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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interlocutor on ‘handshake’ tour - Delhi sends Madan to meet Gurung
Vivek Chhetri, TT, Darjeeling, Feb. 11: The Centre-appointed interlocutor will meet Bimal Gurung for a “good handshake” tomorrow, before heading to Darjeeling to take stock of ground realities in what is being read as a last ditch effort to bring the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha to the negotiation table.
Confirming his tour, Lt. Gen (retd) Vijay Madan, the interlocutor, said over the phone from Delhi: “I will be landing in Bagdogra tomorrow. I have informed both the state government and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and will accordingly chalk out further plans.”
Sources said Madan would visit Kumani on the Darjeeling-Jalpaiguri border where Morcha president Gurung has been camping with party supporters since his proposed march through the Dooars was stopped by the administration.
He will then come to Darjeeling to get a first hand account of the prevailing situation from senior administrative officials.
Asked if he was bringing any specific message to the Morcha from the Centre, Madan said: “I am coming for a good handshake with all.”
Observers believe the “handshake” could be a last ditch attempt by the Centre to bring the Morcha leadership back to the talks table. “The Centre wants to open up a dialogue immediately and bring both the Morcha and the state to the negotiation table to end the current impasse,” said a source.
Sources admitted that the Centre had already drafted a fresh proposal on the interim authority but till date the Morcha leadership had refused even to go through the draft, reiterating that the “interim set-up” was a closed chapter.
Madan is likely to impress upon the Morcha to at least go through the contents of the new draft but the party is unlikely to yield to this request.
In fact, the Morcha has already held three rounds of central committee meeting at Kumani since Thursday to discuss the next round of action after rejecting the interim proposal. “We do not have any comments to make regarding our meeting. We will be announcing our programmes only at the last moment,” said Harka Bahadur Chhetri, spokesperson for the Morcha. The party might wait for the meeting with the interlocutor before finalising its strategy.
There was also a hint in the Morcha camp that the party is likely to announce its political strategy on Saturday. “Tomorrow, we will not hold a rally but we request our supporters to squat on the road from noon to 2.30pm to protest the killing of the Morcha activists and to demand the creation of Gorkhaland,” Morcha general secretary Roshan Giri told the ever swelling crowd participating in the rallies at Chowk Bazar daily since Wednesday. A day before two Morcha supporters were killed in a police firing in Sibchu.
Giri said the demand for inclusion of the Dooars and Terai by the Morcha was not unreasonable. “We have only demanded 196 mouzas of the Dooars and 110 mouzas from the Terai. This demand is reasonable as our people are in a majority in these areas. We have not demanded the entire Dooars and those opposing us must see our logic,” added Giri.
The Morcha leader maintained that the party had at times taken two steps forward and a step backward. “In a mass movement we have to explore every situation, sometimes we have taken two steps forward and a step backward also. However, we are determined to create Gorkhaland and now our struggle will only be for a separate statehood,” said Giri. “We will also continue to press for a CBI inquiry into the incident (firing) and we will not be satisfied with a magisterial inquiry into the incident.”
Observers believe that the Morcha might provide some relaxation in the coming days before renewing its agitation. “The party has received a lot of momentum once again and it is unlikely that it will slow down its agitation. It is probably thinking of other programmes instead of prolonging the general strike,” said an observer.
As part of the renewed agitation, the padayatra by a group of 56 ex-serviceman that started from Darjeeling on Wednesday is expected to reach the plains today. “There was a change of plan and instead of going through the Tindharia route they decided to use the Rohini road. They will be reaching Simulbarie late in the evening today,” said Kamal Thapa, vice-president of the party’s Kurseong sub-division committee. The Morcha also brought out a rally in Kurseong today.
Dooars unrest hits trains - Madan in ‘handshake’ message, to push for talks
Anirban Choudhury, TT, Feb. 11: The firing at Sibchu that catapulted the Dooars into a state of uncertainty and unrest has hit the region hard with the railways cancelling a few trains, diverting others and terminating some midway.
Bus and truck owners, too, are reluctant to ply the highways in the Dooars, on tenterhooks since the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s plan to march through the region for Gorkhaland and the anti-Morcha groups determined to oppose it. The build-up led to the police firing at Sibchu on Tuesday.
The business community that depends on the trains to ferry goods is not the only one complaining. With potholed national highways a bane, the railways have always been the more viable option for office-goers, traders and schoolchildren, besides the thousands of commuters to the Northeast.
The Northeast Frontier Railway has suspended two trains on the Siliguri- Alipurduar route via Malbazar where a convoy accompanying cortege of Bimala Rai, one of the firing victims of Sibchu, was stoned yesterday. The New Jalpaiguri-Alipurduar Intercity Express and a passenger train on the same route have not been running from Wednesday, a day after the firing.
Today, the NFR formally announced the cancellation of the New Jalpaiguri-Bongaigaon passenger train because of “congestion” in the NJP-Falakata-Alipurduar section through which most of the trains of the Siliguri-Alipurduar route have been diverted. The Siliguri-Alipurduar route is part of the Dooars that has been rocked by violence and unrest since the Tuesday firing.
