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9 Jun 2017

Bengal ministers shepherded to plains after 5-hour tense wait

Rohit Khanna & Debashis Konar | TNN | Jun 9, 2017, KOLKATA: For many of the 31 ministers, who attended Mamata Banerjee's cabinet meet in Darjeeling, Thursday brought back memories of the hurly-burly and action of "grassroots" politics when they had their backs to the wall as members of Bengal's beleaguered opposition.
True, they were on the other side on Thursday, behind the safety net of police protection. True, this was the Queen of the Hills and not some battle-scarred alley of central Kolkata. But the sound of bombs being thrown, the smell of sulphur and tear gas and the sight of plumes of smoke rising from burning police vans seemed more like what many of them had got used to while "doing politics" in the plains.
The "historic" cabinet meeting ended around 2.30pm when most of these 31 minist-ers, barring chief minister Banerjee and a couple of her colleagues, first came face to face with these tumultuous scenes. What followed was a tense five-and-a-half-hour of sometimes waiting and sometimes being shepherded down the Darjeeling Hills to the safety of the plains of Siliguri.
Minister of state for health Chandrima Bhattacharya cou-ld hear the sound of bombs the moment she stepped out of the confines of Raj Bhavan. "A thick cloud of smoke was spreading across the afternoon sky. Protesters were setting police vehicles on fire at will," a still-shaken Bhattacharya told TOI from Siliguri.
"But what worried us more was the condition of the tourists stranded there. Agitators could have, at least, spared a thought for them. Didi decided to stay back in the Hills till the last tourist would come back to safety. We will take a flight to Kolkata on Friday."
State panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee, who has seen his share of bombs and soda bottles being thrown about in the lanes of Mirzapur and College Street in the 1970s, compared Thursday to "when Subhas Ghising was at the helm of affairs in Darjeeling".
"There was not too much of chaos when our meeting started but it soon turned ugly. We could hear the sound of bombs and stones being pelted even as we were having our tea," the veteran minister said. "We had a tough time getting down from the Hills."
The entire cabinet reached Siliguri by 8 p.m. as only PWD and sports minister Aroop Biswas and minister of state for tourism and information and cultural affairs Indranil Sen stayed back with the CM. Muslim ministers were exempted from attending the meeting because of the Ramzan fast and finance minister Amit Mitra and education minister Partha Chatterjee were the only other ones who were forced to stay away because of other engagements.

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