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Black Friday, one decade later

Ten years ago today, on Friday, September 30, 2005, protest demonstrations in the Garo Hills of northeast India turned tragic when police forces of the central government fired their guns at the protesters. In the towns of Tura and Williamnagar, the police firings killed a dozen teenaged students. Ever since, this event has been known as Black Friday. To commemorate the unjust death of the protesters, people across the Garo Hills declare a general strike every September 30, closing schools and businesses for the day. (For more on Black Friday and its background, please see my post from three years ago.)

I first went to the Garo Hills six years ago, in 2009. The problems of political and economic marginalization, which underlay the September 2005 protests, were still very much in evidence in 2009. One positive aspect of the Garo Hills’ then-current political situation was that the area was at peace. In other parts of northeast India, minority groups had responded to their own marginalization by forming insurgencies to wage war against the Indian government. Six years ago, there were organized insurgencies in the Garo Hills, but they were not particularly active. For the most part, the Garo Hills were self-policing. Police authority was not much in evidence, because it wasn’t necessary.

Early in 2015, I returned to the Garo Hills, and I was disappointed to see that the security situation had deteriorated in the past five years. Insurgencies had stepped up their activities, declaring villages to be their territory. They extort, threaten, and sometimes even hurt and kill anyone with wealth or political power who does not support them. In response, the state and central governments have stepped up police presence in the Garo Hills. Armed officers patrol the weekly markets and accompany night buses driving into the hills.

Ten years after Black Friday, the political situation of the Garo Hills has only gotten worse. I do not know the best way for the people of the Garo Hills to make themselves healthy and prosperous, but I do know that threatening, kidnapping, or killing those with power is not the way forward.

Digging out

BAJENGDOBA, MEGHALAYA, INDIA – On September 22 of last year, the Garo Hills of northeast India were ravaged by the worst floods in memory. Monsoon storms triggered flash floods in many of the region’s river valleys. The flooding and related landslides took the lives of around seventy residents of the hills, in addition to causing extensive property damage.

The Garo Hills have a special significance for me, because I spent a year living and teaching here between college and graduate school, from 2009 to 2010. When reports of the floods began to circulate in the days and weeks following September 22, I was horrified to think about such a catastrophe occurring to a place and to people I know and love. Now, in January 2015, I am fortunate to have the chance to visit the Garo Hills again and see the flood damage and subsequent recovery for myself.

The school where I taught, Riverside Adventist Academy, is located in the district worst-affected by the floods, North Garo Hills. On the morning of September 22, the Jinari River entered the school campus by opening a new channel leading right into the cafeteria and big boys’ and girls’ hostels (dormitories). The river toppled sections of the compound walls and brought branches and logs sweeping into campus.

Before the walls fell, the hostel students evacuated to the top floor of the classroom building as the rushing flood water rose above their knees. Three small boys lost their footing and were swept away by the current, but remarkably they were caught in the branches of a banyan tree on the edge of campus. Not a single student from Riverside school was lost in the flood, but one teacher drowned after helping many students to safety. His name was Rituraj Phukan, and he was 31 years old.

It has been almost four months since the floods, and I am happy to see that the school is recovering well. The broken sections of the compound wall have been replaced by temporary fencing. Teachers and non-teaching staff have spent weeks painstakingly cleaning the campus – shoveling mud out of the buildings, righting and re-rooting trees toppled by the water, and clearing away logs that washed onto campus. I am impressed by how beautiful the campus looks now, with graceful gulmohur trees casting their shade onto the walkways. Apart from the broken compound walls and an ugly landslide gash on a nearby hillside, there are few obvious signs that this place was inundated by a deluge just four months ago.

Riverside school will reopen on-schedule for the 2015 academic year in early February. The school and the surrounding community have begun to recover from the floods, but despite appearances, the recovery is far from complete. Damage to buildings and other infrastructure in the Garo Hills (such as the school compound’s walls) will take time to repair. Harder to quantify – and likely harder to repair – will be the human toll of the floods. From my conversations with teachers and students who were at Riverside on September 22, it is clear to me that the floods were a deeply traumatic experience. Many witnesses expressed shock that such a disaster could happen. One student told me that she still feels like it was all a dream. I have noticed more gray hair in the Garo Hills than I remember seeing five years ago. I wonder if the stress of having their homeland inundated is causing the population of the Garo Hills to go prematurely gray.

Even these emotional wounds will heal some day. The families that lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers to the flooding and landslides will also eventually learn to live without the deceased. This will take years, but I am certain it will happen. I am also certain, though, that the great Meghalaya floods of 2014 will never be forgotten, as long as victims and witnesses of the floods are alive to tell their stories.

(This post continues coverage of the Meghalaya floods, which I started in this post.)

