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14 Jul 2017

Minister runs into backlash in hills

A blockade on the route to Panighata. Picture by Passang Yolmo
Bireswar Banerjee and Avijit Sinha, TT:  June 11, 2012: Trinamul steps into the Darjeeling hills. Minister Gautam Deb presides over a public meeting at Panighata, 30km from Siliguri. Several Gorkha National Liberation Front and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders are among the 1,500 who join Trinamul.
• July 13, 2017: Boulders, branches and burning tyres - and 1,000 protesters, many of them brandishing kukris -wait to "welcome" Deb on his way to Panighata to celebrate Nepali poet Bhanu Bhakta's 203rd birth anniversary. On police advice, Deb hurriedly offers homage to the poet right on the road and turns back.
The contrasting scenes, just five years apart, bear out how the tide has turned against Trinamul in the hills.
Today was the first time any state minister had tried to enter the hills since the unrest began on June 8. A police officer said today was also the first time that the statehood agitators had blocked roads in such a manner.
"Most places in the hills have picketers who stop vehicles. But in Panighata today, they carried boulders and branches, and even burning tyres, to block the road," he said.
"This indicates their mood. If we had tried to enter the area by clearing the road, the situation could have turned more volatile."
Just two months ago, Trinamul had wrested a civic board from the Morcha and won enough seats in other urban bodies to emerge as the principal Opposition in the hills.
Today, the party's sole councillor in the Darjeeling municipality, Chungchung Bhutia, announced he would join the Morcha tomorrow. Also, some 50 families of Trinamul supporters at Simana, near Sukhiapokhri in Mirik, joined the GNLF.
"The protest against Deb's visit is a big setback for the party. Panighata is not just home to hill Trinamul president Rajen Mukhia, it symbolised Trinamul's entry to the hills," an observer said.
"But the way hundreds came down today to protest, it seems Trinamul is left with little or no support in the area."
When the Morcha had held its previous statehood agitation in 2013, Panighata had been a safe haven for Trinamul.
"But this time there's tremendous pressure on us, forcing party supporters to either switch loyalties or retreat to Siliguri," a Trinamul official from Kurseong said.
Deb had paid homage before the poet's statue near the Tenzing Norgay bus terminus in Siliguri this morning. He then headed for Panighata with members of cultural groups, police escorts, government officials and a handful of local Trinamul politicians.
Deputy commissioner (traffic) Sunil Yadav and assistant commissioners Achintya Gupta and Pranab Sikdar were in charge of the security of the convoy, which had around 30 vehicles.
The officers stopped the motorcade a couple of kilometres ahead of the venue in Panighata, told Deb about the road blockade ahead and advised retreat.
A stool was brought out of a car and placed on the road. On it was placed a photo of the poet, which Deb and a few others garlanded. The motorcade turned back in less than five minutes.
It stopped at Kadma More, 3km on the way back, but the police again advised a quick departure in the light of reports that the strike supporters might march up to the spot.
Eventually, the convoy reached a place near the army base at Bengdubi near Bagdogra. A half hour's cultural programme followed at the junction of the three tea gardens of Tirrihanna, Ord and M.M. Tarai.
News later came in that the mob blocking the road had attacked a police vehicle after the minister left the spot.
"What is happening in the hills is not a movement but relentless violence," Deb said.
"We have celebrated the poet's birth anniversary every year, often with the chief minister in attendance. This morning, we wanted to mark the event at Panighata but could not."
He added: "We left because we didn't want a confrontation. The Morcha cannot sever Darjeeling from Bengal through such tactics. Any resident of the state has the right to move anywhere in Bengal."
District CPM officials said the state government needed to introspect over the situation.
"We don't know what prompted the minister to decide to hold the event at Panighata when an official programme had already been organised in Siliguri," Darjeeling district CPM secretary Jibesh Sarkar said.
"We condemn the way he was stopped, but the state government should introspect on the hill situation."

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