The ongoing violence in the West Bengal hill station of Darjeeling claimed two lives on June 17 after supporters of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) clashed with security forces deployed by the Mamata Banerjee-led state government. Eyewitnesses claimed the toll is bound to go up. Eight protestors have suffered bullet injuries in the Singamari area alone, an eyewitness said, requesting that he not be named.
On a day otherwise perfect for a gentle stroll, Singamari, the ground zero of protests, witnessed intense clashes spanning over three hours as several police vehicles were torched and the area that is usually teeming with tourists turned into a virtual battleground.
Earlier in the day, a report claimed that Indian Reserve Battalion assistant commandant Kiran Tamang, a resident of Singamari himself, had been stabbed to death while trying to calm protesters, some of whom were his neigbours.
It later surfaced, that while he had indeed been stabbed, he was rushed to a private hospital in Siliguri where he is battling for his life.
Singamari, the ground zero of protests, witnessed intense clashes spanning over three hours on June 17. Photo: PTI
In another false alarm, this time raised by the CM no less; Banerjee claimed that protesters were threatening journalists to show certain clips and that some of her “media friends” had been kidnapped. Journalists reporting from the ground for Kolkata-based news channels such as ETV Bangla and 24 Ghonta denied there had been any such activity. Some of the reporters said that locals had, in fact, offered them shelter when they were caught in the crossfire.
On June 17 morning, two protest marches were headed to the GJM’s Patlebas party office. (The same office was raided on Thursday, which led the GJM to announce an indefinite bandh.)
The latest clashes began when the police intercepted the two groups of protesters near St Joseph’s College in Singamari. Violence spread across the hills soon after, including Ghoom, the seat of India’s highest railway station. Sporadic instances of violence were also reported from the Dooars region in the plains.
Darjeeling has been in the grip of a fresh agitation after the state government announced nearly a month ago that Bengali will be made a compulsory subject in schools. Banerjee later said the decision would not be implemented in the Darjeeling hills but, by then, the protests, led by the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha under the leadership of Gorkha Territorial Administration’s chief executive Bimal Gurung, had transformed into a movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland.
The immediate trigger for the June 17 protests, however, were alleged “police atrocities” on GJM workers, some of them women, arrested over the past few days.
The police had also picked up a GJM legislator's son, who heads the party’s media cell, late on Friday and raided the home of another leader following an attempt, according to the Telegraph newspaper, by some people to torch a PWD office in Bijanbari area.
All hopes of a climb-down from Mamata Banerjee were quashed when the chief minister, addressing reporters from her office in Kolkata, adopted a defiant posture, denying the police had any role in the deaths of GJM supporters earlier in the day.
Speaking from Nabanna, her office in Kolkata, the CM instead alleged that Gurung, the GTA head and GJM chief, was executing a “deep-rooted conspiracy” with help from “underground insurgent groups in the northeast”.
She also voiced her suspicion that a foreign country could also be backing the current unrest in the hills.
On whether she was willing to talk to the GJM leadership, she was clear. “Any negotiation can take place only after GJM withdraws a bandh,” she said. The indefinite bandh enforced by the GJM was announced following the aforementioned raid on its Patlebas office.
Gorkhas across the country began uploading blank black photos as their profile picture on Facebook as a mark of protest soon after.
Hinting that the unrest was Gurung’s way of postponing the impending GTA elections, she said: "Five years you (GJM) enjoyed, now when elections are coming you start violence because you have lost credentials... What is happening is a deep-rooted conspiracy. These arms were not collected in a day, they were collected over time.”