It was an avoidable tragedy triggered by the long delay in the resolution of the border disputes among the north-eastern states, primarily because of political apathy. The uncertainty and confusion over the state boundaries and subsequent under-development of border areas, have also resulted in, among other things, illegal trades of natural resources allegedly with tacit support from government officials. These were the findings of an India Today NE ground zero investigation into the firing incident that happened on November 22 near Mukroh village along the Assam-Meghalaya border, resulting in the death of six people, including an Assam forest guard.
The firing happened following an alleged clash between an Assam Police team and a mob, in an area bordering the West Karbi Anglong district of Assam and Mukroh village in Meghalaya’s West Jaintia Hills district. The Assam Police claimed that they had opened fire in self-defence as a mob surrounded them when they had been trying to intercept a truck allegedly smuggling timber. They also claimed that the incident took place within the territory of Assam.
On the other side, Meghalaya CM Conrad K. Sangma condemned the Assam Police and forest guards for “entering Meghalaya” and resorting to “unprovoked firing”. The residents of Mukroh village also asserted that the firing happened unprovoked and in Meghalaya. They found an unlikely support from Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, who also claimed that the Assam police team should have shown restrain. He even ordered suspension of the officer-in-charge of Jirikinding police station and forest protection officer of Kheroni Forest Range, and transfer of the West Karbi Anglong Superintendent of Police. The Assam CM announced a one-man inquiry into the incident under a retired High Court judge while saying that the police probe would be handed over to the CBI. His counterpart Sangma met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi on November 24 and demanded a probe by a Central agency.
Tension ran high in both neighbouring states with Opposition parties trying to corner both governments. Vehicles from Assam were stopped from entering Meghalaya and, at least, two vehicles bearing Assam registration number were torched in Meghalaya. As the crisis spiralled into a major controversy involving the two states, India Today NE visited the ground zero where 30 rounds of bullets were shot, killing five civilians from Meghalaya and one Assam Forest guard.
What’s in the Assam Police FIR?
In the wee hours of November 22, a forest team led by Shikari Enghee, Forest Protection Officer at Kheroni Forest Range in Assam’s Karbi Anglong District, intercepted a timber-loaded truck, followed by a Maruti 800 car at Mukroh, 20 km away from Jirikinding police station, the nearest Assam police post. The truck did not stop while Enghee’s team apprehended the three travelling in the Maruti 800, suspecting them to be involved in the timber smuggling. The forest team chased the truck and fired at the tyres of the truck, forcing the truck to eventually come to a halt. Before the forest team could reach the truck, the driver and handyman ran away from the spot and informed the locals in nearby Mukroh village—located within the geographic boundary of Meghalaya, 124 km from Shillong and 96 km from Guwahati—about the arrest of the three individuals, who were residents of Mukroh, and the subsequent chase.
Soon, the villagers—around 300 in numbers—gathered at the spot where the truck had stopped—this location is within the boundary of Mukroh. They allegedly came armed with machetes and sticks and confronted the forest team, now accompanied by an Assam police team, who had come to seize the truck. The villagers demanded the release of the three individuals, earlier apprehended by the forest team. Following an altercation, two forest beat officers got injured. As the size of the mob kept swelling, the Assam police team opened fire in self-defence, resulting in the killing of five civilians. The villagers allegedly took away the personal arms along with 10 rounds of BDR ammunition of the deceased home guard Bidyasing Lekthe, who was the sixth person killed during the clash.
The story recounted by the people of Mukhroh
When the villagers were first informed about the detention of three individuals by Assam forest officials, most of them were on their way to their farms or paddy fields. As the word of mouth spread, they started gathering around the place where the truck was parked. They now claim that four vehicles carrying Assam forest and police officials also reached the spot. The villagers demanded the release of the three men who they believed were innocent. They admitted that they had carried machetes—as they were heading to farms—but did not attack the police team. While talking to India Today NE, village headmen Summer said that villagers used to carry Ka wait (machete) for the harvesting of paddy.
