TURA (MEGHALAYA): Once wanted by the security forces, Bernard N Marak, 42, is contesting the February 27 Meghalaya election as a Trinamool Congress candidate from the prestigious South Tura seat in Garo Hills.
He is the erstwhile chief of Garo (tribe) insurgent group Achik National Volunteer Council or ANVC (B). For years, the police chased him unsuccessfully in the jungles of Garo Hills bordering Bangladesh. Even today, it is difficult to find the “overground” Marak’s modest home.
“Thank God you could locate my house. Not many can do so,” Marak said with a smile, greeting and then accosting this correspondent to a spruced up room upstairs. Prior to that, Sparkle, his pet dog, who was barking with all his might on seeing this stranger, fell silent when his master had come downstairs.
The two-storey building is perched on a hill at Konbegitim locality, around six km away from the heart of Tura town. A narrow, serpentine, bumpy, dusty and kutcha road from the Don Bosco College in the vicinity leads to the house. Upstairs, a group of women was busy separating the husks from paddy.
“They haven’t come here hoping to get some money. They love me and are helping me in whatever way they can,” Marak said.
For many in the Northeast, elections are a time to make merry by earning some money from candidates. Some organise feasts at their houses every day in the run up to polls to keep voters in a good humour.
Marak defected to the TMC a few months ago on being inspired by its chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her opposition to Aadhar card.
“We, the tribals, are not comfortable with Aadhar card. Wherever we go, we are asked to produce it. Why is it being forced upon us? We are from a protected area and there are special provisions in the Constitution which protect us from various rules, regulations, Acts and decisions of the Central government. Our MPs are silent on the issue but Mamata has been critical of it. So, I decided to join her TMC,” Marak said.
He was with BJP until ditching it last year in the wake of Centre’s introduction of new cattle slaughter rules which the beef-eating Garos perceived as an invasion into their kitchen. Marak may have parted his ways from BJP but saffron has not from him. “I like this colour. My father too, who died last week, liked it,” he said when asked about his saffron T-shirt.
The former rebel leader feels militancy has to be curbed for peace. He appealed to the government to open the doors for others who are still wielding the gun. If militancy in Garo Hills continues to exist, it will give a base to other insurgent groups, he said.
“It was my choice to join the mainstream. From here on, it will be a political battle. Our fight will continue but not with weapons but through political means,” he asserted.
He is not new to elections though. He contested the District Council elections in 2015 which he lost.
“I campaigned for just two weeks but still I lost by only a few hundred votes. I could have won it had they (rivals) not disturbed the election by resorting to violence and preventing my people from casting votes,” Marak said.
On the upcoming election, he said there may be some big people pitted against him but “people’s choice is different”. “Why would I contest the election if people are not with me?” he argued.
The ANVC (B) is a breakaway faction of ANVC. Both disbanded following their signing of a peace agreement with the government in 2015. Despite disbandment, they are fighting for a homeland for the Garo called “Achik Land” comprising Garo Hills and parts of Assam where the Garos have a sizeable population.