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18 Jun 2017

Morcha plays with fire - Protesters say three killed as waves of marchers launch attacks on police

Two of the police vehicles set on fire by Morcha supporters at Singamari, 2km from the Mall in Darjeeling, on Saturday. At least six vehicles were torched during the day. Picture by Passang Yolmo
Kinsuk Basu and Vivek Chhetri, TT, Darjeeling, June 17: Clashes between protesters and police led to at least two deaths in Darjeeling today as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha resurrected a multiple-wave tactic that had changed the complexion of the Gorkhaland agitation in the 1980s.
The Morcha said three of its supporters were killed in police firing today. A police officer said at least two people were killed but the causes of death were unknown.
At least 35 policemen were injured - two among them allegedly stabbed in the back. "Kiran Tamang, an assistant commandant of the India Reserve Battalion, and Deepak Mondal, a constable, have been stabbed in the back with kukris. They are in a critical condition," S.N. Gupta, the additional director-general of police heading the operations, told The Telegraph.
Waves of marchers converged on a Morcha hub the police have been trying to keep out of bounds of the protesters, locking the law-enforces in a standoff and showering them with glass bottles and stones.
As the police pushed them back, the Morcha supporters, armed with firearms, bombs and kukris - some policemen said they had spotted firearms - attacked and forced the law-enforcers to retreat.
After nearly three hours, the army arrived. A unit of the Maratha Light Regiment marched in with guns and announced over loudhailers that no one should throw stones. The police joined the army. Soon, the stone-throwing stopped.
The clashes were mostly concentrated in and around Singamari, around 2km from the Mall. At Singamari is located a three-storey building that houses the offices of the frontal organisations of the Morcha and that of Bimal Gurung, the party's leader.
Morcha leaders said three supporters - Sunil Rai, Bimal Shashanker and Mahesh Gurung - were shot dead by the police.
"Two bodies were brought dead here," said S. Pradhan, superintendent of the Sahid Durga Malla Hospital in Darjeeling. Asked whether they had succumbed to bullet injuries, Pradhan declined comment.
The police said they did not fire. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee also said: "The police did not fire. We cannot support hooliganism."
The following factors stood out today:
• The Morcha appears to be trying to overwhelm the police with sheer numbers and then provoke them.
The police had decided to stop all rallies at least 500 metres from the Morcha office. However, the Morcha called for a "Dandi march" to the party office. From around 10.30am, Morcha supporters swamped the area, arriving in at least five processions. Outnumbered, the police fell back.
• The police are unfamiliar with the undulating terrain and the Morcha is taking full advantage.
The Morcha supporters positioned themselves at vantage points 50 feet above the ground. From there, they could easily attack the police and torch vehicles by hurling firebombs.
In the relatively flat lanes, the Morcha supporters struck from the first floors of several buildings.
• The police are not trained to handle the kind of area-domination battle that unfolded.
At one point, when some senior officers called for reinforcements, some of the policemen deployed at a post near Ground Zero appeared nonplussed. The officers had to brandish their guns to disperse the protesters.
• The fight today has several parallels with a turning point in 1986 that made the Gorkhaland agitation a full-fledged confrontation.
On July 27, 1986, hundreds of Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) supporters had marched from various places in Kalimpong to the Mela Ground. The police tried to stop the marchers at various places. In the firing that followed, 13 people died.
The deaths inflamed passions and the Gorkhaland movement intensified. Over 1,200 people died in a 28-month agitation in the mid-1980s.

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