On the boil for the past 10 days over a separate state demand, Darjeeling today witnessed widespread clashes between GJM activists and the police in which one person was killed and 35 security personnel were injured, including an IRB officer seriously.
This was the first death since violent protests returned to Darjeeling on June 8, after a gap of a few years.
Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) workers hurled petrol bombs, stones and bottles at the police at several places which led the security forces to lob teargas shells and resort to baton-charge to disperse the mobs, a police official said.
Army contingents were deployed to control the situation and they staged flag marches in several areas of the violence-hit hill district, including Darjeeling and Kurseong, where the indefinite shutdown to press for a separate Gorkhaland entered the third day.
Singmari in Darjeeling turned into a battleground as GJM activists threw petrol bombs and stones at the anti-riot police personnel, who fired teargas shells and lathi-charged the agitators.
The incident, in which several people were injured, prompted the administration to deploy the Army.
An Army official said six columns (around 250 personnel) continued to deployed in the district and the situation in Kalimpong was tense.
Besides Singmari, clashes also took place at Lebongcart Road, Chowkbazar and Ghum, where the country's highest railway station is located.
West Bengal ADG (law and order) Anuj Sharma said in Kolkata that one person was killed at Singmari and around 35 policemen were injured, 19 of them seriously.
The GJM, however, claimed that two party supporters were killed in police firing.
"Two of our comrades were killed in police firing. They are martyrs of the Gorkhaland movement. The people of the hills will not stop until and unless Gorkhaland is achieved," GJM chief Bimal Gurung said in a statement from an undisclosed location.
"The final battle is on. Either we get our right or die fighting for it," he said.
Gurung's claim was dismissed by ADG Sharma. "The police did not open fire. Not a single bullet was fired, It was the GJM which was firing at us," he said.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in Kolkata that India Rerserve Battalion's Assistant Commandant Kiran Tamang was critically injured in the violence.
Tamang, who belongs to IRS's 2nd Battalion, has been shifted to a private nursing home in Siliguri, the police said. Earlier, IRB sources said Tamang was killed in the clash.
Amidst the continuing violence, Home Minister Rajnath Singh telephoned the chief minister and discussed the situation prevailing there.
During the conversation, Banerjee briefed the home minister about the steps being taken by the state government to maintain law and order and bring back normalcy in the hill district, official sources said.
Singh asked the CM to take all possible steps to restore peace in the hill station.
"What is happening today is a deep-rooted conspiracy. So many bombs and arms cannot be gathered in a day," Banerjee told reporters, adding, "I am ready to sacrifice my life, but I will not allow Bengal to be divided."
She said that the GJM has connections with insurgent groups in the Northeast and some foreign countries. She, however, did not name any insurgent group or foreign country.
"There is a terrorist brain behind this hooliganism. We have got clues that they have connections with underground insurgent groups in the Northeast. There are some other countries also helping," Banerjee said.
The police said seven GJM supporters were arrested for their alleged involvement in the violence.
Giving details of the Singmari incident, a senior police officer said prohibitory orders were in force in the area and the police told the protesters, who were carrying the tricolour and GJM flags, to return.
The slogan-shouting protesters did not relent and started throwing petrol bombs, stones and bottles at the police, he said. A number of police vehicles were set on fire, he said.
"We asked them to go back, but they started throwing stones, bottles and petrol bombs. We had to resort to lathi-charge," the official said.
ADG Sharma told PTI, "We are waiting for the postmortem report, but it seems that the man died of gunshot wound.
"We are trying to identify the person, but going by the preliminary investigation it seems that he is a local," he said.
"Law will take its own course. We will arrest anybody found violating law and order in the hills. The police will be tough." he said.
Barring pharmacies, all others shops and hotels were closed in Darjeeling, one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the country. The protests had started against "imposition" of Bengali language in schools.
Meanwhile, GJM leaders claimed that Vikram Rai, son of GJM MLA Amar Rai, was 'picked up' by the police from Darjeeling.
Vikram is the in-charge of the GJM's media cell. The police last night raided the residence of senior GJM leader Binay Tamang, following which party activists tried to torch a PWD office in Bijanbari area in the hill town.