The wave of protests against Agnipath, the short-term recruitment scheme in the armed forces, reached Bengal on Friday as thousands of youths held demonstrations at different locations, including Siliguri.
The protests led to the cancellation of a number of trains from Bengal and the Northeast, leaving hundreds of passengers stranded. Roadblocks put up by the protesters brought traffic to a grinding halt in different parts of the state.
“The short service scheme is nothing but a ploy to deceive us…. We will resist it,” said a young man, who introduced himself as Anupam Maity, while leading a team of protesters at Thakurnagar in North 24-Parganas.
The agitators said after going through a process of rigorous training, a service period of just four years and an exit package of just around Rs 11 lakh was not enough.
“Our brothers are holding protests across the country and we have decided to join them to put pressure on the Narendra Modi government,” said a youth who was part of the demonstration.
Then, around 200 youths, most of whom introduced themselves as aspirants for jobs in the Indian armed forces, blocked the railway tracks at Thakurnagar station.
Around half a dozen local trains were delayed for hours.The agitators got into a scuffle with police who came to clear the blockade. Later, they took out a procession and reached the house of junior Union shipping minister Shantanu Thakur in Thakurnagar.
The minister, however, was not at home and the agitators left after some BJP workers promised to take up the matter with him. In Purulia, the police had to resort to a lathi-charge to vacate the Purulia-Barakar state highway which youths blocked for over two hours.Traffic was disrupted on the Kanchrapara-Barrackpore road for around 30 minutes.
The blockade was lifted after the police intervened. In Siliguri, the protests led to traffic congestion at a number of prominent thoroughfares for around five hours. The demonstrators numbering around 350 walked along busy roads, raised blockades at crossings, burnt tyres and went on shouting slogans.
Around 9.30am, they gathered at the Army Recruiting Office (ARO) in Salugara and launched a demonstration to demand that the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) —for the recruitment of soldiers — be conducted soon.
“We had attended the medical and physical tests at ARO on January 21 last year and were told two months later that we had to appear for the final tests. But in April, the test was postponed. On June 24, the Centre announced the new scheme and we came to know that all the previous tests had been cancelled. That is why we have resorted to demonstrations,” said Mahiyar Ali, a resident of Choukusi village in the Tufanganj subdivision of Cooch Behar district.
From Salugara, the youths took a rally and headed for the city. They moved through Sevoke Road and Bidhan Road — two busy thoroughfares in Siliguri —and hit traffic.
The demonstrators also raised a blockade at Panitanki More and then reached Hashmi Chowk, a prominent crossing. A section of the protesters then walked up to the Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das Flyover, set tyres on fire, sat down and continued their protests.
As a result, road connectivity to New Jalpaiguri station via this route was disrupted. They then headed towards NJP — the largest railway station in north Bengal and the second important station in the Northeast, prompting the police to stop them on the way.
Senior police officers spoke to them and took them to a vacant place beside the road. A delegation of the demonstrators was then taken to the SDO’s office where they submitted a memorandum.
The demonstrators dispersed then, but asserted that their protests would continue in the coming days.
The protests which are going on in the neighbouring state of Bihar have made the Northeast Frontier Railway authorities cancel three long-distance trains on Friday.
The trains were the Alipurduar Junction-Delhi Express, the Dibrugarh-Lalgarh Express and the Kamakhya-Anand Vihar Express. At least six trains, which were scheduled to leave Howrah were cancelled and many others were rescheduled because of the protests at different stations in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The Malda Town-Patna express, Asansol-Gorakhpur Express and Howrah Amritsar Mail are few among the cancelled trains.
The Delhi-bound Purba Express and Howrah-Lal Kuan Express waited for two hours at Burdwan station but later returned to Howrah.
“We are keeping a watch over the situation and will run the trains only when the situation becomes normal at some of the stations in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” said an official of the Northeast Frontier Railway.
Trinamul Congress spokesperson Kunal Ghosh said the protests were natural as the aspirants for jobs in armed forces felt cheated after putting in so much efforts for so many years.
“The central government is deceiving people, especially the youths,” he said. Former state BJP president and MP Dilip Ghosh alleged at political conspiracy behind the agitation. “It has to be inquired to see whether the protests are conducted really by ordinary job seekers or by goons enjoying political patronage,” he said.