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31 Jul 2017

Hill protest tells on Bhutan border - March hits traffic to neighbouring country, officials smell strategic plot

ANIRBAN CHOuDHURY, TT, Alipurduar, July 30: Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters today sought to spread the reach of their statehood agitation to Jaigaon along the India-Bhutan border and halted the movement of vehicles between the two countries.
Back-to-back attempts to take the short-fuse agitation to places with strategic significance - Sukna was the theatre of confrontation a day earlier - have prompted security officials to wonder whether there is a method behind the seemingly random choice of the protest sites.
Sukna is close to Siliguri, a city at one end of the Chicken's Neck, and the distance between the Nepal and Bangladesh borders from here is barely 50km. Sukna is also home to the headquarters of Trishakti Corps or the 33 Corps of the army.
A Morcha supporter lies on the road after being
injured in the violence in Jaigaon on Sunday. (Anirban Choudhury)
Jaigaon in Alipurduar district, 160km from Sukna, is on the India-Bhutan border. It is the most prominent trading hub on the border, with Phuentsholing, the "commercial capital" of Bhutan, located on the other side. Jaigaon is the sole road transit point for Indians to get into Bhutan from Bengal.
A police officer underscored the similarities between the violence that Sukna and Jaigaon had witnessed in quick succession.
"As in Sukna, Morcha supporters organised a march in Jaigaon today. As policemen stopped them at a barricade, the marchers took no time to resort to brick-batting. When the police retaliated, the attackers split into groups, vandalised vehicles and set fire to the tyres they had brought.... Everything was planned; it seemed they were following a script," he said.
A fallout that can embarrass Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as chief minister Mamata Banerjee is the hindrance to road traffic with a friendly neighbouring country. Several trucks were unable to ply today.
"That the Morcha is trying to bring the movement down to the plains was obvious from the attack in Sukna on Saturday. But more important, it is choosing locations that are strategic for the state and the country," said a government official.
Today's violence, he said, would affect trade between the two neighbours at a time the military standoff over Doklam, a disputed territory between Bhutan and China, is dragging on.
Earlier this month, Mamata had mentioned that China had a role in the unrest in Darjeeling.
"There is more than what meets the eye.... There seems to be a larger plan," said a senior police officer, referring to the perceived desperation of the marchers to prevent traffic between India and Bhutan.
Around 10am, 1,000-odd Morcha supporters had started a march in Jaigaon along the principal road that leads to Bhutan. The police pleaded with the marchers to keep the road clear but in vain.
After beaching barricades, the marchers threw stones and burnt tyres, bringing traffic to a grinding halt and affecting a stretch spread over 7km.
Rajesh Yadav, the DIG of Jalpaiguri Range, said: "The arterial road in Jaigaon heads towards Bhutan, and vehicles from both countries ply on it. We had asked the picketers to cooperate with us and let the vehicles move normally and told them we wouldn't let them block the road. But suddenly they started throwing stones at us. We had to use teargas to disperse them."
Police sources said they feared more trouble tomorrow and were getting reinforcements.
Ashok Lama, vice-president of the Eastern Dooars committee of the Morcha, said: "We started a peaceful rally but police blocked it. Then police charged us with batons and used teargas. Our movement will continue in Jaigaon and in other areas of the Dooars in the coming days."

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