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Notwithstanding massive security arrangements, several state government offices were torched, vandalised or forcibly shut by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supporters on Monday — day one of the indefinite shutdown called by the party to press for a Gorkhaland state in the northern West Bengal hills.
The GJM termed the shutdown "successful and spontaneous" and demanded central intervention on the Gorkhaland issue. However, the state government claimed the attendance in government offices was normal, but called the disruption "suicidal".
On the other hand, police claimed the situation was "peaceful".
The shutdown call given by the GJM was mainly targeted at the central and state government offices, and those of the hill development body, Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. Educational institutions and transport were kept outside its purview.
The violence began early in the morning with the torching of Block Development Office (BDO) in Darjeeling's Bijanbari, allegedly by a group of GJM activists.
Three GJM workers were arrested after the incident. Several others were detained.
"The situation is under control. Three persons have been arrested for trying to incite violence. We have detained a few people also," a senior police officer said.
In the afternoon, the PWD office in Darjeeling town was allegedly set on fire, while another BDO in Darjeeling district's Pulbazar was vandalised by pro-Gorkhaland activists.
A hydro project in Sonada -- a small town around 17 km from Darjeeling -- was ransacked by the shutdown supporters, who also forcibly shut a panchayat office at Sukna.
However, police rushed in and reopened the panchayat office.
The famous Toy Train service -- the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which figures on the Unesco Heritage list -- was kept shut considering the possible security threats to tourists, a railway official said.
"There are no major incidents of violence. But we are on alert because there are many offices in the area. Our forces are patrolling and picketing everywhere," a senior district police officer said.
To avert any ugly turn of events, massive security arrangements have been put in place at all important roads and public offices.
Six columns of army have been deployed in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong towns since Thursday.
The state police, along with the CRPF and combat force personnel, were seen manning the important and critical points in Darjeeling, wearing protective body armour and helmets.
"The shutdown is successful. It is a spontaneous shutdown. The people of the hills have made it a success," GJM General Secretary Roshan Giri told IANS.
"We want central government's intervention and concrete steps on our long-pending demand for Gorkhaland," he said.
Denying any role of the party in violence targeting government offices, Giri said: "Had we wanted, we could have stopped all offices by rallying thousands of our supporters."
State Tourism Minister Gautam Deb said the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had instructed the state administration to "combat the shutdown".
"The attendance in the government offices was normal. This is a suicidal shutdown. Our government and particularly our Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has instructed the administration to combat this illegal shutdown," Deb said.
The minister said efforts are on to ferry thousands of stranded tourist out of the hills.
"So far 45 buses, small, medium and large, have been operating to ferry stranded tourists to the plains in Siliguri and to the nearest airport (Bagdogra) and railway station (New Jalpaiguri).
"There are still thousands of tourists there. We appeal to tourists not to panic, as we have stepped up security measures for them. Hotels and shops are still offering their services," Deb told IANS, but could not give approximate number of the stranded tourists.
Besides pressing for Gorkhland, the GJM has accused the state government of "high-handedness and committing atrocities" on the people of hills.
The party is also protesting what it calls the state government's "attempt" to impose Bengali on the Nepali-speaking people of the region, even though Banerjee has asserted there are no such plans for the hills.
Although the party had on Saturday announced that tourism would be outside the ambit of the movement, a day later GJM chief Bimal Gurung "advised" tourists to leave the hills, saying the situation could deteriorate.