The Darjeeling Hills erupted in fresh violence over Friday night and Saturday, in which at least three people were killed, and a station on the iconic Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was among several government properties set ablaze. Police fired teargas shells to scatter stone-throwing mobs, and two columns of the Army, comprising about 86 soldiers, were called out in Darjeeling and Sonada.
At a press conference in Kolkata on Saturday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the Centre of “non-cooperation” in dealing with the situation in the Hills, and alleged that the Central government and BJP were trying to “disturb peace” in North 24-Parganas district, where communal violence has broken out.
Mamata promised a judicial inquiry into the incidents at Baduria and Basirhat, where one person has been killed, and said she was prepared to talk to the hill parties leading the Darjeeling protests if the violence abated — an offer that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) and Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) rejected. The indefinite strike demanding a separate state in Darjeeling hills completed 24 days on Saturday.
“The government is ready for talks with the hill parties, but there must be peace. The government has shown enough restraint in the interest of the people of the hills,” the chief minister said. “If peace returns in the next 10-15 days, I can call the hill parties for talks. But let us restore peace first.”
In response, Binay Tamang, assistant general secretary of the GJM, which is spearheading the protests, said, “We, the GJM party, will not go for any talks with Mamata Banerjee. Talks with Mamata Banerjee and West Bengal government are closed forever. If the Centre calls for talks for Gorkhaland, we will go for it.”
Tamang condemned “the killing of innocent people by the West Bengal police”, and asked “leaders of political parties” why “one single incident of Basirhat attracts the national parties but one month of unrest and killings (in the Hills) fails to attract (their attention)…”
“We sincerely ask the leaders of political parties, are we in India?” Tamang said. GNLF spokesperson Neeraj Zimba told The Sunday Express, “Since yesterday, three law-abiding citizens have been killed in Darjeeling by police firing. One died yesterday night while two others were killed today. None of the Gorkha hills political leaders will talk to her. Whatever happened today in Darjeeling is Mamata Banerjee’s creation.”
Late on Friday night, 31-year-old GNLF supporter Tashi Bhutia was found dead in Sonada with a bullet wound on his forehead. GNLF accused police of having shot him, an allegation that police refused to accept without further investigations. Police have not acknowledged the other two deaths claimed by the protesting hill parties.
“One of our cadres, Tashi Bhutia, had gone to buy medicine for his brother around 11 pm yesterday. Somehow, he came in front of a convoy of security vehicles and was shot dead by police at point blank range,” Zimba said. “His family came to know that he was lying on the road in Sonada with a bullet wound,” the spokesman said.
Sonada is the station before Ghoom and Darjeeling on the toy train route. Angry protesters threw stones at police and set the station on fire on Saturday. DIG (Darjeeling) Humayun Kabir said, “10-12 people attacked a police convoy. Lethal firing took place from their side. Police too fired in retaliation. How he (Bhutia) died is not clear. We will be able to ascertain the type of injury and other details only after the autopsy.”
Another senior police officer said, “It is completely untrue that police shot and killed a person who was out to buy medicine. The death is being probed.” A few dozen CRPF personnel were also deployed in Sonada on Friday; the CRPF IG for the West Bengal sector, Raveendran Sankaran, however, told The Sunday Express, “As per information provided to me from the field, not a single round was fired by the CRPF.”
On Saturday, protesters gathered at Darjeeling’s Chowk Bazar turned on the office of the DSP, and also set on fire a portion of the food supply office nearby. Police allegedly retaliated, and firing took place from both sides, sources said. Some time after noon, a bullet hit Suraj Sundas, 35, who was apparently not one of the protesters.
“He died on the spot during the clash between police and protesters. He was a labourer from Tungchung village. The situation is tense,” a local police official said on condition of anonymity. A few hours later, another individual, Sameer Gurung (42), was reported killed at Singamari. He too was apparently a bystander. No senior police official could be reached for a comment on the deaths of Sundas and Gurung.
In Kolkata, Mamata promised an inquiry, and action against those responsible for the death. “I want people not to take the law in their hands. Police have been attacked. An incident has taken place; we will launch an inquiry. What exactly happened in the dark is to be probed. Who was at the fault is a matter of inquiry. But those at fault will not be spared,” she said.
The chief minister alleged that the violence could have been prevented if the Centre had “cooperated by deploying adequate numbers of CRPF personnel”. Officials of the union Home Ministry refuted the allegation. Eleven companies of paramilitary forces had been sent, including a company of women personnel, Ministry officials said in New Delhi. The West Bengal government had, however, conveyed to the Ministry that the all-women company should be withdrawn, they said.
On Basirhat, Mamata said, “We have decided to order a judicial probe into the Baduria and Basirhat riots. We want to see who were involved and the state government will provide every input to the judicial commission. Let there be an impartial probe.” The BJP, the CM said, was “destroying the federal structure of the country with the sole aim of grabbing power”. “How can some people from across the border intrude and start disruptions here? Who is in charge of border security, the Centre or the state? Once again I am saying, it is the ploy of the BJP to disturb the peace of the state.”
Home Ministry sources in Delhi, however, said four BSF companies were sent to Basirhat and, two day ago, 400 additional troops were despatched — these BSF troops were, however, returned by the state government. Besides, the officials said, the West Bengal government has its own security forces like the Eastern Frontier Rifles and the State Armed Police, both of which have several battalions of personnel, who were not being deployed.
The situation in the riot-hit areas has been limping back to normal, with no incidents of violence being reported in last three days. The state government has, however, replaced the superintendent of police of North 24-Parganas, and Internet services remained suspended on Saturday to check the spread of rumours. Mamata also said her government would take action against two national TV channels for showing “fake” videos and “fomenting trouble”.
Three BJP MPs headed to Basirhat were stopped by police at Michael Nagar on Saturday. Meenakshi Lekhi, who was part of the delegation, Lekhi demanded to know why they were being stopped when the situation, according to police, was under control.
(With ENS New Delhi and PTI inputs)