WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Travel

Tag: Tura

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.

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. []

A Short History of Garo-Land

Before departing for a year as a volunteer teacher at a school in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I tried to learn about the place I was soon to visit. I managed to come up with a few facts from reference materials in my library and books I got through interlibrary loan. The Internet—this worshipful medium through which all things may be known—was hardly any help at all.1 I learned that the Garo Hills are inhabited by the Garo people, and that it rains heavily there. I didn’t learn much else.

None of the sources I was able to find seemed to have any sense of the history of the place and the people that lived there. The brief references to Garos I was able to find mentioned their having been converted to Christianity by American missionaries in the nineteenth century. Where the Garos had come from and what they were doing in their pre-Christian days, I couldn’t tell. And since their conversion to Christianity, the Garos seemed not to have done much of anything.

Over the course of my volunteer term, and in the years since, I have been able to gather some information about the Garos and the land they inhabit. It appears that a complete history of the Garos has not been written—or in any event, has not been translated into English. My intention here is not to write such a history. Rather, in this and the next several blog posts, I intend to historicize the Garo Hills, to provide some of the context that I was unable to find before I visited the place.

Except in accounts by foreign missionaries—which present their own difficulties for interpretation—Garos typically only appear on the margins of other people’s history, if at all. They deserve to be at the forefront of their own history. The Garos offer a case-study of a people on the margins of a nation-state, both literally and figuratively. The Garo Hills, along with the rest of northeast India, are isolated geographically from the mainland of India. Culturally and linguistically, the Garos are distinct from the majority of the Indian population: they have no Hindu heritage, and they do not speak an Indo-Aryan or Dravidian language. Studying the Garos can help us see how minority peoples respond to marginalization in modern nation-states.

The Garo Hills comprise the western end of the Meghalaya Plateau, which rises between the Brahmaputra River Valley and the flatlands of Bangladesh. The predominantly limestone hills catch a significant portion of the monsoon that sweeps in from the Bay of Bengal. The rains nourish forests that grow thickly on uncultivated hills. The seasonal rains feed rivers that flow out into the plains; the rivers are low in the winter months and subsequent dry season, but high in the summer monsoon. The highest portion of the Garo Hills is the Tura Range, which reaches its climax at Nokrek Peak.2 Most of the land in the Garo Hills has been encroached upon by human settlement, but a few places are set aside as protected areas. The ecologically diverse Nokrek National Park, near Tura, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Preserve in 2009.

The modern-day Garo Hills are divided into three districts (West, East, and South Garo Hills) of the state of Meghalaya. The ethnic and linguistic majority population in these hill districts are the Garos. Some Garos live in adjoining districts of Assam and Bangladesh, and thus I use the term “Garo-Land” when I wish to refer to the ethnolinguistic region straddling state and international borders. The population of the Garo Hills is overwhelmingly rural. The largest settlement in the Garo Hills is Tura, which is the district headquarters for the West Garo Hills district. Situated on a hillside at 1200 feet, Tura has a population of barely 60,000. Important market towns line the few highways that run into the hills; smaller settlements are dispersed throughout the backcountry of the hills. The 2011 Indian census reports that 88% of the 1.1 million inhabitants of the three Garo Hill districts are rural.3

In the next four blog posts, I will attempt to place the Garos and their land in historical context. After discussing the historical background of the Garos, I will conclude with an analysis of a recent event in Garo history: the September 30, 2005 shooting of students in Tura and Williamnagar, an event that has since become known as Black Friday.

References

  • Playfair, A. The Garos. 1909. Reprint, Guwahati, India: Spectrum Publications, 1975. The new introduction of the reprint, by Parimal Chandra Kar, provides the most useful postcolonial history of the Garo Hills that I have yet seen.
  • Taher, M, and P. Ahmed. Geography of North-East India. 4th ed. Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007.
  1. On Google Books, I found a very dated Garo grammar, which I got printed and bound into a book. I brought the book with me to India and tried to study it, but the language—especially its written form—had changed so much between 1874 and 2009 that I found the book useless. []
  2. Published sources give varying figures for the elevation of Nokrek Peak, ranging from 4633 feet (1412 meters) on US Defense Mapping Agency Charts, to 5016 feet (1529 meters) in Taher and Ahmed, Geography of Northeast India. []
  3. The 2011 Census has a useful interactive interface: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/censusinfodashboard/index.html. Only 132,000 inhabitants of the Garo Hills live in urban areas, which were defined for the purposes of this census as places that fulfilled all of the following conditions: 1) population 5,000 or greater; 2) at least three-quarters of male workers employed in non-agricultural professions; and 3) minimum population density of 400 per square kilometer. []

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

© 2009-2017 Willy Logan All Rights Reserved