to Nabanna', face police crackdown (Eds: Adds inputs, collates related stories) Kolkata/Howrah, Oct 8 (PTI) Defying COVID regulations, a combative BJP mustered thousands of its workers on the streets of Kolkata and Howrah on Thursday for a march to the state secretariat over alleged worsening law and order, provoking a crackdown by police which left scores injured, eyewitnesses and officials said.
Several parts of the twin cities resembled battle zones, with police bursting teargas shells, drenching the agitators with gusting coloured water from fire engines and using batons to break up protests.
Several BJP workers and leaders were injured and also policemen as they clashed at several places, leaving on the streets broken barricades, smouldering discarded tyres, rocks and stones.
Over 100 BJP supporters were detained and action initiated against them for violating the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), which bars gatherings and political rallies attended by more than 100 people due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.
West Bengal has been witnessing a series of political killings ahead of the assembly elections due in April-May next year, including those of BJP workers.
The gunning down of Manish Shukla, a close aide of BJP's Barrackpore MP Arjun Singh, on Saturday, was the immediate trigger for the protests.
Though the protest march to 'Nabanna', the state secretariat, was called by the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the BJP's youth wing, top party leaders, including national general secretary and Bengal minder Kailash Vijayvargiya, national secretary Arvind Menon and state president Dilip Ghosh led the demontrations.
Tejaswi Surya, the sophisticated yet aggressive BJYM chief and Bengaluru South MP, was also present on the streets.
Instead of an integrated, single march, the saffron party had organised four in the twin cities where scores of barricades were erected by police to foil their attempts to reach the secretariat.
The authorities had declared the secretariat closed for two days from Thursday for 'sanitization' and COVID-19 regulations were in place to thwart any attempt to amass BJP workers and supporters for the protest.
As thousands of these men and women began marching towards 'Nabanna', they were confronted by state police and anti-riot Rapid Action Force (RAF).
National television showed protesters tearing down the barricades, some jumping over them, as security personnel in anti-riot gear attempted to repulse them.
Water cannos, teargas, and batons were liberally used to disperse the rampaging crowds that hurled stones and brickbats at police. In some place, police also fired rubber bullets to quell protests.
BJP president JP Nadda came out against the Mamata Banerjee government, all guns blazing, and asserted the workers of the saffron party have resolved to fight against her 'corrupt, violent and dictatorial' rule democratically to restore Bengal's lost glory and pride.
'The people of Bengal and the BJP will defeat her regime lock, stock and barrel. The BJP's struggle to save the rich glory of Bengal will continue,' Nadda said.
In a series of tweets, he said, the BJP stands with the people of Bengal, despite the 'brazen' misuse of state power.
'Our brave workers of BJP's Yuva Morcha compelled her to close the Secretariat. This is an admission that she has lost public confidence,' Nadda said.
The West Bengal government defended the police action, with the state's chief secretary insisting that the march was held without permission.
'It was also held in violation of the permissible parameters of the Pandemic Act,' Chief Secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay asserted.
He rejected the claim by some BJP leaders that the protesters were sprayed with chemical-laced water. He insisted water cannons pumped out colours used during Holi so the trouble makers could be identified later.
'It is an international practice. Coloured water is used during such agitations so that people can be identified after they have been dispersed,' he said.
Thick plumes of smoke from discarded tyres that the protesters set on fire to block traffic blackened the sky and streets were littered with stones. Shops and other business establishments hurriedly downed their shutters during the skirmishes.
For over three hours, police and protesters played cat and mouse on the streets of the two adjoining cities.
A BJP activist was arrested with a loaded pistol. The BJP claimed he was the personal security officer of a party leader and was carrying a licensed handgun.
Tejaswi Surya demanded an inquiry by the Union Home Ministry into the alleged use of chemical-laced water on protesters, calling it a 'gross violation of human rights'.
Senior state party leader Raju Banerjee, MP Jyotirmoy Singh Mahato and national secretary Aravind Menon were among those injured. Banerjee was shifted to a hospital.
BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya and national vice-president Mukul Roy staged a sit-in at Hastings-Khidderpore crossing in Kolkata after they were prevented from marching further amid chaotic scenes.
'We were holding a peaceful march, but police action turned it into violent agitation. The police and TMC goons attacked us. It's all happening because of the dictatorial attitude of Mamata Banerjee,' Vijayvargiya told reporters.
According to state BJP sources, the BJYM's 'March to Nabanna' was part of its seven-point charter of demands ranging from alleged corruption to unemployment and law and order.
Chief Secretary Alapan Bandhopadhyay lauded police for having brought the situation under control with patience in the face of provocation.
'Today was a black day,' lamented Surya, as he alleged the state government 'murdered the rule of law'.
Dilip Ghosh alleged 'TMC goons' masqueraded as police and hurled bombs at BJP workers.
'The Pandemic Act comes into force only when BJP plans to conduct any rally or programme. When TMC conducts rallies and meetings, no rules are applicable,' he said.
The TMC leadership accused the BJP of trying to unleash anarchy and communal riots.
'The BJP proved yet again it is an unruly party. Can you tell me where in a political rally activists are found carrying guns. They want to fuel communal riots in the state,' state minister Firhad Hakim said. PTI PNT SCH JTR ACD SK SK SK