Gorkhaland supporters on Monday vandalised government offices in Darjeeling as the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM)-sponsored indefinite shutdown forced tourists out of the picturesque hill station due to threat of violence.
The Mamata Banerjee government, with which the Gorkha outfit has been on a collision course over introduction of Bengali language in schools in the hills, however, claimed offices recorded "normal" attendance. The GJM leadership has called the government measure an "encroachment" on their distinct Nepali identity and culture.
"The people have defied GJM's diktat and attended office. We hope good sense will prevail on the GJM leadership," the state's tourism minister Gautam Deb said. He claimed government and GTA offices recorded normal attendance in Darjeeling and other hill towns in north Bengal including Kalimpong, Kurseong and Mirik.
Suspected GJM activists damaged a panchayat office and a PWD office in the hill and did picketing at some places in Kurseong and Kalimpong. The agitators burnt furniture, broke window panes and smashed computers at the PWD office in Darjeeling.
Police said eight GJM activists were detained for allegedly trying to set fire to the Block Development Office at Phulbazar in Bijanbari block.
GJM general secretary Roshan Giri denied his party's involvement in vandalisation of government offices. He, however, claimed the response to the "appeal" for the shutdown was "good".
"We could have enforced the bandh but we have not done that. We only appealed to the people," he said, adding "the state government may claim almost cent per cent attendance but that is not the case."
"We want central intervention. Our party chief has written to the prime minister and Union home minister to sympathetically consider our demand (for Gorkhaland)," Giri, whose party is an ally of the Centre's ruling NDA, said.
Since tourism forms the bedrock of the economy in Darjeeling hills, hotels, transport and markets have been kept out of the purview of the agitation. However, several hotels remained shut due to apprehension of violence.
In an indication that the agitation may escalate in the coming days, GJM president Bimal Gurung said, "It's better if the tourists leave as the situation is deteriorating."
The local administration, however, claimed the situation was "normal".
"The situation is peaceful here and everything is normal. Attendance in schools is also normal. We have taken all precautionary measures to prevent any untoward incident," Darjeeling District Magistrate Joyoshi Dasgupta told PTI.
Police pickets and barricades were placed in front of the government and GTA offices while Rapid Action Force (RAF), including a sizable number of women police personnel, were deployed, Dasgupta said.
She said the Army was present in the hills as a "backup".
The Trinamool Congress government had on Sunday asked all its employees in the hills and those of the institutions receiving grants-in-aid from it to attend office on all days till the agitation continues, warning that absence from duty will be considered a break in service.
Claims and counterclaims apart, there was a fragile peace in large parts of the hills on Monday. However, with the term of the current GTA coming to an end next month, the GJM appears intent on capitalising on the sensitive language issue, which it has dovetailed with the demand for Gorkhaland.
"The government has encroached on our identity, our language Nepali. We will never tolerate it," Gurung had said yesterday.