Hundreds of protesters on Sunday paraded with coffins containing the bodies of two men they claimed were killed in clashes with security forces in Darjeeling, as the hill resort reels from separatist unrest.
Nearly 50 people, mostly police, have been injured in riots and arson attacks that have rattled the picturesque hill station for more than a week and caused thousands of mostly Indian tourists to pack their bags and flee.
As the violence escalated sharply on Saturday, the police said one man died and 35 policemen were hurt as protesters torched cars and set upon security forces with knives, who responded with teargas and baton charges.
West Bengal Director-General of Police Anuj Sharma said the dead man appeared to have been shot but the circumstances were still unclear. The police have denied using live ammunition.
But supporters of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) — a separatist movement that has long called for a separate state for ethnic Gorkhas in West Bengal — dispute this, saying three of their comrades were shot dead by the police in the clashes.
“Three of our comrades were killed and five were critically injured in police gunfire yesterday,” GJM’s general secretary Roshan Giri said.
Hundreds of mourners on Sunday silently escorted the coffins of two men through the streets of Darjeeling, waving India’s tricolour flag and posters calling for peace.
Holding aloft the tricolour, GJM youth members led the rally from Chawk Bazar, the famous lower market area on the Hill cart Road in Darjeeling, and passionately shouted pro-Gorkhaland slogans.
Shouts of “Police go back” and “Gorkhaland-Gorkhaland” reverberated through the picturesque hills of Darjeeling as some Gorkha activists claimed the protest has shifted from the political to the commoners’ movement in the hills.
“There are more than 15,000 people in the rally today. This is not just GJM. People of the hills have come together to demand separate Gorkhaland. Let’s see how far we can go,” a young woman protester said while talking to a television channel.
A spokesman for GJM said the body of the third alleged victim was in a hospital awaiting post-mortem.
State police strongly denied the charge that live rounds were used.
“The police did not open fire. Gunshots came from the other side,” Sharma said.
The upswing in violence began when police raided the homes and offices of GJM members, prompting authorities to deploy troops and riot police to patrol the streets of the famed tea-producing resort in eastern India. The troubles have dealt a major blow to the crucial tourism industry, leaving the normally busy destination deserted as shops, schools and banks closed.
Authorities on Sunday appeared to have blocked mobile internet services in riot-affected areas. Earlier, Home Minister Rajnath Singh appealed for calm, urging protesters to engage in dialogue with the state government.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the unrest as a “deep-rooted conspiracy”.
“There is a terrorist brain behind this hooliganism and vandalism. Only a terrorist and not a common man can do this,” Mamata told reporters in the state capital Kolkata on Saturday.