Over 10,000 tourists stuck in Darjeeling as GJM supporters’ clash with police, Army called in
Anywhere between 10,000 to 15,000 tourists are stuck in West Bengal’s hill-town of Darjeeling with the state government compelled to call in the Army after a clash between the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters with police went out of hand.
Police fired tear gas shells and resorted to lathi charge to disperse the agitators who tried to march to the venue of the Mamata Banerjee-led government’s first Cabinet meeting in the hills here.
The GJM supporters also set fire to police vehicles, a government bus and attacked the police with stones and bottles, less than a kilometre away from where Mamata’s ministers were meeting.
GJM supporters tried to break the barricades put up by the police and hurled brickbats. They were protesting among other things ‘imposition of Bengali language in the schools in the hills’.
In Kolkata, a Defence Ministry spokesman said that two Army columns based in Darjeeling were moving out, even as the GJM called a 72-hour shutdown in the north Bengal hills on Friday in protest against "indiscriminate police action on the peaceful demonstration" taken out by its workers.
"Requisition from state government received. Two army columns based in Darjeeling moving out," said Wing Commander SS Birdi, Chief Public Relations Officer of Defence, at Kolkata. One column comprises around 80 men.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and most of the Cabinet ministers were present in the hill town apart from Chief Secretary, Home secretary and other high officials. The GJM supporters also held a dharna and raised slogans against the Chief Minister.
Shopkeepers at some places, including the Mall, downed their shutters while the traffic came to a halt, causing inconvenience to tourists. The GJM has also called for an indefinite bandh in Darjeeling, rendering the stranded tourists virtually helpless.
The Cabinet meeting in Darjeeling is what many see as the TMC’s attempt to secure a foothold in the hills. Its victory in the recently concluded Mirik municipality elections appears to have triggered political ambitions of the ruling party.
The CM announced that the government will set up a mini-secretariat for the hills in Darjeeling. The CM had also announced a new polytechnic college and a skill development centre at Mirik.
This was the first time that the armed forces were called to tackle the situation since Mamata assumed charge in March 2011. The last time the government took the help of the armed forces to restore law and order was in 2010 in Deganga in North 24 Parganas.
The police, who initially beat a hasty retreat, made a repeated baton charge and lobbed tear gas shells at the mob to quell the violence that erupted near Bhanu Bhawan on the tourist hub Mall Road, that was virtually taken over by the GJM workers.
At least 15 police officers, including Jalpaiguri range Deputy Inspector General of Police Rajesh Kumar Yadav, sustained severe injuries.
The Morcha supporters also forced the markets in the neighbouring Kalimpong district to shut down.
Banerjee, after her Cabinet meeting, claimed the Morcha's agitation was based on a "non-issue".
"Every political party has a right to protest. So are they. But what is the issue on which this agitation is based? There are no issues at all. The Morcha is trying to gain political relevance by holding these protests," Banerjee observed at the end of her Cabinet meeting.
"We have no enmity with anyone. We want the hills and the entire state to be well," she added.
The GJM claimed that 45 of its supporters were injured in the police action.
"Our party has called for a 12-hour shutdown in the North Bengal hills, including Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts and the Mirik subdivision, in protest against the indiscriminate police action on our peaceful demonstration," GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri said.
"We condemn the police action on our supporters today in Darjeeling. At least 45 GJM supporters including women got injured in the police beating," he said.