A clash between Assam forest guards and the timber mafia operating in the Meghalaya-Assam border area turned deadly on the morning of November 22, leading to 6 deaths – 5 villagers from Meghalaya and 1 Assam forest guard. The incident reportedly happened at Mukroh village under Jirikinding PS, West Karbi Anglong district of Assam, an area bordering Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills district.
Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district’s Superintendent of Police Imdad Ali said that Forest Department officials intercepted a truck that was transporting illegal wood at around 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning
“When the forest guards approached the truck to seize the illegal consignment, it tried to flee. The guards opened fire and punctured the tyre of the vehicle. Three people, including the driver and his assistant , were apprehended, but others managed to flee from the scene,” he said.
The forest officials then informed the nearest police station at Jirikinding and requested for additional forces. According to the police, when a team reached there, a large number of people from Meghalaya surrounded them with sharp-edged weapons.
“The angry mob demanded the release of those arrested. The police team had to open fire to control the violent mob. A forest home guard and some members of the Khasi community were killed in the firing,” Ali said.
Video has emerged showing a large mob armed with sticks and other crude weapons surrounding the security personnel, who are forced to open fire in self-defence.
The dead forest guard has been identified as Bidya Singh Lehte while another forest guard, Abhimanyu, was injured in the incident. The 5 civilian deaths include – Thal Shadap, 45, Nikhasi Dhar, 65, and Sik Talang 55, died on the spot, while Tal Nartiang, 40 and Chirup Sumer, 40 succumbed to their injuries in the hospital.
Meghalaya blames Assam
However, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma blamed “unprovoked” firing by Assam Police and state forest guards for the incident. He claimed that Mukroh village falls in Meghalaya, stating “Assam Police and forest guards entered Mukroh village in West Jaintia Hills District and resorted to unprovoked firing, killing the five civilians of Meghalaya.”
Sangma said that the Meghalaya government would take ‘all kinds of steps’ to ensure action is taken against those responsible for this ‘inhuman act’. He also announced an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased, and cancelled the iconic ‘cherry blossom’ festival in the state. The CM appealed to citizens of Meghalaya to maintain peace and harmony in the state.
Meghalaya police have lodged an FIR against Assam police and forest guards.
The Assam government has said that the firing incident at Mukhro village happened within the territory of Assam, and they have set up a one-man inquiry commission headed by a retired Judge of Gauhati high court to probe the incident.
If one looks at the Google map of the area, the village in question clearly falls on the Assam side. It is possible this area is part of the border dispute between Assam and Meghalaya, and hence both state’s are claiming it as their own.
Assam, which shares borders with six other Northeastern states — Nagaland (512.1 km), Arunachal Pradesh (804.1 km), Manipur (204.1 km), Mizoram (164.6 km), Tripura (46.3 km) and Meghalaya (884.9 km) — has boundary disputes at least with four Northeastern states — Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, besides Mizoram.
As per reports, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma is in constant touch with his Meghalaya counterpart over the incident which occurred at a time when both states were planning to hold the next round of discussion on border disputes shortly. On November 10, Sangma said the second round of discussions with Assam for resolving the border dispute was likely to start by the end of this month. Assam and Meghalaya identified 12 disputed areas at the inter-state border. In the first round, the two states resolved differences in six areas and signed an agreement in March.
In the wake of the incident, Meghalaya government has suspended mobile internet and data services for the next 48-hours from 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday in seven districts of the state – West Jaintia Hills, East Jaintia Hills, East Khasi Hills, Ri-Bhoi, Eastern West Khasi Hills, West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills.
After the violent incident, several Assam vehicles were prevented from entering Meghalaya at Jorbat by police in a bid to prevent any untoward incident and public safety. Assam police have urged people from the state not to visit Meghalaya temporarily.
Such violence at inter-state borders is not uncommon in the North East. A major outbreak of violence along the Assam-Mizoram border on July 26, 2021 left 6 Assam Police personnel dead and nearly 100 civilians and security personnel of the two neighbouring states injured.
Many of the border areas that Assam shares with other states are beset with the problem of illegal Bangladeshi Muslim infiltration, and 3 of the states which it has a dispute with are Christian-majority states with a long history of discrimination and violence against non-Christian janjatis (tribals) and outsiders.
The problem is complex, and despite best efforts of all governments and the centre, violence seems to flare up from time to time.