West Bengal was grappling with a serious crisis in the Darjeeling Hills which descended into chaos Saturday after violence and firing on the streets left at least three activists of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) dead, a police officer in critical condition and several persons injured.
The GJM, spearheading an agitation that began as a protest against the mandatory teaching of Bengali in schools and then escalated into a movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland, said three of its cadre were killed in police firing — a charge that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and police rejected. The GJM identified its three dead as Bimal Sashankar of Goke Basti, Sunil Rai of Kainjalay and Mahesh Gurung of Relling. It said Sashankar and Rai were killed in the Singamari area and Gurung in Ghoom. But ADG (Law and Order) Anuj Sharma said: “We have confirmation of one death. We will know the cause only after post-mortem. Thirty six policemen were injured, some victims of gunshots.”
India Reserve Battalion assistant commandant Kiran Tamang sustained critical injuries after being attacked by GJM activists. Through the day, police and Gorkhaland supporters fought pitched battles at various places in the Hills. Several vehicles were torched as police cracked down on protesters, firing tear gas shells and resorting to lathicharge. The protesters retaliated by hurling petrol bombs and stones at policemen.
In Kolkata, speaking at an event where she honoured five journalists posthumously by naming roads and community halls after them, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “Bangla ke bhaag hote debo na (I will not let Bengal be divided)… In Darjeeling, police officers are being beaten up and so are reporters. Reporters are being kidnapped, kept hostage and told that only what they (protesters) say should be aired.”
“I have done many andolan (agitations) myself. If it was a matter of just stone-pelting, it would have been different. But they have caches of arms. If they had just told me politely, I would have discussed with them… But if you are going to threaten me with guns, I want you to know that I have the capability of snatching away your guns… I will give my life if need be, but I will not let them break Bengal,” she said.
At a press conference, Banerjee said: “They (protesters) are not listening to the court as well. The court passed an order saying bandh is illegal… Where did they get illegal arms and money from? These arms were not collected in a day, they were collected over a period of time. They have connections to underground insurgents of the North East… There are some other countries involved, but I don’t want to reveal here. We share borders with other states, and also have international borders, and this is not difficult. I request my brothers and sisters in the Hills not to support the terrorists and their movement.” She said she was willing to hold discussions, but only if the bandh was called off. She has called an all-party meeting on June 22.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke to Banerjee to take stock of the situation. They also discussed deployment of central forces and possible mediation by the Centre. The GJM said it was ready for talks with the Centre on the issue of Gorkhaland, but not with Banerjee. Binoy Tamang, GJM assistant general secretary, said: “We don’t want to talk to Mamata Banerjee. We want to sit with the central government. Banerjee has said that we have links with N-E terrorist organisations. Now she says she is ready for talks. From her point of view, we are terrorists, so the CM has no right to talk to terrorists.”
In Kolkata, the state BJP said it too was ready to mediate between the Centre and the GJM over the issue of Gorkhaland. “If Centre has a problem, we are ready to mediate between GJM and them. Atrocities are being committed on the people of the Hills by the state government,” BJP’s Rahul Sinha said.
Meanwhile, the All Bodo Students Union, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (P) and People’s Joint Action Committee for Bodoland have written letters to GJM, supporting its demand for Gorkhaland. GJM chief Bimal Gurung, in a recorded message in Nepali, said: “Peaceful and democratic rallies were taken out by the (GJM) women’s morcha. The Bengal government, autocratic government, fired on us. I ask the people of Hills to protest.”
In the morning, the Gorkha Nari Morcha, the GJM women’s wing, took out a rally in Singamari. Carrying the Tricolour, they were chanting pro-Gorkhaland slogans. Policemen stationed there tried to stop the rally. When the GJM women tried to walk towards the District Magistrate’s office, police resorted to a lathicharge.
GJM workers began hurling stones at the policemen who lobbed tear gas shells to break up the protest. Within minutes, the area turned into a battleground. GJM workers threw crude bombs and gunshots were heard. Police claimed they fired rubber bullets. Media personnel were caught in the exchanges between police and the protesters, forcing them to seek shelter in homes by the roadside.
As policemen retreated, protesters perched atop hilltops hurled stones. At least four vehicles, including a police van, were torched. GJM workers set up barricades near the Singamari police station where a police jeep was targeted. The clashes continued for three hours. Violence also erupted in other parts of the Hills, including Lebong, Chowk Bazaar and Ghoom railway station. Army personnel were called to patrol the disturbed areas. A government vehicle was torched in Gorubathan. Large contingents of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed on the streets.
Police detained Vikram Rai, son of GJM MLA Amar Rai, but set him free after questioning. He had been taken by police from his home in Darjeeling around midnight Friday. Police sources said Rai, a former journalist, was picked up in connection with clashes in Darjeeling on June 8 when the Chief Minister held a cabinet meeting there.