A DAY after West Bengal Chief Minister hinted at a “coup” while criticising the Army’s presence at a toll plaza near her Secretariat, and stayed overnight at her office for “guarding our democracy”, a letter versus letter exchange ensued between the Eastern Command and Kolkata Police to fuel the controversy. While Army released letters to show that they had informed the state about their deployment as part of a larger “data collection” exercise across the region, the latter released letters to claim it had objected to the move. While the Army cited a final letter on the issue, in which it told police that the operative was “imperative”, police said they never received it.
West Bengal Chief Secretary Basudeb Banerjee, meanwhile, has sent a letter to Union Cabinet Secretary P K Sinha to complain against the deployment at the Vidyasagar Setu toll plaza, near Nabanna.
Earlier, responding to the Chief Minister’s allegation, GOC (Bengal area) Major General Sunil Yadav said the Army had been in constant touch with police and that there had been “several meetings” over the issue.
Major General Yadav said the Eastern Command formations were “carrying out a routine annual data collection exercise on the availability of load carriers at major entry points”. “We pushed back the date of the operation on the request of West Bengal police because of the Bharat Bandh. We were to begin the three-day exercise on November 28, but began on November 30. We are carrying out the operation in 80 different points across the east and northeast. The same exercise was carried out at exactly the same points last year as well, between November 19 and 21,’’ he said.
However, Additional Commissioner of Kolkata Police Supratim Sarkar said they had objected to the exercise being carried out at the toll plaza and had asked the Army to look for an alternate venue.
In a letter, dated November 25, Sarkar wrote to Administrative Commandant Colonel Surinder Mahani to say that the toll plaza, which is the entry and exit points to other districts and states, was “a high security zone’’. Colonel Mahani responded by saying that the exercise was “imperative”, a letter that Sarkar claims not to have received.
The exchange of letters appears to have started with the one, dated November 23, sent by Station Staff Officer Lt Colonel A P Rai to officers in Hastings and Howrah police stations. “An exercise on Civil Hired Transport (CHT) impressments will be carried with effect from 0001 hour on 28 Nov 16 to 2359 hours on 30 Nov 16 at Vidyasagar Setu,’’ it stated, before seeking “necessary police assistance’’ to establish “check posts on either side” of the toll plaza.
This letter was copied to the Deputy Commissioner of Police (South), Park Street, as well as the Regional Transport Officer.
A second letter, dated November 24, was sent to the District Magistrate Howrah by Colonel Mahani to convey that “this unit intends to carry out a vehicle impressment exercise at Vidya Sagar Setu toll point” to “ascertain the availability of vehicles, which can be utilised during a national emergency.”
Colonel Mahani sent similar letters on the same day to the Commissioner of Police (Kolkata); Commissioner of Police (Howrah); Vice Chairman HRBC Bhavan; and, Principal Secretary, Transport Department.
On November 25, ACP Sarkar responded by raising objections to the exercise at the toll plaza. “This is to inform you that the proposed place of exercise is a busy and important corridor having huge volume of vehicular traffic, connecting the city with other districts and states and also the gateway to Nabanna, the State Government secretariat, which is a high security zone. Keeping in view the traffic implications and the security considerations, it is advised not to carry out the exercise in the stretch proposed,’’ it stated.
On the same day, Colonel Mahani responded that the exercise was “an operational requirement for the Army and has to be carried out in the near vicinity of Army areas.apropos the venue cannot be changed’’.
On Friday, Major General Yadav told reporters: “On November 27, which was a Sunday, there was a joint inspection carried out by us with the Kolkata police. My staff and inspectors of the Kolkata police carried out the inspection and all matters were resolved.’’
However, ACP Sarkar said: “The inspection on November 27 was carried out to make them understand why it was not possible or advisable to conduct the exercise anywhere in the vicinity of Nabanna from the security point and also the traffic implications.’’
Major General Yadav said the exercise was being carried out in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram and Sikkim.
“Similar exercises have been carried out in Jharkhand, UP and Bihar from September 26 to October 1 under the South Western Command earlier this year. In 2015, from November 19-21, we carried out the exercise at Meerut, Dehradun, Allahabad, Danapur, Lucknow, Raipur, Ranchi, Gaya, Jamshedpur and Roorkee,’’ he said.
In his complaint to Union Cabinet Secretary Sinha, Chief Secretary Banerjee described the deployment near Nabanna as “highly objectionable, as the Kolkata Police authorities had denied permission”.
“I am directed to request you to kindly do the needful in this regard and to ensure that the federal principles and the constitutional provisions are totally protected by conveying suitable instructions to all concerned,” it stated.
On the political front, TMC MP Derek O’Brien slammed I&B Minister Venkaiah Naidu’s claim that the state government had been informed about the deployment. “The BJP party and the government should stop using the Army as a political tool,” said O’Brien.
(With Abantika Ghosh/Delhi)