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10 Jul 2017

Army back on Darjeeling streets after renewed violence

Zeeshan Javed | TNN | Jul 10, 2017, DARJEELING: Armed soldiers stood guard on rain swept street corners as an uneasy calm returned to Darjeeling on Sunday after fierce clashes between pro-Gorkhaland protesters and the police that left three people dead over the last two days.

Though there were no signs of renewed street clashes, at least in Darjeeling, the tension was palpable throughout the day with the police completely withdrawing from the scene and Army keeping a vigil on the proceedings and carrying out route marches.

"Now it is all about who will blink first," remarked Sabita Rai, a senior citizen in Darjeeling and participant in the Gorkhaland agitation in the mid-1980s spearheaded by Subhash Ghisingh of the Gorkha National Liberation Front.

Rai was part of the five hundred odd crowd that assembled at Chowkbazar to bid final farewell to the two people who allegedly died in the police firing during Saturday's violence. Even the steady shower since morning could not sweep away the seething rage among the people. The entire Chowkbazar was a montage of colourful umbrellas providing shelter from the rain.

"It's now clear that the government will use force to break our resolve for a separate state. But we are not going to budge come what may. Every one of us is willing to lay down our life for this cause," said Rai, who was helped by her granddaughter to reach the hearse carrying the bodies with the Indian tricolour on the bonnet.

Though Army troops armed with batons and helmets were stationed throughout the town, the signs of Saturday's savage violence were still palpable on the streets. A completely burnt SUV right in front of Darjeeling station was a reminder of the fact that the firemen never got any chance to salvage the vehicle. Two gutted motorbikes lay right in front of Sadar police station, the nucleus of Saturday's unrest which witnessed maximum violence.

"The people are angry with the police and any other symbol of state's presence in Darjeeling may fuel their rage. This is the reason we have back stepped and let the Army be in front. They are the only visible force on the street. We have also not deployed police vehicles to tow away the damaged vehicles lest it sparks another round of violence," said a senior office at Sadar police station.

Each side has accused the other of having used vicious tactics in the clashes on Tuesday. Police have alleged that mobs hurled stones and glass bottles while pro-Gorkhland political leaders accused the police of firing at "unarmed" people. "The police are using weapons as if they are fighting a war. But we will continue to fight in a peaceful way to claim our demand which is absolutely legitimate," said Binay Tamang, assistant secretary of GJM.

Trouble broke out last month when the GJM accused the Trinamool government of imposing Bengali on the Hills people, a charge the state has denied.

Beyond knee-jerk endorsements and veiled opposition to the indefinite strike which has already started telling on people's food plates, the Hills heartland was struggling to make sense of the ramification of the violence, or how it will play out. "After Saturday's violence it will be difficult for pro-Gorkhaland parties to withdraw the indefinite strike because it will be viewed as the hardening of the stand. And if the strike continues then the threshold of people will give in because protesters have run out of food and other things of basic necessities," said Bikash Lama, a resident of Darjeeling.

Sonada, around 25 kilometres from Darjeeling where Saturday's violence over death of a young GJM supporter erupted, is a famed milestone. It's a must stop for tourists to visit the Buddhist temple en route Darjeeling. On Sunday a mob attacked the semi-gutted police outpost and put it on fire again.

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