|The Chowk Bazar area in the heart of Darjeeling town on the first day of the “janata curfew”. (Suman Tamang)
Aug. 13: Mamata Banerjee today opened a new front in the battle in the Darjeeling hills by initiating the process of cutting the pay of government employees who stayed away from work during the strike that started on August 3.
Chief secretary Sanjay Mitra said at Writers’ Buildings: “We have sent the necessary order to the district.”
The order sent to the Darjeeling district authorities to deduct salary and leave in three sub-divisions — Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong — will affect a large majority of the over 20,000 employees who took part in the strike called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha.
Sources said that more than 95 per cent government employees were absent during the strike days. An order, released on February 22 last year, in which it was announced no government employee would be granted leave on a bandh day, was reissued.
The move was seen by the Morcha spearheading the statehood agitation as another hostile act, adding to the conflict that arose in the day over naming a new chief executive to the body administering the hills.
Bimal Gurung, the Morcha chief, had resigned as the head of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) Sabha at the beginning of the movement, stirred into action again by the announcement of a separate Telangana state.
The Morcha had more or less decided to install 86-year-old Brikhu Bhusal, a nominated member of the Sabha, to the post. But the government let it be known that Sabha members could not put a nominated member at the top as it went against the GTA legislation.
Morcha general secretary Roshan Giri said: “The state government will not be able to suppress the people’s movement by taking steps to deduct the salaries of its employees.”
On August 8, the chief secretary had asked the government employees in the hills to join their offices, warning that failing to do so would be liable for punishment.
Home department officials said the employees who did not attend work during the strike would be showcaused first and if they failed to provide an acceptable reason for their absence, pay would be cut.
Lack of transport will not be counted as a reason for not attending office.
An upper division clerk at the district collectorate said: “Senior bureaucrats from Calcutta should come up to the hills during bandh days and try and reach office without police escort. They should experience this first before taking decisions to cut our salary.”
Right from the start of the agitation the government had adopted a tough stand, refusing to negotiate till the Morcha called off the strike. Armed with a high court order ruling the strike illegal and unconstitutional, the chief minister threatened that the government would be forced to take action if it was not called off.
Given a situation where the two sides are set on a collision course, the decision to cut pay can have the opposite effect of stiffening the resolve of the statehood supporters. Darjeeling today wore the look of a ghost town with not a soul stirring in the streets, except security personnel, in response to the Morcha’s call to enforce what it called a janata curfew.