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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Bengal on edge: Four killed in CISF firing after mob storms polling booth

The TMC claimed its supporters had been targeted, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee demanded the resignation of Union Home Minister Amit Shah since central forces report to him.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Cooch Behar, New Delhi |
Updated: April 11, 2021 8:08:42 am
Election officials carrying EVM machines   on their way to their booth from Cooch Behar Polytechnic  DC ,RC & counting Centre in Cooch Behar on April 09,2021.Express photo by Partha Paul.

In a violent turn to the Assembly elections in West Bengal, four persons, including an 18-year-old, were killed in firing by CISF personnel at a polling station in Sitalkuchi in Cooch Behar district where voting was underway for the fourth phase Saturday morning.

Police said local residents stormed the polling station following rumours in the area and tried to snatch weapons of the security personnel who retaliated by opening fire.

The dead have been identified as Hamidul Mian (31), Monirujjaman Mian (28), Noor Alam Mian (20) and Samiul Haq (18), all from Jorpatki village. The first three were migrant workers who had returned home to vote while the fourth worked at a cyber cafe in the village.

Four others, including one with a bullet injury, are undergoing treatment at the Mathabhanga hospital.

In a separate incident in Sitalkuchi, a first-time voter, Anand Barman (18), was shot dead, allegedly by miscreants, when he queued up to vote at a polling booth in Pathantuli. The incident took place when supporters of the TMC and BJP clashed in the area.

Following the CISF firing incident, the Election Commission stopped the polling process at the Jorpatki booth and barred all political leaders from entering Cooch Behar district for the next 72 hours. It also extended the ‘silent period’ from 48 hours to 72 hours for the fifth phase of voting on April 17.

Almost immediately after the incident, a political storm erupted.

The TMC claimed its supporters had been targeted, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee demanded the resignation of Union Home Minister Amit Shah since central forces report to him. Attacking Shah, she said her government would institute a separate CID probe into the incident.

Before the EC barred the entry of all political leaders into Cooch Behar district, she had made plans to visit the incident site Sunday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, campaigning for the BJP in Siliguri, condemned the violence and called for a thorough probe. He criticised Banerjee, saying violence against security personnel was not going to save her from being voted out of power.

Cooch Behar SP Debasish Dhar told reporters: “Everything was fine until 9.30 am. One of the local boys took ill near the polling station. But a rumour spread that the CISF had beaten up the boy. Then 300-350 villagers, including women, attacked the polling station. They had handmade weapons… There was an attempt to snatch rifles.”

“The CISF personnel in the booth called the QRT (Quick Response Team) nearby for reinforcement. The people who had gathered there got into scuffles and fisticuffs with the CISF. There was an attempt to snatch rifles and enter the booth. It was then that the incident happened. The CISF resorted to firing,” Dhar said.

DIG (Jalpaiguri range) Annappa E, after visiting the spot, said: “Primarily, it seems that the firing was done in self-defence. Mohammed Minal Haq, a 13 or 14-year-old boy, fell sick and lay on the ground. Security personnel went to him to enquire and took him to the hospital — he is alright now. Then a rumour spread that the boy had been shot dead by central forces. Hundreds of people came, there were fisticuffs and the incident took place. Total four persons died. Four others are in hospital including one who has a bullet wound on his thigh. One police personnel and two polling staff also received injuries.”

Asked whether warning shots had been fired in the air, Annappa said: “We will probe and send a detailed report. We will probe how the incident happened. But the personnel were less in number. We have learnt that there was an attempt to snatch rifles. The personnel somehow saved their firearms.”

The firing incident took place at the polling booth in Amtali school in Jorpatki area of Sitalkuchi.

At 10.15 am, over 300 villagers including women, showed up at the polling station and the school grounds, armed with sticks, sickles and bamboo poles. State police and CSF personnel posted inside the booth called for reinforcements.

There was a scuffle and people tried to enter and ransack the polling station. A constable and two polling personnel were injured. Some of the villagers tried to snatch the weapons from security personnel following which the CISF personnel resorted to firing.

At Amtali school, Soffiuddin Mian, who claimed to be an eyewitness, said: “We heard that a team of central forces beat up a boy. Everyone in the village got angry. Men and women all gathered at the polling station. There was pushing and shoving. A huge crowd gheraoed the central forces. I ran out of the school ground and then I heard gunshots. There are 950 voters in this booth, and I am one of them.”

Meanwhile, the Election Commission invoked its extraordinary powers under Article 324 to bar the entry of all political leaders into Cooch Behar district for 72 hours and extension of the ‘silent period’ from 48 hours to 72 hours for the fifth phase on April 17.

These decisions, it said, were necessary to maintain law and order in Cooch Behar district and ensure free and fair election during the fifth phase of voting. The state Chief Secretary and Director General of Police have been tasked to ensure strict compliance of EC’s order in “letter as well as in spirit”.

In its order, the Commission noted that the last rites of the four deceased persons have not been completed, and any visit by political leaders to condole the bereaved “has the portent to cause a law and order problem of major proportions”.

“Whereas, since the firing happened in a confrontation with CISF, the chances of Central Forces deployed in this area becoming or being made the butt of further grave provocation by groups of people cannot also be ruled out..” the EC stated.

The decisions were based on a joint report submitted by the Commission’s special observers Ajay Nayak and Vivek Dube. The officers had informed the EC that the recourse to open fire by the CISF personnel was “absolutely necessary” to “save the lives of voters lined up at the polling booth, those of other polling personnel and their own lives as the mob had attempted snatching their weapons”.

The date of repoll for polling station 126 of Sitalkuchi seat, where the violence occurred, will be announced by the EC in due course.

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