Darjeeling has been on the boil ever since the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government decided to make Bengali language compulsory in schools. The decision infuriated the native Nepali-speaking Gorkha population in north Bengal, as the demand for Gorkhaland gained renewed traction.
On 15 June, the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) called for an indefinite shutdown to seek a separate Gorkhaland state, which continues till date. In turn, the state government also suspended internet services after the shutdown. While the deadlock between the state government and the protesters has affected the day-to-day lives in the tourist town since June, the last few days, especially, has also seen a rise in violence across the hills.
The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) activists clashed with police in Kalimpong district. The clash was triggered by pelting of stones and bottles at the police by GJM youth supporters who were participating in a rally in support of Gorkhaland, forcing the police to fire tear gas and use batons to disperse the protesters. A ticket counter of the North Bengal State Transport Corporation was also set ablaze by GJM activists in Kalimpong.
While police denied firing at protesters, the GJM claimed that police fired several rounds, injuring three activists including an ex-army official.
GJM supporters also hurled petrol bombs at a TMC party office in the town, after which firefighters were immediately called in. However, by the time they arrived, the ground floor of the party office had already been gutted completely.
The GJM called for an all-party meeting on the Gorkhaland issue, which was attended by all parties of the Darjeeling hill. After the meeting, the parties decided to continue with the indefinite shutdown. The parties stated that people want it to go on till their dream of a separate Gorkhaland state is achieved.
"There was intense debate on whether to continue the shutdown or not. But most of the members of the GMCC were in favour of continuing the shutdown. People of the hills want this to continue till the dream of Gorkhaland is achieved," Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangh president Sukhman Moktan told PTI.
The Darjeeling crisis reached the Calcutta High Court, with the court asking the Centre whether it was serious about quelling the protests. "Given the geo-political area in which it lies, doesn't the Centre think this agitation be quelled immediately?," asked acting Chief Justice Nishita Mhatre while hearing a plea for restoration of normalcy in the Darjeeling hills.
The division bench of acting Chief Justice Mhatre and Justice Tapabrata Chakraborty directed the West Bengal government officials to sit with the Ministry of Home Affairs to sort out the requirements for paramilitary forces on the basis of ground conditions.
Expressing displeasure at the state and the Centre sparring over the requirement of Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) in the restive Darjeeling hills, the bench observed, "The situation can improve only if both of you sit together and sort out the issues."
The court asked the Centre and the state government to reach a meaningful understanding over CAPF requirement before 11 July, when the matter would be heard next.
On the same day, the central government said that it was keen on holding tripartite talks with the GJM and the West Bengal government to end the ongoing agitation in the Darjeeling hills.
"We want to hold dialogue with the agitating organisations to ensure peace returns to Darjeeling. In the talks, the West Bengal government's presence is necessary as law and order is a state subject," a home ministry official said.
The development came just four days after the GJM asked central government to initiate a dialogue on the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, saying the current agitation was not a mere law and order problem.
In an attempt to bring back normalcy in violence-affected areas in West Bengal, a group of people, including retired army generals, ambassadors and judges, met Home Minister Rajnath Singh and sought his intervention.
The delegation included Justice (retd) SN Dhingra, former Delhi commissioner of police RS Gupta, former Sikkim DGP RK Handa, Maj. Gen. (retd) Dhruv Katoch and former ambassador Vidyasagar Verma.
Meanwhile, GJM activists went on a rampage after Tasi Bhutia (30) died during a sudden flare up at Sonada in Darjeeling district in which a number of vehicles were vandalised allegedly by Gorkhaland activists.
"An innocent Gorkhaland supporter has been shot dead... We are deeply hurt and shaken to the core," GNLF leader Neeraj Zimba had said.
However, the police denied the allegation. Backing the police, state tourism minister Gautam Deb had said,"The allegation that Bhutia died in police firing is completely false."
Two government offices, including one belonging to the Food and Supply Department, were also vandalised in Darjeeling.
As news of the death spread, hundreds of Gorkhaland supporters came out on the streets and raised slogans against alleged "police atrocities".
They clashed with the police and set on fire a police outpost at Sonada and the toy train station of the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railways, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The police had to use teargas shells against GJM and Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) activists, who attacked the security personnel at Sonada and Chawkbazar.
With a rise in violence, the army was redeployed across the hills. Two columns of the army comprising around 100 personnel were deployed at Sonada and Darjeeling in the wake of fresh violence, defence sources said.
Mamata government's long-standing friction with the Narendra Modi-led Centre was clearly visible as the state government accused the Centre of "deliberate and total non-cooperation" and alleged that its refusal to send CRPF personnel, as demanded by the state government led to the crisis. However, the home ministry said that 11 companies of paramilitary force personnel were sent to Darjeeling, including one company consisting of women.
The Gorkhaland protests also affected Sikkim badly, as National Highway 10, the state's only link to India, came under attack from protesters. Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling spoke to the home minister over the prevailing situation. Singh assured the Sikkim government that the Centre will ensure the security of the national highway.
Singh also directed Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi to coordinate with the West Bengal administration and ensure the safety, security and smooth traffic on NH 10, which connects Siliguri in West Bengal with Sikkim capital Gangtok.
The protests also reached the national capital as supporters of the Gorkhaland movement marched to Jantar Mantar to reinforce their demand for a separate state and the immediate imposition of President's Rule in West Bengal.
"The West Bengal government is treating common people like terrorists and killing them. The central government should remove paramilitary forces and terminate the services of the Director General of Police," GSSS president Kiran BK told PTI.
Even as sporadic incidents of violence and arson rocked Darjeeling following a pro-Gorkhaland activist's death allegedly in police firing, the ruling TMC blamed "foreign hand" for the unrest while slamming BJP for trying to "break" the state.
"The central government has been on a non-cooperation mode with the state and some of the central agencies are interfering, which is against the federal structure. There is a conspiracy to disturb Bengal and the international borders of the state. We have on several occasions requested for the deployment of the central forces. Had they been deployed timely, the current situation could have been avoided,"Mamata said at the state secretariat Nabanna.
Dubbing the pro-Gorkhaland agitation as "pre-planned" and "planted," Mamata added, "Some of the foreign forces which have good relations with the BJP have indulged in the agitation in Darjeeling."
While Mamata appealed for peace and said that the government was ready for talks with the hill parties, the GJM, however, said the doors for talks with Banerjee and the state government are "closed forever".
With inputs from agencies
Published Date: Jul 10, 2017 17:47 PM | Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 17:47 PM