The West Bengal government called out the Army in Darjeeling on Thursday after the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) protest against the “forced imposition of Bengali language’’ in state schools turned violent with police vehicles being torched and policemen attacked. The Army Eastern Command, in a statement, said: “Requisition from the state government has been received. Two Army columns based in Darjeeling are moving out. Each column has 43 men.” Police officials said that protesters hurled stones at policemen who then used tear gas to disperse the crowd. But those witness to the incident in Darjeeling claimed that the protest was peaceful.
The GJM has called a 12-hour bandh from 6 am on Friday. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who held her first Cabinet meeting at the Darjeeling Raj Bhavan, later told reporters: “They (the GJM) are trying to make an issue out of a non-issue. This is not the way. We are trying to bring in development and we are here because of the people in the hills.’’
Protests have been on in the Darjeeling hills ever since Banerjee announced last month that Bengali will be made a compulsory subject in all schools across the state from classes I to X. The hills are dominated by the Gorkhas and include the Lepchas, Tamangs, Gurungs and others.
Adding to the confusion, the state government first said that Bengali will be a mandatory subject in schools and then said it will be optional. This angered the GNLF, the TMC ally in the hills, which called the state administration’s decision “undemocratic” and “draconian”.
Visiting the hills after the TMC won the Mirik civic body polls for the first time, Banerjee clarified that Bengali will be an optional language, and not mandatory, in schools of the Darjeeling hills. The GNLF backed down, saying it will remain a TMC ally. But GNLF rival GJM, backed by the BJP and its Darjeeling MP S S Ahluwalia, continued to stage protests.
GJM chief Bimal Gurung has been leading the street protests. On May 30, the Sadar Bazar police station in Darjeeling lodged an FIR against GJM leaders — among them Bimal Gurung, Roshan Giri, Binoy Tamang and Swaraj Thapa — claiming they were instigating hatred and divisions between communities.
Parjanya Sen, a Darjeeling resident who claimed to be an eyewitness to the violence, said: “I heard that my friend’s parents were stuck inside Gorkha Bhavan because of the protests and went to check on them. The protests were peaceful. They burnt an effigy of the CM in front of the Bhavan and then suddenly, the police fired tear gas shells… A number of protesters were injured… it was only after the tear gas shelling that they set fire to police vehicles.”
GJM general secretary Roshan Giri said: “We have called a 12-hour bandh tomorrow. What happened today was undemocratic… This suppression of our voice that Banerjee is doing by using the administration will not work.’’