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30 Jul 2017

Morcha takes hill battle to plains - Flare-up in Sukna

Morcha activists wave kukris at the police at Sukna on Saturday. Picture by Passang Yolmo
TT, Sukna, July 29: Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters today marched on Siliguri and locked themselves in a pitched battle with police, taking their agitation tantalisingly close to the plains and seeking to draw out the Centre and the state government that have been playing a stoic waiting game.
As the police tried to stop the marchers in Sukna, 10km from Siliguri, they allegedly attacked the security personnel and vandalised at least two vehicles parked on the road.
The police retaliated with teargas and rubber bullets. In the afternoon, senior police officers, led by ADG (NB) Siddh Nath Gupta, launched an operation to disperse the crowd but the skirmishes continued till late evening, and NH-55, which connects Siliguri and Darjeeling, remained blocked.
This is the first time during the current agitation and indefinite shutdown in the Darjeeling hills that such a flare-up has unfolded in the plains.
"The strike entered the 44th day today. People are suffering huge inconvenience and the Morcha is under tremendous pressure as there is complete silence from the Centre and the state.... In an attempt to force Calcutta and Delhi to take the agitation seriously, they are now trying to bring the agitation to Siliguri and its suburbs," an analyst said.
Siliguri is a business hub with strategic significance as it connects the hills, the entire Northeast and the eastern frontline with the rest of the country. "If there is a law-and-order breach in Siliguri, it is obvious that the state and central governments will have to act," the analyst said.
Around 11.30am, a group of Morcha supporters - most had assembled in Sukna from places like Garidhura, Tindharia and Simulbari apart from the neighbourhood - launched a march. Many were wielding kukris and bows and arrows, police sources said.
"We got to know that they planned to walk up to Darjeeling More, the junction of NH-55 and NH-31, located at the northern end of Siliguri," said a police officer.
Policemen who were posted on NH-55 near Sukna stopped them. The police said the agitators attacked the security forces with kukris, and at least two policemen were injured.
"We retaliated and fired teargas shells. The agitators moved back but put up a blockade on the highway," said an officer.
But Jyoti Kumar Rai, Morcha assistant general secretary, later said the police had attacked peaceful party supporters.
As the demonstration continued, police officers spoke to a couple of local Morcha leaders. They were told to ask the agitators to leave the place.
As the police retreated, the protesters advanced. Amid slogan-shouting, a group started throwing stones at the police. In the fresh skirmish that followed, several rounds of tear gas shells were burst.
"The agitators were initially throwing stones but then they started hurling ignited bottles filled with petrol. They also used catapults to attack us," a policeman said.
When the senior officers and additional forces arrived, the police launched a counter-thrust, chasing the demonstrators while bursting teargas shells and activating a water cannon.
Around 8pm, the police returned from Sukna.
"Those who had assembled here had some wrong intentions. They were carrying weapons and hurled petrol bombs at the police," said Niraj Kumar Singh, commissioner of Siliguri Metropolitan Police.
"We repeatedly asked them to abstain from breaching law and order but they did not relent and attacked us. We took steps and were able to bring the situation under control."
The Morcha leadership vented its frustration.
"So far, eight people have been killed and 41 injured in police firing but the Centre is silent. If they don't make any move by 6pm on August 8, we will intensify our agitation from August 9. Also, the Darjeeling MP should intervene in this issue," Rai said later.
He said that from tomorrow, picketing would be done by the Gorkha Janmukti Nari Morcha.
"We will enforce the strike more strictly. Even two-wheelers will not be allowed to ply. If party leaders need to travel in vehicles, they should carry authorisation issued by the central committee member of the area concerned," Rai said.

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