Darjeeling: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has declared the 12-hour bandh called in Darjeeling by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) illegal and upgraded Army presence in the hills from two columns last evening to eight this morning (each column has about 40 personnel) to ensure the situation remains under control. The bandh continues till 6 pm today.
"The government will take tough action against vandalism," she said as she marched from Raj Bhavan to the famed Darjeeling Mall or square this morning. "Today's bandh is illegal and law will take its own course. Tourists will be provided all help," she said.
Darjeeling is a deserted town today. Government buses are taking tourists to Siliguri so they can head home. There is no private transport on the roads because of the bandh and the Morcha workers are setting up pickets to stop vehicles from plying.
Thousand of tourists are stranded due to the bandh. They complain that their hotels have run out of food and private taxi operators are trying to fleece them for a ride to Siliguri.
Four columns of Army are out in Kalimpong district which adjoins Darjeeling, three columns in Darjeeling and one in Kurseong. As soldiers march down Kalimpong streets, locals wave Morcha flags shouting slogans like "Jai Hind, Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki Jai."
Yesterday, the Morcha had set at least a dozen police vehicles on fire when they clashed with police near Raj Bhavan where Ms Banerjee held a cabinet meeting with 30 of her top ministers.
Several policemen and women were injured in the stone throwing and the police had to resort to lathi-charge and use of tear-gas to control the situation.
A cop whose eye got badly damaged in the clashes will be flown to Kolkata for specialised treatment, the chief minister said.
Ms Banerjee also asked the people not to vote for the Morcha, adding, "They did no work in the last five years through Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). The GTA polls are due in July, and they have nothing to show for themselves, so they are creating trouble here."
The GTA is a partially autonomous body that was a compromise agreed upon by the Centre, the Morcha and Mamata Banerjee to bring peace to the hills where the Morcha had renewed the demand of the 1980s for Gorkhaland, a separate state.
The latest round of violence has renewed calls for a separate state, fanned by the emotive issue of language. Last week, Ms Banerjee had made an announcement to make Bengali language compulsory in all schools from class 1 to 10.
Sensing outrage in the hills, she said at Mirik on Sunday that Bengali would not be compulsory in Darjeeling. But the Morcha wanted it in writing.
They demanded that Ms Banerjee pass a cabinet resolution saying Bengali would not be compulsory in Darjeeling. That did not happen.
"They are just creating trouble over a non-issue," she said. But ever since the announcement, the language issue has triggered a renewed call for a separate state by the Nepali-speaking majority.
"We are proud of the hills, we want to stay together," Ms Banerjee said.
Bimal Gurung, the head of Morcha, has not spoken publicly since the violence yesterday. The Morcha has called a meeting of its central committee tomorrow where it will draw up its future course of action.
Mamata Banerjee has set up a task force of three top police officers to take charge of the law and order situation in Darjeeling. The officer in charge of the GTA has been replaced.