KOLKATA (Reuters) - The army was called out to quell violent protests in Kolkata on Wednesday as new trouble broke out in a political row over the killing of villagers opposed to surrendering land for industry in Nandigram.
Soldiers with automatic rifles patrolled the heart of the usually bustling city after protesters hurled stones, shattered car and bus windscreens, burned vehicles and blocked traffic.
A night curfew was imposed in parts of central and eastern Kolkata as a precaution, authorities said.
It was the first time in years that the army had been ordered to bring peace to a major city, in what some analysts said was a major embarrassment to the state’s communist rulers who have been accused of failing to stop violence by their cadres.
The trouble began after a protest march called by the All India Minority Forum turned violent. Hundreds of demonstrators hurled stones and bottles at riot police in the narrow streets of central Kolkata.
Riot police retaliated by firing tear gas at the protesters and cordoned off the area to prevent the trouble from spreading, witnesses said.
“People were allowed to move in the streets with their hands on their heads. Many have been held up in offices,” Swati Ghosh, who works in the area, told Reuters by phone. “We hope the situation improves by evening.”
Parents said schools had been closed and children had been held back until peace returned to the streets.
Police said at least 40 vehicles had been damaged, including about a dozen set on fire, and about 50 protesters and policemen injured.
“The three-hour demonstration was more or less peaceful but a large number of unorganised people gathered,” said state Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy. “We will have to see whether there was a call to create trouble.”
West Bengal has been roiled by weeks of protests against the killing of villagers in Nandigram by suspected communist cadres in a turf battle that began earlier this year.
West Bengal’s ruling communists, who are allies of the coalition government at the centre, lost control of Nandigram earlier this year after trying, unsuccessfully, to get villagers to vacate their land to make way for a chemicals complex.
Local opposition parties and Maoist rebels moved in, and the area became a no-go zone for communists and police alike.
This month, communist party cadres forced their way back in. At least six villagers were killed in the violence, bringing the death toll so far this year to at least 34. Several women alleged they had been raped by communist cadres.
The latest trouble followed a two-day strike this week over the issue in West Bengal and the neighbouring state of Bihar, during which Maoist rebels blew up railway tracks, disrupted train services and blocked highways.
The All India Minority Forum said the demonstration was also aimed against West Bengal giving refuge to a controversial Bangladeshi Muslim woman author accused of criticising Islam in her books.
“It was a peaceful protest. I don’t know how this turned violent. We are clueless,” said Idris Ali, chief of the forum, adding that some protesters had said police provoked them.
The Kolkata violence disrupted the national parliament in New Delhi as angry lawmakers shouted their communist counterparts down in the Rajya Sabha, forcing an adjournment for the day.
The trouble coincided with a Lok Sabha debate on the violence in Nandigram.
“The ruling left front has failed to protect the people of Nandigram, the people are terrorised by the left parties,” said opposition leader L.K. Advani, referring to the government of West Bengal, the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist government.
“We are witnessing the end of communist rule world over and Nandigram will be a turning point in the politics of West Bengal,” he added.
Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar and Nigam Prusty