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September 30, 2005: Black Friday

On the morning of Friday, September 30, 2005, dual demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar—the Garo Hills’ two most populous towns—erupted into violence. In both places, police fired on demonstrators; by official counts, the police killed four demonstrators in Tura and five in Williamnagar. All were teenaged students. (Unofficial counts placed the total death toll at eleven.) This tragedy would become known as Black Friday. It continues to be commemorated and memorialized in the Garo Hills to this day, seven years later.1

The demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar were just two of many protests staged in the Garo Hills in response to the Meghalaya state government’s plans to restructure the Meghalaya State Board of Education (MBoSE). Earlier in 2005, the Khasi Students’ Union had placed pressure on the state government to move the education board’s headquarters from Tura to Shillong. A State Level Committee (SLC) submitted its report on August 29, stating that MBoSE should be split between Shillong and Tura. The state government agreed to act on these recommendations in full.2

In the Garo Hills, groups such as the Garo Students’ Union (GSU) and the Garo Hills Citizens’ Forum (GHCF) voiced their opposition to the state government’s plans to “bifurcate” MBoSE. The GSU started a “non-cooperation movement” in Tura on September 15. Calling for a mass strike, GSU agents coerced managers of shops, schools, and banks to close for the duration of the non-cooperation movement. Heightened police security allowed government offices to open during the strike.3

The restructuring of MBoSE was symbolic of a larger and longer-running struggle over the distribution of state power. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Garos in Meghalaya had felt marginalized when their state was created with its capital far away in Shillong. MBoSE was one state government ministry that was headquartered in the Garo Hills. The Garo activist groups thus resisted the Khasis’ attempts to move MBoSE to Shillong, an act that they felt would lead to their further alienation and exclusion from political power.

The GSU called off the non-cooperation movement on September 28, replacing it with a night curfew and road blockade. In calling off the strike, the GSU announced its intention to stage a rally at the Chandmari Playground in Tura on September 30. After speeches, the demonstrators would make their way down the town’s winding roads to the Deputy Commissioner’s office.4

It was during the first phase of this demonstration, at Chandmari Playground, that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers clashed with the demonstrators.5 The police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least four. In the firings and the ensuing riot, at least ninety other people were injured, including fifty-four police officers. In Williamnagar, at roughly the same time, demonstrators at the Rongengri grounds threw rocks at CRPF officers, prompting a similar response as in Tura.6

The killings caused an immediate uproar in Meghalaya. Purno A. Sangma, the representative of Tura in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament), called for president’s rule and the dismissal of the current Meghalaya state government. Later, he made the audacious demand that if MBoSE was split, then all state ministries that were headquartered in Shillong should also have branches in Tura. The GSU and other groups attempted to use the killings to their own political advantage. After another attempted non-cooperation movement, as well as a hunger strike, the GSU invited representatives of the state government to Tura for talks. Despite reports that the talks had gone well, tensions continued to simmer between the state government and Garo groups. The MBoSE bill passed in the state legislature the following March, leading to the creation of a regional education board office in Shillong.7

The much-delayed official inquiry into the Tura and Williamnagar shootings was finally released in April 2007. The investigative commission, led by retired Gauhati High Court judge D.N. Chowdhury, evaluated the firings in the two towns differently. The police in Tura behaved irresponsibly, because they fired at retreating demonstrators. By contrast, the Williamnagar shootings were declared “just and proper,” because the police had been provoked by protestors’ hurling stones. Neither demonstration had been sanctioned by the governing authorities.8

Efforts to commemorate and memorialize the victims of the killings began shortly after the day that was to become known as Black Friday. When Tura was still locked down by curfew after the shootings, hundreds of students in nearby towns marched silently with black flags to show their solidarity with the victims. A week later, the residents of Mahendraganj9 held a condolence service and prayer meeting. On the first anniversary of the killings, six thousand people gathered at Chandmari playground in Tura to unveil a cenotaph inscribed with the names of the shooting victims. Residents of Williamnagar unveiled a similar monument.10

The fourth anniversary of Black Friday took place during my own sojourn in the Garo Hills. On that day, the teachers at my school joined teachers at hundreds of other schools throughout the Garo Hills by going on strike. The teachers refused to work in protest of the killing of unarmed students four years earlier.

Although Black Friday was an important part of cultural memory in my part of the Garo Hills, my school’s commemoration of the fourth anniversary was perhaps superficial. We did not spent the day in mourning and reflection for the lives lost. Rather, most of the teachers sat through a committee meeting, while I went to Guwahati for shopping.

  1. “Nine killed in student protest,” Calcutta Telegraph, October 1, 2005; “Police says they fired in retaliation,” Times of India, October 1, 2005; “10 killed in Garo Hills police firing,” Hindustan Times (HT), October 1, 2005. []
  2. “Lapang defends report on MBoSE,” HT, September 8, 2005; “MBoSE controversy behind violence, HT, October 1, 2005. []
  3. “Garos hit hard by GSU non-cooperation,” HT, September 15, 2005; “Garo students’ non-cooperation continues on 2nd day,” HT, September 16, 2005. []
  4. “Non-cooperation to be lifted, night blockade to follow: GSU,” HT, September 26, 2005. []
  5. A police force operated by the Indian central government, the CRPF is used to supplement state police forces in trouble-prone areas. The CRPF also monitors elections. []
  6. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005. []
  7. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005; “Non-cooperation movement by GSU in Garo Hills today,” HT, November 6, 2005; “Garo Hills NGOs strike over MBoSE starts today,” HT, November 16, 2005; “GSU to launch hunger strike in Garo Hills from Monday,” HT, December 1, 2005; “GSU gives time to Garo MLAs to prove sincerity,” HT, December 15, 2005; “MBoSE bill passed amidst resistance,” HT, March 24, 2006. []
  8. “Probe holds Tura firing ‘irresponsible,’” HT, April 19, 2007. []
  9. The southwesternmost town in Meghalaya, Mahendraganj is located in the flatlands at the foot of the Garo Hills. []
  10. “Partial relaxation of curfew in Meghalaya,” HT, October 5, 2005; “Mahendraganj holds public condolence meet,” HT, October 12, 2005; HT, “Sept 30 victims remembered in Garo Hills,” October 4, 2006. []

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