council elections

Tensions have been brewing in Goalpara for the past several months, in the run-up to the elections to the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council scheduled for November 13, 16 and 25. The Autonomous Council, one of several similar bodies in Assam, is intended to devolve power to the local tribal communities in Goalpara and parts of Kamrup district.

While the Rabha community has welcomed the creation of the Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, other ethnic groups — among them, Garos, Khasis and religious minorities — have been opposing its creation.

Non-Rabha ethnic groups say the Rabhas make up a minority in at least 382 of the 779 villages under the RHAC, including areas under Goalpara district and southern part of Kamrup district, and want these to be excluded from the autonomous council.

Last month, nine Meghalaya police personnel narrowly escaped a GNLA ambush in Chisobibra, across the border in Meghalaya.

Statehood demand

Formed in 2009, the GNLA says it is seeking a separate State for the Garo tribal people. The organisation, estimated at less than a 100 strong by the Indian Intelligence services, operates mainly in the three Garo Hills districts of western Meghalaya. It is reported to have staged extortion operations in the coal-rich West Khasi Hills, bordering this region, also.

The State government had initially dismissed the GNLA as a “bunch of criminals”. In December 2010, though, it invited the organisation for talks to facilitate their surrender. Pakchara ‘Champion’ Sangma, a former Deputy Superintendent of Police who heads the organisation, issued a statement in May 2011, saying the GNLA would agree to talks only with the Centre and declining to surrender.