New Delhi: The row over army taking over road toll plazas in West Bengal on Friday echoed in Parliament with Trinamool Congress (TMC) seeing "sinister" designs behind the move and the government vehemently denying the charge, saying it was a routine exercise conducted in full knowledge of the local authorities.
The issue was raised in both Houses of Parliament with main opposition Congress too seeking clarification on the army deployment at 19 toll plazas in West Bengal. In Lok Sabha, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar termed it a "routine exercise not unique to West Bengal" and saying that similar operations to collect information on heavy vehicle movement that can be used during national emergencies had last month being conducted in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
Along with West Bengal, similar exercise was carried out in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghlaya and Mizoram, he said while responding to TMC and Congress MPs. He also stated that originally the exercise was planned for 28-30 November but was shifted to 1 and 2 December at the request of Kolkata police as those dates were clashing with the protests against demonetisation.
"It is shocking that a chief minister is saying this. The Army's deployment was part of routine exercise which has been going on for last 15-20 years. Even last year it was held on 19 to 21 November," Parrikar said.
The minister said Army's Eastern Command has been carrying out the exercise in West Bengal, Assam and other North Eastern states and a similar exercise has already been carried out in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. "Concerned officials were informed in West Bengal. The original date was fixed for 28 to 30 November but due to Bharat Bandh the local police had advised the army to shift it to 1 and 2 December," he said. "Due to traffic congestion, the exercise is being done with the help of local police."
TMC leaders in both Houses alleged that neither the state government, nor local administration including police were taken into confidence on the exercise or their permission sought. Congress and BSP too wanted to know from the government how such an unprecedented move to carry out an army exercise without taking state government into confidence was done.
"It was very unfortunate that army has been dragged into an unnecessary controversy," Parrikar said. "It was political frustration rather than projection of correct situation."
As soon as Lok Sabha assembled this morning, TMC leader Sudip Bandyopadhyay raised the issue of army deployment at 19 places in West Bengal, claiming that the move was a challenge to the federal structure of the country and completely politically motivated.
He said army personnel were deployed at these places, including near the state secretariat, "without informing anyone in the state secretariat". "It is a fantastic situation. Army today said that it was a routine exercise being carried out in the North Eastern states. But West Bengal does not come under the territorial jurisdiction of the Northeast," he said.
Bandyopadhyay said the people of the country have great faith in the Army but if indeed such an exercise was scheduled, the Centre should have communicated to the state government. He said Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been staging a 'dharna' in the Secretariat demanding withdrawal of the Army. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar asked the TMC not to drag Army into politics and added that the defence personnel have been protecting the country as well as democracy.
"Whatever the army has done was part of a routine exercise. It is completely wrong to drag army into politics," he said. Raising the issue in Rajya Sabha, Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said army is India's pride as it has upheld its unity and integrity beside protecting the borders. It has also come to the rescue during emergency situtions like flood and riots, he said adding that army is requisitioned at the request of a state government.
But in West Bengal, the chief secretary, administration and Director General of Police had no information of army taking over toll plazas at 19 locations in the state, he said. "This is probably the first time that the chief minister of West Bengal has lodged this kind of protest where she stayed put for the night in the State Secretariat and is still there," he said. "This is a strange thing happening. Without asking state government, chief secretary or DGP, toll plazas of state government are taken over."
Azad said it is being said that Army was collecting information on truck movements but such an exercise is not even done in Jammu and Kashmir. All such information is available with National Highways Authority of India or road transport departments. "This is an issue of grave concern." Sukhendu Sekhar Roy (TMC) said what happened in West Bengal has never been witnessed in the state's history. Army seized toll plazas and started putting stickers on vehicles.
"I will not drag the army in any controversy. We are very proud of the army," he said wanting to know under what provisions of law and Constitution was such a deployment carried out and alleging "sinister design" to "defame the leader opposing demonetisation" and creating "fear psychosis".
Mayawati, BSP supremo and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh said the move to deploy army without the state government's permission was an attack on the federal structure of the country. Terming the statements as factually incorrect, Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre said such exercises have been carried out in coordination with the local police.
Earlier the exercise was planned for 28 November but was shifted on specific request by Kolkata Police in view of the Bharat Bandh, he said, adding that the exercise was to ascertain availability of vehicles during national emergency. The annual exercise are carried out for collection of data and similar exercises were also carried out in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he said, adding that letters were written to the Police Commissioner as well as District Magistrates for conducting it.
At this point, slogan-shouting TMC and Congress members contested the minister's statement and trooped into the Well. Deputy Chairman P J Kurien had a tough time controlling the situation and even had an angry spat with Congress members including Pramod Tiwari as they continued to shout even when he stood up to control the noisy scenes.
"If you don't know the basic rule of not disturbing the Chair, you are not deserving to be a member," he angrily remarked without naming any member. "Mr Tiwari, I will take action against you. This is unheard of that the Chair will not be allowed to say," he said as members piped down and returned to their places.
Kurien said if the members found any part of the statement made by the minister as misleading or incorrect, they can invoke the rule book and give notice. Roy continued to insist that the minister was misleading. "If any member or minister misleads the House, give notice, chairman will consider it," Kurien said.
As Roy continued to insist that the minister was misleading the House by saying that the state government had been informed, treasury benches joined in to protest. At this point, an angry Kurien snapped at Bhupender Yadav (BJP) saying "shut up... you are not in the Chair." Roy said the minister was not stating if specific permission was taken for December 1 deployment and comparing
the exercise to national emergency.
I&B Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said the reference to emergency was to situations like floods or tsunami and said similar exercises are annually carried out and had happened in West Bengal previously as well. And recently, it has been carried out in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar, and along with West Bengal it was also being carried out in North Eastern states, he said, adding "it
is a sensitive matter. Let us not politise it."
Kurien told Roy that he can give a notice on any misleading statement being made in the House and he will consider it. Derek O'Brien raised a Point of Order under Rule 249 related to authentication of papers laid by the government on the floor of the House.
He claimed that it is "selective placing of papers" by the government and added that he will place some papers on the floor of the House to prove his point on Monday.