AS THE 12-hour strike called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) paralysed life in the hills, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Friday described the bandh as “illegal” while saying that the “law will take its own course” against the protesters.
While most shops and markets kept their shutters down and vehicles stayed off the roads in Darjeeling, GJM workers reportedly torched an under-construction ITI building at Mungpoo — 33 km from Darjeeling. Even in the evening, a few shops were seen open in Darjeeling and the adjoining areas. Amid this, local channels were blacked out in the town.
The GJM on Friday announced that it will hold a central committee meeting of the party on Saturday to plan its future course of action. This comes a day after the Army was called in Darjeeling after violent protests erupted against the “imposition” of Bengali language by the state government.
Initially, while the state government had said that Bengali will be a mandatory subject in schools from Class I to X, it had later clarified that it will be optional for schools in the hills.
Following Thursday’s violence, the government had got an FIR lodged under non-bailable sections at Darjeeling Sadar police station against GJM chief Bimal Gurung and party general secretary Roshan Giri.
“The government has compromised a lot and the people of hills have endured a lot. The bandh is illegal and we will take legal action against those who took part in it. Those who are setting public properties on fire will not go scot-free. The government will not compromise with those who put lives of tourists in danger by organising violent protests and cause disruption to the common man by creating unrest. The government is very tough,” Mamata said after holding an emergency meeting at Richmond Hill in Darjeeling.
“Nobody is above law,” she added while adding that Friday’s violence in Darjeeling was “unfortunate” and should be condemned.
Meanwhile, the Army on Friday carried out flag marches in Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong. Initially, two Army columns were deployed in Darjeeling. Late Thursday, the Army was requisitioned by the state government for Kurseong and Kalimpong as a precautionary measure.
As of now, six columns have been deployed — three in Darjeeling, two in Kalimpong and one in Kurseong. Each column comprises 43 personnel.
Three companies of CRPF have also been deployed.
On Friday morning, Mamata was seen walking the streets of Darjeeling and asking shopowners to open their establishments. “Three or four people are doing all this. I will tell the tourists not to worry because the government is with them. We will give them full cooperation. We have already started free bus services for them to return to Bagdogra or Siliguri,” she said.
“I have been walking around since morning. I have seen the manner in which vehicles were set on fire. There was no issue or any incident. We want peace and development in the hills. The Army has already started route marches. Police are also taking action in a peaceful manner. Law will take its own course,” she added.
Speaking to the people through a microphone while travelling in a car, she said: “Do not worry. We are with you.”
Slamming the GJM, Mamata said: “The term of GTA is coming to an end. After failing to do any development in the hills, they are causing disruption and torturing the people. Lakhs of tourists come here and without them, the people will lose their business. I have no idea what kind of movement they are organising, which is forcing tourists away. They are driving away Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) from the hills. We are with the brothers and sisters of the hills and will give them full help and ask them not to support GJM chief Bimal Gurung.”
Later, after holding an emergency meeting, Mamata announced compensation for policemen who were injured in Thursday’s violence.
“One policeman was seriously injured. He has received injuries in an eye. We have decided to airlift him to Kolkata and give Rs 1 lakh to his family. If needed, we will send him to Singapore for treatment. Moreover, while Rs 25,000 each will be given to other injured policemen, Rs 20,000 each will be provided to others who were hurt.” Later, she visited the policemen at the hospital.
In the evening, Mamata reportedly left Darjeeling for Siliguri, where she is set to hold a meeting on Saturday.
While 3,906 tourists arrived at the Bagdogra airport on Friday, some were seen paying exorbitant fares to arrange for private vehicles in a bid to return to the plains. The state government has set up two help desks at Tenzing Norgay Central Bus Stand and the Mall.
Roshan Giri said GJM was also arranging private vehicles and buses for stranded tourists. “We are helping them because the strike was called at the eleventh hour,” he added.
On Friday, GJM workers stopped a government bus in Kurseong, which was ferrying passengers to the plains, and started a demonstration. With the intervention of Army personnel, the demonstration was lifted and the bus was allowed to leave.
The state government, meanwhile, has set up a six-member committee to carry out a special audit of funds received by the GTA in the last five years. The report has to be submitted within two weeks. A PIL was also filed at Calcutta High Court demanding the the state government’s intervention to end the unrest in the hills. It will be heard next week.