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9 Jun 2017

Hill flare-up, army out

Police vehicles set ablaze by Morcha supporters near Southfield College in Darjeeling, Bengal, on Thursday. The college is around 350 metres from Raj Bhavan, where the chief minister held a cabinet meeting. (Passang Yolmo)
Vivek Chhetri, TT, Darjeeling, June 8: The army was called out in Darjeeling after waves of young stone-pelters ran circles around police and torched security vehicles and state-owned property soon after chief minister Mamata Banerjee ended the first cabinet meeting in the hills in 45 years.
A gathering storm over suspicions that the Bengali language would be imposed in the hills in spite of an assurance to the contrary by the chief minister has broken at a time over 50,000 tourists are holidaying in Darjeeling.
Sources close to Mamata said she would remain in Darjeeling till the situation normalised.A pitched battle was fought barely 200 metres away from Raj Bhawan, where chief minister Mamata Banerjee was present with over a dozen ministers of the state cabinet. She had planned the meeting in Darjeeling as part of her development agenda for the hills.
This was the first time that a cabinet was meeting in Darjeeling after 1972 when former chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray had convened a meeting in the hill town.
But as Morcha supporters went about torching police vehicles, police posts and public buses, the discourse changed and destruction prevailed over development.
The clash broke out within 10 minutes of Mamata's media briefing after the cabinet meeting and she was supposed to move towards Richmond Hill, her official address in Darjeeling, from Raj Bhawan.
"The scene that was witnessed today was unprecedented in recent times. I was caught in the cross-fire and the situation was very grim today. Such scenes have not unfolded in the hills for long," said an employee of a hotel situated in the Mall region.
This is the first time that violence has erupted during Mamata's nearly 60 visits to Darjeeling in the past 6 years and the chief minister, who was tentatively scheduled to leave for Sukna in the plains this evening, decided to stay put in Darjeeling.
"There are over 50,000 tourists in Darjeeling... She would not leave till the situation gets normal. She has instructed the administration to ensure that the tourists are not inconvenienced," said a source close to Mamata.
An official of the I&CA department confirmed that all local TV channels had been asked to go off air from this evening until further orders as the situation in the hills remained tense.
At the heart of today's conflict was the perception in the hills that Bengali language would be made mandatory in the hills.
Though Mamata had clarified in Mirik the day before yesterday that it would not be mandatory for the hills and certain areas in Terai and Dooars, Morcha made it an issue and Bimal Gurung, the chief of the hill party, had said that Mamata's statement could not be taken at face value and demanded an announcement by the state cabinet today.
That tension was simmering was palpable from morning after Mamata and her cabinet colleagues reached Raj Bhavan. Gurung was also in the vicinity, barely 300 meters away, where the Morcha had planned a two-hour sit-in demonstration in front of Gorkha Rangamanch Bhawan.
Thousands of Morcha supporters marched through Darjeeling streets to reach the spot at around 12.30 pm and as they trickled in, the scene was set for a confrontation as the Morcha had been upping its ante against the Mamata government in the last few days by holding rallies and street corner meetings.
The police had barricaded the road leading to the Raj Bhawan from Gorkha Rangamanch, and the demonstrators squatted on the road and held the meeting.
"Initially, it looked that everything would be over peacefully," said a police source.
Senior state ministers like Aroop Biswas and Gautam Deb along with other ministers were on Raj Bhawan premises before 11 am while Mamata walked from Richmond Hill to Raj Bhawan at around 1 pm. The cabinet met at 2 pm and it was over in half an hour and a media briefing followed.
At around the same time, Gurung and senior Morcha leaders like Jyoti Kumar Rai called all the supporters to enter inside the Bhawan auditorium for an address. By 3pm, almost 90 per cent of the supporters were inside the auditorium and the complex.
But suddenly a group of Morcha supporters started burning Mamata's effigy, resulting in commotion and pushing and shoving between them and the police, who were standing guard near the barricades they had put up on the road to prevent anyone from heading towards Raj Bhavan.
"All of a sudden, stone pelting started and it continued for hours and soon violence spread to other parts of the city," said a police officer.
Similar violent scenes were witnessed in 2013 over an issue involving a police personnel and a school student. Since then the hills have been relatively calm.
While normality returned to Darjeeling in the evening - after a meeting between Morcha leaders and police -- thousands of tourists started trying to leave the town, but they were finding it hard to find transport to take them to the plains. Things are likely to get more difficult tomorrow as the Yuwa Morcha has called a 12-hour strike in the hills.
"With the army coming in, the situation seems to be under control, but I can tell you that its fluid," said a police source.
Gurung was supposed to announce another set of agitation today but he refused to speak to the media and said that he would take stock of the situation for the next two-three days before deciding the next course of action.
Jyoti Kumar Rai, assistant secretary of the Morcha, alleged that the violence was instigated by TMC supporters. "For the past three days, all our rallies were peaceful. Most of our supporters were inside the auditorium after the demonstration. We believe that the TMC cadres pelted stones which led from one thing to another."
In today's violence, six police vehicles, a state government bus and traffic outpost was torched while a number of Morcha supporters and police, including Amarnath K., additional superintendent of police, Darjeeling were injured.
Rajen Mukha, president, TMC (hills), said the Morcha's allegations were laughable. "The violence was pre-planned by the Morcha. They are losing support and this is they want to terrorise the people in supporting them. They had catapults with them which suggest that it was pre-planned. We demand Bimal Gurung's arrest immediately."

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