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Army shoots down Bengal call
State says still keen
Karuna Tigga, the lady home guard recuperating at a Jalpaiguri hospital, said on Wednesday that she was hit on the head thrice with a khukuri by a woman. “A woman hit my head with a khukuri. She hacked me thrice,” the mother of two said. Picture by Biplab Basak

Yelahanka, Feb. 9: The defence ministry is treating as “withdrawn” the Bengal government’s request to deploy the army in the Darjeeling hills after a firm refusal by the military force to get embroiled in civilian strife.

“My understanding is that Bengal has already withdrawn its request,” defence minister A.K. Antony, here to inaugurate the Aero India civil-military air show, said this afternoon.

“The police can handle the situation,” Antony told a media conference, but did not give details on why the Bengal government should withdraw the request its chief secretary, Samar Ghosh, confirmed had been made yesterday.

The Bengal government put out a nuanced version, insisting the request had not been withdrawn but adding that the defence force was not needed for the time being.

“The requisition for deployment of the army has not yet been withdrawn. It is still pending with the Union ministry of defence. The final decision on the requisition is yet to be taken,” additional director-general (law and order) Surajit Kar Purkayastha told The Telegraph this evening.

Mohan Gandhi, the district magistrate of Darjeeling, echoed him: “The requisition for army deployment has not been withdrawn. But at the moment, we don’t require the army.” Gandhi had said yesterday he expected the army to be deployed by this morning.

In the evening, state home secretary G.D. Gautama said: “The army is still required. We will press on with the request.”

The Darjeeling hills remained peaceful today, barring a stray incident at Ghoombhanjan, near Ghoom, where a forest check-post was set on fire.

Sources in Bengal described the state government’s insistence as a face-saving effort. Other sources said that since the defence minister has spoken and if the situation does not spin out of control in the hills, only political intervention at the highest level could prompt any rethink now.

At Yelahanka on the outskirts of Bangalore, Antony confirmed with defence secretary Pradeep Kumar, seated next to him at the media conference, if the Bengal government had withdrawn its request.

Later, Kumar told this newspaper: “It is my understanding (that Bengal has withdrawn its request). Maybe the Union home ministry has sent additional (central police) forces.”

Antony was asked to clarify the Centre’s stand on the Bengal government’s request in view of his own position stated last month that the military should be used for internal security duties only as a last resort.

Last night, an army headquarters source had told The Telegraph: “Our professional opinion is we are not meant to control riots. Now it is up to the political leadership to decide if all resources had been exhausted and army deployment is the only option left.”

In a note in November, the army had explained how frequent deployment for internal security duties — its secondary role — hampers its training and preparation to meet external threats. The army explained that it was also stretched because of its continuous deployments in the Northeast and in Jammu and Kashmir.

Last month, on Army Day, the chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, had said that there was some concern that state governments often asked for troops to be deployed without using all the resources that they have. “The army cannot, can never, be used in the first instance,” he had said.

Darjeeling is a sensitive area. The army has a brigade headquarters in Darjeeling. Troops from the brigade, whose area of responsibility also covers a part of Sikkim, are posted on the border with China.

In addition, the army recruits a number of troops for its Gorkha battalions and special (para) forces from the Darjeeling hills. Nearly every family in the Darjeeling hills has or has had a soldier serving in the forces. The army would not like to be seen as pitted against people in the region that is a catchment area for recruitment.

Even so, a request from a state government to deploy the army is taken seriously. But Gen. Singh is clear on when and how his troops should be used for internal security. Just before taking over as the chief in March last year, he was the eastern army commander based in Fort William, Calcutta.

Army headquarters sources said that he has treated the request with the merit it deserves “and he is himself familiar with the situation”. Gen. Singh was also in Yelahanka today but was not available for comment.

A defence ministry source said the army’s view was communicated to the Union home ministry. Even during the peak of the Subhash Ghising-led GNLF agitation in the Darjeeling hills in the late eighties-early nineties, the army was not deployed.

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