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In a sensational turn of events, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Thursday accused the Central government of "deploying the army" along highway toll plazas while keeping the state government "in the dark" and announced she would not leave the secretariat till the soldiers are withdrawn.
The Defence Ministry has denied the charge and elucidated it was an annual exercise conducted throughout the country for getting data about the load carriers to be made available to the army in contingency situations.
Rubbishing the Defence Ministry clarification, Banerjee said: "The person saying all this is lying. They say it is being done for collecting data. But the National Highway Authority of India has all this data. They have records of the number of cars plying in each state, and through each highway."
Banerjee, also supremo of the ruling Trinamool Congress, said she has taken information from Maharashta, Kerala, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
"This is not being done anywhere. Why is it been done in Bengal? Is it because I am speaking for the people," she asked.
"As I have said earlier, they can ask the army to shoot me if need be. I may live or die. But I will fight to give protection to my democratic government," she said at a late night media meet.
As the army units have been positioned at toll plazas in various districts like Howrah, Hooghly, Kolkata and Murshidabad, Banerjee said: "The secretariat "Nabanna" is a sensitive zone. The toll plaza on the second Hooghly Bridge is within the sensitive zone. It is under our secretariat."
"So unless the army is withdrawn from near the secretariat, I won't leave the secretariat. I will be there as a guard to protect democracy, to protect my democratically elected government."
Demanding to know whether a military coup has taken place, she said "the motive is political, vindictive, unconstitutional, unethical and undemocratic".
"I don't know what they may do at night. So for the people's sake I will stay put here at night," she said.
The Chief Minister said the Home Secretary, State Director General of Police, the Kolkata Police Commissioner were all present at the secretariat.
Banerjee said despite the city police commissioner informing the army about the state government's objection to their presence, the armymen were still standing at the second Hooghly bridge toll plaza.
"They have not yet responded. They are still there," she said.
Banerjee alleged that the army was taking money from the people at the toll plazas, and called it "loot".
Earlier, in the evening Banerjee said the Chief Secretary was writing to the Central government and she would approach President Pranab Mukherjee to seek clarification over the alleged deployment of the army at the Dankuni and Palsit toll plazas on National Highway 2 (connecting Delhi and Kolkata).
"Army has been deployed in the state without informing the state government. This is a very sensitive issue.
This is unacceptable. We do not know anything about it. It has never happened," Banerjee told the media here.
"We want details. Federal structure has been disrupted and democracy twisted. Has Emergency been declared? We had no information," she asserted.
Continuing her tirade against the Narendra Modi-led central government, she said: "Is it some kind of planning to start a war within the country? The road is ours and is administered under the state's law and order although it is categorised under the Centre's National Highway Authority of India.
She claimed public is being harassed and their vehicles are being stopped along the toll collection points.
"Even if the Army carried out a mock exercise, the state government should have been kept in the loop. The public is panicking. If this is happening in a civil area in Bengal, this could happen in Bihar, next in Uttar Pradesh, then in Tamil Nadu and other states as well. It is a very serious situation and it is dangerous than Emergency. We are facing an extremely black day," she said.
"I will urge all state governments to look into the matter. A team of Opposition... all political leaders... will meet the president (soon)," she added.
Soon after Banerjee made the sensational allegations, a Defence Ministry spokesman said there was "nothing alarming about this" and the exercise is carried out as per government orders.
"The army conducts the annual exercise throughout the county with the aim of getting statistical data about the load carriers that could be made available to the Army in case of a contingency," said the spokesman.
"The army is carrying out its routine exercise in all states of the eastern region including West Bengal. Permission for carrying out this exercise in West Bengal was initially sought for November 28 on specific request of the police the date had been shifted to December 1. No permission haS been withdrawn so far," the spokesman added.
"As far as the toll plaza at Nabanna is concerned, it may be understood that the requisite data had been gathered and therefore the Army has been asked to withdraw from that specific point. They would be deployed elsewhere tomorrow."
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)