The Army staged flag marches in Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong towns on Friday, as sporadic violence was reported in the northern West Bengal hills during a 12-hour shutdown called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
The shutdown, beginning at 6 a.m., badly hit vehicular communication, as private buses, jeeps and small cars kept off the roads and toy train services were cancelled due to security reasons, much to the dismay of the 45,000 tourists who had been stranded on Thursday in the violence-hit hills.
But with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee personally monitoring the situation by camping in the tourist town of Darjeeling, the state government ran additional fleet of buses to bring down the visitors to the plains from various hill pockets.
A day after they clashed with police in Darjeeling over their demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland, GJM activists set fire to the under-construction Industrial Training Institute at Mungpoo in Kurseong sub-division of Darjeeling district.
The GJM supporters were also seen picketing on the National Highways and other roads across the hills and stopping the few jeeps and cars that plied with the tourists. A car was damaged at Kurseong and tourists were forced to get down from their vehicles at Teesta Valley under Runglee-Rungliot block and Kalimpong.
"Since Thursday night, 26 small and large buses have transported trapped tourists to various points in the state and a majority to Kolkata. At the moment we can't say how many are still stranded but their safety remains our priority," state Tourism Minister Gautam Deb said.
A Defence Ministry spokesperson said in Kolkata that six Army columns have been deployed -- three in Darjeeling, two in Kalimpong and one in Kurseong. Each column comprises 43 personnel. Three companies of Central Reserve Police Force have also been pressed into service.
"The Army carried out flag marches in Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Kurseong today (Friday). The Army, CRPF and the civil administration are coordinating with each other and the situation is under control of the civil administration," the spokesperson said.
Banerjee, who has stayed put in the hills in view of the volatile situation, termed the shutdown as "illegal" and warned of "strict legal action" against those taking part in it.
"The state government has declared today's shutdown as illegal. Whoever takes part in the shutdown will face strict legal action," she said as she moved around town to oversee arrangements to help stranded tourists in Darjeeling.
She claimed normalcy has been restored in the hills, but said the violence was premeditated.
"Now I can say the area is calm, hills are at peace, everyone is fine. On Thursday, they (GJM) wreaked havoc for an hour or two all of a sudden. They had stockpiled arms, bombs, guns and indulged in stone-pelting using large stone pieces. Police was injured and even women were beaten up. Despite all odds, our police showed restraint," Banerjee told the media here.
The shutdown badly affected normal life, as private offices, commercial establishments and educational institutions remained closed.
However, Banerjee claimed government offices functioned normally and recorded very high attendance. "The attendance was 99 per cent in Kalimpong and Darjeeling towns, 98 per cent in Kurseong and 100 per cent in Mirik sub-divisional office," she said.
In Kolkata, Governor K.N. Tripathi said he is "yet to receive any official communication" over the situation in Darjeeling, while the the state opposition parties yet again lambasted the Banerjee government for the flare-up in the hills.
"The different ethnical groups in the hills are not united as the state government is forcibly dividing them. This has damaged the unity and integrity of the different ethnical groups living in the area," said Left Front chairman Biman Bose.
Echoing him, the state Congress president Adhir Chowdhury accused Banerjee of unnecessarily provoking different communities of the hills and destroying their "bond of brotherhood" by creating seperate developmental boards.
In a scathing attack, state BJP president Dilip Ghosh said: "Didi (as Banerjee is known) had gone to Darjeeling to provoke the people of the hills. Now she is getting paid back in her own coin."