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9 Jun 2017

Darjeeling burns in peak tourist season... CM will stay till the last tourists leave Darjeeling safely

Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters protested in Darjeeling on Thursday. (PTI Photo)
Deep Gazmer | TNN | Jun 9, 2017, DARJEELING: Bengal's first cabinet meeting in Darjeeling in 44 years wrapped up inside the Raj Bhavan around 2.30pm on Thursday, with CM Mamata Banerjee announcing a slew of development projects for the Queen of the Hills. But, even before the "historic" cabinet meeting could end, bombs were being lobbed barely 200 metres away the first time this has happened in recent memory at the Mall shattering the veneer of peace and sending thousands of panic-stricken tourists running from the Mall all the way to the toy train station more than a kilometre downhill. By the end of the day, Gorkha Janmukti Morcha mobs had torched 12 police vans and one state transport bus, forcing the government to call out the Indian Army and allowing Morcha leader Bimal Gurung to crow that he was the "sher of the Hills" if Banerjee was the "sherni of Bengal". "Unka zabardasti chalta hai, mera bhi zabardasti chalega," he added.
The target of his barbs, the Bengal CM, whose party recently became the first predominantly plains party to get a toehold in the Hills by bagging the Mirik civic agency, refused to attach too much importance to the speaker. "I held a cabinet meeting here to take up development projects for the Hills. My heart goes out to the people of the Hills. I have nothing against them," the CM said, hours after she had declared the setting up of a mini-secretariat here named after Tenzing Norgay.
Most of her cabinet members had left Darjeeling for Siliguri by evening but Banerjee stayed back in Raj Bhavan with two senior colleagues, Aroop Biswas and Indranil Sen. The CM, back to her usual combative self, emphasised that she would stay back in Darjeeling till the "last tourist had left".
An unapologetic GJM, whi-ch has no problems in acknowledging that the Hills economy runs largely on the plains' tourism fuel, said tourists would have to bear with the inconvenience. The GJM Yuva Morcha called a 12-hour bandh in the Hills from 6am on Friday, with clear instructions to the trapped tourists to start for Siliguri either before sunrise or wait till the bandh was over.
The violence ended before sunset, and before the Army hit the streets around 8pm, but no one not the government and certainly not the tourists was taking chances. The CM took up GJM's challenge, chairing an emergency meeting of the state administration to give the tourists a safe passage, asking police to take strong action against disruptive efforts. Cops took up position on the more prone-to-violence stretches of the Darjeeling-Siliguri tourist corridor by evening and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration secretary Ravi Inder Singh was removed from his post following the violence. Barun Roy replaced him.
Darjeeling's tryst with its first state cabinet meeting since 1973 was not supposed to end in such a fiasco. The GJM had announced "a peaceful dharna" in front of the Gorkha Rang Mancha Bhavan on Mall Road but protesters went berserk, apparently without any provocation, as the cabinet meet stretched on inside the Raj Bhavan 200 metres away. They first tried to break through the police barricades and, after that failed, started throwing stones and bottles. Tourists, including a TOI photographer who was there with her family, heard at least two bombs. About 50 cops were injured, forcing them to first resort to a lathi-charge and then burst tear gas shells.
Tourists started running down from the Mall as soon as they heard the sound of bombs. Many first looked for refuge in the shops and hotels lined along Mall Road, Robertson Road and Laden-La Road but, as they had already downed their shutters, the tourists men, women and children continued their downward run till they reached the toy train station. Some tried to take the Chowrasta route but couldn't get a single vehicle to move out of the trouble zone.
GJM supporters brought out rallies from three places Ghoom, Singamari and the railway station and reached the Gorkha Rang Mancha Bhavan opposite St Andrew's Church on Mall Road, shouting slogans against the Banerjee government's "bid to impose Bengali on Hills people" and in favour of Gorkhaland. The women protesters staged a dharna in front of the main gate of the Rang Mancha Bhavan even as their male colleagues went inside, where the GJM leadership was holding a meeting. It was from this meeting that a handful of protesters came out and first burned the Bengal CM's effigy, sparking off the tumultuous next couple of hours that turned the Mall tourist zone into a war zone.

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