The NFR also announced that the Mahananda Express plying between Delhi and Alipurduar Junction would be terminated at Katihar in Bihar from tomorrow.
Similarly, the Kanchan Kanya Express plying between Sealdah and Alipurduar Junction will be terminated at New Jalpaiguri from today, an NFR release said. It also announced that the Danapur-Kamakshya Capital Express would be terminated at New Jalpaiguri.
The 169-km Siliguri-Alipurduar railway line through the Dooars forests is vital link for the traders in Kalchini, Hamiltonganj, Birpara, Banarhat and Jaigaon on border with Bhutan.
With trucks, private buses and taxis avoiding the potholed NH31C that links Siliguri with the Dooars, shopowners are neither getting customers, nor consignments by roads. Suspected Morcha supporters set fire to three trucks at Madarihat on this highway yesterday, allegedly in retaliation to the convoy stoning.
The secretary of the Jaigaon Merchants’ Association, R.P. Gupta, said the traders in the border town were suffering a loss of over Rs 1 crore a day.
“The shops are open in Jaigaon, but as there is no transport, we are not getting customers. From today vehicles have also stopped coming from Bhutan. Ninety per cent of our trade is with Bhutan,” Gupta said.
“The railway is the lifeline of the Dooars and with trains having been diverted, we, as well as our customers are having problems commuting between towns and we are also having problems in going to Siliguri to replenish our stocks,” said Krishnapada Basu Bal, the president of the Kalchini Block Byabsayee Samity.
The divisional railway manager of the NFR’s Alipurduar division, Sacchidananda Singh, said the situation in the Dooars had forced the railways to take the decision. “We are also facing losses of close to a crore a day because of the strike called by the Morcha. We are in constant touch with the district magistrate and police superintendent of Jalpaiguri and we will resume normal services once the agitation is withdrawn,” Singh said.
Private bus and truck owners, too were reluctant to ply their vehicles given the tense situation in the Dooars.
“The situation is grave and we are not going to take any risks, particularly after yesterday’s incident at Madarihat where trucks were set on fire. Even though the administration has been telling us that the highway is open, we are not taking any risks,” said Gobinda Sarkar, the secretary of the Alipurduar Truck Owners’ Association.
Five persons were arrested last evening in connection with the arson at Madarihat.
Plains bay for Jaswant blood
TT, Siliguri, Feb. 11: An anti-Gorkhaland forum today launched a broadside against Darjeeling MP Jaswant Singh for supporting the demand for a separate state and asked the Speaker of Lok Sabha to disqualify him for backing a violent movement.
“Jaswant Singh is consistently supporting the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and its demand for a separate state. It is unethical for the MP who represents the entire Darjeeling district comprising the Siliguri subdivision where people are against the division of the state,” said Mukunda Majumdar, the president of the Bangla O Bangla Bhasha Banchao Committee.
Majumdar was addressing members of the organisation at Hashmi Chowk, where they burnt an effigy of the Darjeeling MP. He also accused Singh of neglecting the plains.
“Since the parliamentary polls, the MP has not carried out any development work in the plains and has focussed his attention on the hills. Despite being a people’s representative, Singh tried to incite trouble by participating in demonstrations organised by the Morcha. He is harping on about the Morcha demand (for Gorkhaland), instead of taking effective steps to end the turmoil,” said Majumdar.
The MP had taken part in a demonstration organised by the Morcha in New Delhi yesterday. Singh, who had contested the last Lok Sabha polls from Darjeeling on a BJP ticket, won the seat with the support of the Morcha.
“We want the Speaker of Lok Sabha to expel him from the MP’s post, considering his biased attitude and support to a separatist and violent movement,” said the Committee president.
Members of the Bangla Morcha and Rashtriya Shiv Sena, which oppose the division of Bengal, also demonstrated jointly at the Siliguri subdivisional office and burnt an effigy of Singh. They shouted slogans against the MP for his support to the Morcha.
More sorties to ferry wary road travellers
Rajeev Ravidas, TT, Kalimpong, Feb. 11: Helicopters that used to ferry passengers between Bagdogra and Gangtok are now flying to Rangpo to carry out more sorties to manage the rush of people wary of taking NH31A to go to Siliguri because of the ongoing strike in the Darjeeling hills.
The chopper service to Rangpo has started from Wednesday.
“By redoing the route we have been able to increase the number of sorties. Now we do seven sorties each between Bagdogra and Rangpo, and Rangpo and Bagdogra. In normal times we used to do four sorties each between Bagdogra and Gangtok and Gangtok and Bagdogra,” said S.B.S. Bhaduria, secretary of the Sikkim tourism department.
It takes 20 minutes to fly between Bagdogra and Rangpo and the flight between Bagdogra and Gangtok takes around 35 minutes.
A cricket field in Rangpo is being used as a temporary helipad for the Pawan Hans choppers to land.
