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.
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.
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.
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.
It was during the first phase of this demonstration, at Chandmari Playground, that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers clashed with the demonstrators. 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.
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.
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.
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 Mahendraganj 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.
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.