Darjeeling, June 18: Bablu Das, a policeman in his early 30s, can barely open his left eye. A chunky stone hurled at him yesterday struck his left arm and the rebound grazed his left eye.
His arm is broken and the eye is painful and swollen. But the constable from 10 Battalion of the State Armed Police is happy to be alive.
Bablu had been with 20 others inside a police van around 11.45am yesterday when the vehicle was set on fire. The spot was barely 100 metres from the Singhmari office of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and a mob was raining stones, bricks, glass bottles and firebombs.
"Our driver was trying to manoeuvre the van ahead, but a Sumo was on fire in front of our van and we couldn't move," Bablu recalled from his hospital bed.
"When one of the tyres of our van was set on fire, we had no option. All of us jumped out. The stone landed right on my left hand and then grazed my eye."
Police personnel here are dismissive of the Morcha leadership's claim that theirs has been a peaceful movement but for provocation from the forces.
Bablu and his colleagues, deployed in Darjeeling since June 6, say they can't forget the 15 minutes inside the police van after Morcha supporters surrounded it. The mob was trying to prise the iron mesh off the windows with kukris.
"We were praying with folded hands inside the van but the mob tried to attack us from outside," said Bidhan Roy Paramanik, one of Bablu's colleagues from Jalpaiguri.
"Iron pellets hurled from slings were landing on top of the van. We held on to our shields and kept wondering: What if a petrol bomb lands inside?"
Morcha supporters had taken over Singhmari yesterday afternoon after senior officers left the area with the bulk of their contingent to chase the mobs raining stones from higher ground. The remaining personnel on the Lebong Cart Road, including those in the van, were trapped.
It was only after the army was called in and began an area-domination exercise that the police could shift the injured to hospital. Some 28 policemen and policewomen from the spot have been admitted to the Darjeeling Government Hospital.
"Our superior officers should now sit together and work out a strategy to tackle such violent movements," said Asit Pal, assistant sub-inspector attached to Raiganj police station in North Dinajpur, who was at Lebong Cart Road yesterday but outside the van.
As soon as the mob began torching the van, Pal had held on firmly to the latch on its door so that the vehicle couldn't be locked from outside and set ablaze. He has saved some 20 lives.
The shower of stones hit his right leg. A big one landed on his left eye and gashed his nose. The bleeding has stopped but Pal said he couldn't see properly.
"I'm not sure who stands to gain from such violence. The horror of yesterday's experience will remain with me till death," he said from his hospital bed.