Darjeeling paralysed by indefinite shutdown, GJM hardens stand (Second Lead)

June 17th, 2008 - 11:03 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh

Siliguri/Kolkata, June 17 (IANS) Life in the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal came to a standstill and Sikkim was cut off from the rest of India as an indefinite shutdown to demand a separate state of Gorkhaland entered the second day Tuesday. The state government appealed to the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) to withdraw its shutdown and sit for talks. The government indicated a softening of its stance by saying it had no objection to tri-partite discussions involving the agitators and the central government. But the hill leaders hardened their stance, unanimously passing a resolution demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland carved out of northern West Bengal.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Tuesday appealed to the GJM not to “punish the people of Sikkim” by blocking a key highway linking the Himalayan state to the outside world.

“Please don’t punish the people of Sikkim. The National Highway 31 A is the lifeline of Sikkim. When it is blocked, the state suffers,” Dasmunsi told reporters at joint media meet with Bhattacharjee in Kolkata.

Dasmunsi said the blockade was affecting supplies to Sikkim. “Our soldiers, who are posted at the Nathu-La border for protecting the country, are also being affected.”

GJM activists have put up blockades on National Highway 31A, connecting Sikkim with the outside world, at the Bengal-Sikkim border of Rongpo.

“We removed the blockades from time to time to clear the highway, but the agitators reappeared,” said a police official.

There were no reports of any untoward incident on the second day of the shutdown, but private and public vehicles did not ply and offices remained closed in the three hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong.

The streets were deserted, with only police and army vehicles moving around as GJM activists assembled at various points.

The GJM and the state government convened rival “all-party” meetings Tuesday. The GJM kept the state’s ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its main local rival Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) out of its meeting in Darjeeling. In turn, the GJM was not invited to the meeting called by the state government in Kolkata.

“An all-party delegation, led by my party, will go to Delhi from Darjeeling soon,” said GJM chief Bimal Gurung.

Representatives of 13 parties including the hill units of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists, Sikkim National front and Gorkha Rashtriya Congress took part in the Darjeeling deliberations.

“All the parties, including the Congress representative, signed the resolution,” claimed GJM general secretary Roshan Giri.

Giri told IANS that copies of the resolution have been faxed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Home Minister Shivraj Patil, West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Briefing reporters jointly with Congress state unit president Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi after the Kolkata meeting, Chief Minister Bhattacharjee said: “We have to be patient. The problem cannot be resolved by using the police. We have to arrive at a political solution through discussions. The centre and the state must deliberate on the issue together.”

The meeting was not attended by the state’s main opposition party the Trinamool Congress, though it had been invited. The Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) also stayed away.

The meeting adopted a unanimous resolution calling upon the GJM to come to the discussion table and promised to look into development issues affecting the hills.

Dasmunsi urged the GJM to withdraw the shutdown. “Such indefinite shutdowns cannot solve problems. We have presented our party’s views on the issue at the meeting. We are also for finding a solution to the problem through discussions”.

But there was no sign of the shutdown being called off. GJM activists started relay hunger strikes at several tea gardens in Siliguri sub-division, but their plans for a similar agitation in Siliguri town was foiled as the administration banned the assembly of more than four people.

However, in some parts of Dooars and Terai, GJM workers avoided the prohibitory orders by sitting in groups of four.

Troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), deployed in Siliguri since June 13 following clashes between GJM activists and Bengali-speaking activists opposed to the Gorkhaland demand, were moved to potential flashpoints in the sub-division to prevent any breach of peace.

Gurung has asked the people in the hills to stock up food and essential supplies that could last up to 45 days.

Tea gardens, cinchona plantations and school and college examinations have been kept outside the purview of the protests by the GJM.

With the Gorkhaland demand triggering violence in the Darjeeling Hills, Siliguri and the Jalpaiguri district area of Dooars in the past few days, tea and tourism - the mainstay of the region - have been severely hit.

The GJM has been leading the movement in the hills for a separate state, besides opposing the Sixth Schedule status for Darjeeling district that ensures greater autonomy to the district’s governing body Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council.

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