The police team—according to the villagers, fired unprovoked in panic and the firing continued for 10 minutes. “I and my husband were heading to the farm as usual at around 7 am. We saw a large number of people gathering at that spot. So we also went there out of curiosity. I do not know how the firing started but unfortunately a bullet hit my husband,” says the wife of one of the five persons who died in the firing. Once, the villagers retreated, the team of Assam police and forest officials fled the spot, only to return later when they realised one of the forest guards had gone missing.
Later, some of the villagers allegedly vandalised and burnt down a forest beat office at Mokoilum in Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district. The Khasi Students' Union claimed responsibility for burning down the forest beat office, located along the Assam-Meghalaya border, and an Assam government vehicle in Mukroh, saying that Conrad Sangma-led government in Meghalaya failed to protect its citizens.
Local MLA Nujorki Sungoh, who belongs to the United Democratic Party, part of Sangma-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA), alleged that the people of Mukhroh are forced to regularly pay illegal taxes to Assam forest officials for carrying timber as firewood for domestic use. Sungoh claims that without a categorical demarcation of the boundary between Assam and Meghalaya, the Assam forest officials will continue to harass the locals in that area, in the name of forest conservation.
“Each time we try to transport our harvested products from our farms, we have to confront the Assam Forrest guards and pay a fine. Otherwise, we cannot bring our produce home,” villager told Meghalaya DGP L R Bishnoi, during his visit to Mukroh village. India today NE was present on the ground during this interaction. Mukroh headman Hamboide Sumer alleged that Assam forest officials often entered into the villages under Meghalaya territory without informing the Village Development Council or administration. The fear of Assam administration was seen in nearby areas too. “We always travel in fear,” a villager in Mokoilum, located along the Assam-Meghalaya border and 10 km away from Mukroh, told Bishnoi.
There is also a dispute on the timing of the incident. The FIR registered in Jirikinding police station mentions that the interception of the truck and subsequent clash happened at around 4 am. The villagers say the firing happened at 7.30 am.
What India Today NE found
While there have been claims and counterclaims—Assam forest officials deny collection of any illegal tax or fine from the villagers—at the root of this conflict has been the absence of a demarcated boundary between Assam and Meghalaya. There is also no clarity on the boundary of the reserved forest areas and the right of the villagers on the forest resources.
According to the laws of the local tribes, the forest areas are considered as private properties owned by either the village community or individuals. While Mukroh is marked in Meghalaya territory, the state administration has very little presence here. For instance, though the firing incident reportedly took place at 7.30 am, the Meghalaya police team—of just 3-4 personnel—reached the spot around 10.30 am.
On the other hand, Assam forest department has several beat offices along the border between the two states. People in the border villages often unknowingly transgress into each other’s territories for collecting farm produce, firewood or forest resources. While they seek to assert their rights over the adjoining forest areas, Assam forest officials say that they have a job at hand—to protect these forests from encroachment and illegal smuggling.
The incident of November 22 was the result of this conflict of interest in a grey area where jurisdictions often clash. For instance, Mukroh is in Meghalaya, but the concrete road that passes by the village has been built by the Public Works Department (PWD) of Assam. And yet, as India Today NE witnessed, following the firing incident, some Meghalaya villagers felled big trees on this road to block the movements of vehicles bearing Assam registration plate.
Such absurdities have been part of the border dispute going on between the two states since Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. In March this year, Assam Chief Minister Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart Sangma, in the presence of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, signed a “historic” agreement to resolve these issues. The pact claimed to have ended disputed in six of the 12 locations along the 884.9 km border between the two states. The talks between the two CMs for the remaining six locations began in August with both governments deciding to form three regional committees from each state to study the disputes.
Mukroh, which is in Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya is part of the six disputed locations included in the second round of talks. In 1951, when Meghalaya was still a part of Assam, Blocks I and II of Jaintia Hills (Meghalaya) were transferred to the Mikir Hill (Karbi Anglong) district of Assam as per recommendations of a government committee. The second phase includes villages in these areas, which are larger and are said to be more complex to resolve.
What happened to the three arrested?
The biggest irony lies here. The locals allege that the three villagers were not arrested but were illegally detained because they refused to pay “taxes” to Shikari Enghee. They were taken to a nearby forest and were beaten black and blue, a treatment meted out to anyone, who declines to pay, allege the villagers. In the aftermath of the firing incident and massive public outrage and media attention, the three were reportedly released unconditionally.
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