Officials said, even though operating helicopters from a makeshift arrangement entails additional expenditure, the flight fares have not been increased. “The fare is Rs 2,200 per passenger, same as the Bagdogra-Gangtok fare,” said Bhaduria. A Pawan Hans chopper can ferry five persons at a time.
“We can fly 1,200 hours in a year. We should manage (with the rush) because we have a backlog of flying hours from the rainy season when we flew for only 50 hours because of inclement weather,” said the tourism secretary.
People travelling to and out of Sikkim said they preferred the copter ride instead of taking NH31A, the main road link between Gangtok and Siliguri, which is often affected by strikes in the Darjeeling hills.
“I reached Siliguri yesterday and was to take the road to Gangtok, but I chose to spend a night in Siliguri and took an early morning Pawan Hans helicopter to Gangtok today. I had to come here because of some important pre-arranged meetings,” said Hasina Kharbhih, team leader of a Shillong-based NGO, over the phone from Gangtok.
People who want to take the road Sikkim from Siliguri are being forced to stand in long queues for hours to buy bus tickets at the Sikkim National Transport terminus in Siliguri.
SNT buses are the only mode of public transport to Sikkim as the private operators are not plying their vehicles because of the bandh in the Darjeeling hills.
“We are operating about 30 to 40 buses every day. They are escorted by the Bengal police. There are no fixed departure timings,” said G. T. Lachungpa, additional general manager of SNT in Siliguri.
Admit cards arrive, scanner on board
TT, Siliguri, Feb. 11: The admit cards for the Madhyamik exams have reached the hills with a teachers’ organisation affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha claiming credit for their safe passage despite the ongoing strike.
The regional office of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education has admitted that they had sent the admit cards through an “alternative procedure” rather than the usual practice of holding camps for distribution of admit cards.
However, the board refused to admit that the Janmukti Secondary Teachers’ Organisation had taken the admit cards to the hills.
With an indefinite strike going on in the hills, the board would have found it difficult to make sure that students received the cards before the exams.
“As a strike has been going on in three hill subdivisions, it is not possible for the officials of the board to come up here and distribute the admit cards. But Madhyamik exams are round the corner and it is important that all candidates got their admit cards on time. So, we discussed the matter with the Morcha leadership and took the initiative to collect admit cards from the regional office in Siliguri and then distribute them to different schools in the hills,” said Bijay Pradhan, the general secretary of the JSTO.
According to him, an arrangement had been worked out and the board officials had authorised the head of a school which is an examination centre for Madhyamik in each subdivision to collect the admit cards from the regional office.
“The heads of St Philomena High School in Kalimpong and St Robert’s High School in Darjeeling collected the admit cards for the two subdivisions. The headmaster of St Alphonsus High School collected the cards for Kurseong. The school authorities were accompanied by the JSTO members so that they would not face any trouble bringing the admit cards to the hills,” said Pradhan.
Students of 128 schools in the three hill subdivisions will appear for the Madhyamik beginning February 23.
“Every year a camp office is set up by our staff in a school in each subdivision. The representatives of different schools have to come to their respective camps and take the admit cards,” said a board official.
Pradhan said the cards would be distributed from St Joseph’s High School (Kurseong), St Robert’s High School (Darjeeling) and Scottish Universities’ Mission Institute (Kalimpong) on February 14.
The board said the cards had been sent to the hills through an “alternative procedure”.
“All I can say is that the admit cards have already been dispatched to the hill subdivisions and the candidates will not suffer at any cost. But I cannot disclose the alternative procedure by which the cards were sent,” Partha Roy, the board secretary, told The Telegraph over the phone from Calcutta.
Bad but not grave enough for army: MK
TT, Malda, Feb. 11: Governor M.K. Narayanan today indicated that the state government’s request for army deployment in the Darjeeling hills may have been unwarranted.
The government had repeatedly said the army should be deployed in the Darjeeling hills to restore normality and instil confidence among the people.
But on a visit to Malda today, Narayanan, when asked if the army should be called out in Darjeeling, said: “This is a question that the local administration, the district magistrate have to decide, whether the situation is grave enough for that. Normally army is deployed when the situation is so grave or so serious. That’s an assessment they have to make. I cannot make an assessment from here. The situation is bad, but I don’t know whether its grave.”
At the Writers’ Buildings, chief secretary Samar Ghosh said the state government has still not withdrawn its request for deployment of the army in Bengal despite the Centre’s refusal to send the troops.
“The request is still lying with the Centre,” Ghosh said. “We are not pursuing the matter as of now. But we are not withdrawing the request either.” Asked whether the state government was delaying the setting up the interim authority in the hills, Narayanan said: “No. That is certainly not the case. But there are issues as you can see. The question is what is the territory, what are the territorial limits, there is clearly the issue of elections to the interim authority. Otherwise, what is the authority that they have? A nominated body cannot do it. So, I don’t think the state government can be accused of delaying.”
The governor was referring to the fact that the interim authority should be an elected body if it was to have legislative powers.
The need for the Darjeeling hills, Narayanan said, was “peace”.

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