Darjeeling: There were no reports of any violence in Darjeeling on Friday morning but GJM supporters set fire to an under-construction ITI in Mungpoo, about 30km from Darjeeling. Other than this incident, the 12-hour bandh called by GJM Yuva Morcha was by and large peaceful so far.
The West Bengal government stepped up pressure on Gorkha Janmukti Morcha president Bimal Gurung by withdrawing the bodyguards provided to him even as the police registered an FIR against him after the agitation against Mamata Banerjee’s decision to teach Bengali in school in the hills turned violent on Thursday.
The Indian Army was deployed in the tourist town on Thursday evening to help to restore law and order after GJM supporters clashed with police, damaging police vehicles and setting vehicles ablaze. The chief minister chaired a meeting of the state cabinet for the first in 45 years in the town.
Banerjee set up a three-member team of IPS officers — Jawed Shamim, Ajay Anand and Siddhinath Gupta — to oversee the law and order situation in the hills.
“The bandh is illegal,” said the chief minister.
A six-member team to conduct a special audit of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), the autonomous body of which Gurung was the chief executive, will reach Darjeeling on Friday. The secretary of GTA, Ravinder Singh, has also been removed and is being replaced by Barun Roy, the secretary of the north Bengal development department.
The decision to conduct a special audit is also being seen as an attempt to put pressure on the GJM. The GTA’s term is set to end in July.
The government has also announced that it will keep its offices in the hills open braving a 12-hour bandh. The administration has said a day’s salary will be deducted if government employees do not turn up.
A big challenge for the government is to evacuate thousands of tourists from the town safely. There may be more than 10,000 tourists as this is the peak tourist season in the hills, according to local hoteliers.
The government has spoken to the authorities at Bagdogra airport and made arrangements so that it allows passengers to get in from 5am and the restaurants start serving from 6am.
Banerjee has stayed back in Darjeeling even though she was supposed to leave the hills on Friday after a four-day trip. Thousands of GJM supporters converged in front of Bhanu Bhavan on Thursday, which is barely 300 metres from the Raj Bhavan where the chief minister was supposed to hold the cabinet meeting.
When this correspondent arrived in front of Bhanu Bhavan a few minutes before 3pm after attending the chief minister’s press conference following the cabinet meeting, he saw GJM supporters wrapping up black sheets that they placed on the streets on which they squatted during the demonstration.
They shouted slogans such as “Mamata go back”, but there were no signs of any clash. Then some of the agitators set fire to an effigy of the chief minister.
It was at this moment that a few stones went flying towards the police, who were separated from the agitators by a metal barricade. Senior police officers, including the district police superintendent, who were present at the spot asked the agitators to calm down.
The police kept urging for calm even in the initial minutes of the attack. The force moved back a short distance that seemed to encourage the agitators, who began to attack more vigorously, and within minutes a full-scale attack started, and the police retaliated with lathi charge, tear gas shells and also fired rubber bullets.
GJM supporters set fire to a traffic police booth in front of Bhanu Bhavan and three police vehicles and a government bus on fire.
Gurung was inside Bhanu Bhavan and was holding a strategy meeting with senior leaders as agitators resorted to violence.
Gurung, however, told the Hindustan Times on Thursday that the police was not to blame for the clashes and accused Trinamool Congress supporters of the violence.
“We were holding rallies since June 4 but there was no tension on any occasion. There were some Trinamool supporters on the side of the police who suddenly began throwing stones triggering the clash,” he said.
Gurung is expected to announce further plans at a press conference in the evening.