West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Thursday night accused the central government of "deploying the army" along toll plazas on the highway without informing the state government. She vowed not to leave the state secretariat building until the army was withdrawn from the toll gates.
Banerjee has also given a notice regarding the matter in both the houses of Parliament and her party, Trinamool Congress, also raised the issue in Lok Sabha on Friday.
"I won't leave unless the army is withdrawn from near the secretariat. I'll be there as a guard to protect democracy, to protect my democratically elected government," Banerjee told the media at the secretariat building Nabanna located in the Howrah district.
In a series of tweets, she vowed not to leave Nabanna till the army was withdrawn: "Army stationed in front of Nabanno, the Bengal State Secretariat in a high security zone, inspite of Police objection. I am waiting here at the Secretariat and watching... Until and unless the Army stationed in front of Nabanno, the Bengal state govt secretariat, is withdrawn. I will be staying at my Secretariat to guard our democracy."
The particular toll plaza the CM referred to is located at the foot of the Vidyasagar Setu, which is also called the second Hooghly Bridge, and is about 500 m from the secretariat building.
The Ministry of Defence, however, denied all allegations saying that the army was conducting its routine exercise with full co-ordination with the West Bengal Police, local media reported.
"The army conducts the annual exercise throughout the county with the aim of getting statistical data about the load carriers that could be made available to the army in case of a contingency," a defence ministry spokesman was quoted by the IANS as saying.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said: "The army had informed the West Bengal government. The drill has been on for some time. The original dates were November 28, 29 and 30, but were changed to December 1 and 2 later. It is the army's routine exercise that has been carried out for several years. It took place on November 19 and 21 as well."
The army also denied her allegations saying:
Army conducting routine exercise with full knowledge & coord with WB Police. Speculation of army taking over toll plaza incorrect @adgpi
— EasternCommand_IA (@easterncomd) December 1, 2016
Banerjee, however, rubbished the clarification claiming that it was a lie. "The National Highway Authority of India has all this data. They have records of the number of cars plying in each state, and through each highway."
She also tweeted saying: "Absolutely wrong and misleading facts by @easterncomd. We have great respect for you, but please please don't mislead the people."
The Eastern Command of the Indian Army, after midnight, said that the army had been asked to withdraw from the toll plaza near the secretariat building. "As far as the toll plaza at Nabanna is concerned, it may be understood that the requisite data had been gathered and therefore the army has been asked to withdraw from that specific point. They would be deployed elsewhere tomorrow," the command said. Banerjee also said that she had gathered information from Maharashta, Kerala, Odisha and Chhattisgarh and found that the "routine exercise" was "not being done anywhere."
"Why is it been done in Bengal? Is it because I am speaking for the people... They can ask the army to shoot me, I may live or die. But I will fight to give protection to my democratic government," she said, adding that the army had been deployed in all other districts except South 24 Parganas without taking the state government into confidence. She said it was a "move against the constitution" aimed at "disrupting governance."
Banerjee said: "The secretariat "Nabanna" is a sensitive zone. The toll plaza on the second Hooghly Bridge is within the sensitive zone. It is under our secretariat."
She compared the situation to a military coup and said that "the motive is political, vindictive, unconstitutional, unethical and undemocratic." "I don't know what they may do at night. So for the people's sake I will stay put here (Secretariat) at night," Banerjee said. Several ministers also stayed at Nabanna past midnight.
The CM said that the army refused to budge even after the city police informed them about the state government's objection to their presence at the toll plazas. She claimed that the army was collecting money from people at the toll counters and claimed that it was a "loot."
However, the Army has denied allegations that they took money at toll counters asking the state government to "show proof" of money being collected from the public.
Banerjee had said, on Thursday evening, that the chief secretary would write to the Centre while she would talk to President Pranab Mukherjee about the alleged deployment of the army at the Dankuni and Palsit toll plazas on National Highway 2 (connecting Delhi and Kolkata), IANS reported. "Army has been deployed in the state without informing the state government. This is unacceptable. Federal structure has been disrupted and democracy twisted. Has Emergency been declared?" she asked.
Banerjee added: "Even if the Army carried out a mock exercise, the state governmentshould have been kept in the loop. If this is happening in a civil area in Bengal, this could happen in Bihar, next in Uttar Pradesh, then in Tamil Nadu and other states as well. It is a very serious situation and it is dangerous than Emergency. We are facing an extremely black day... I'll urge all state governments to look into the matter. A team of Opposition... all political leaders... will meet the president (soon)."
The defence ministry spokesman said that the exercise was being carried out according to government orders and that there was "nothing alarming about this." "The army is carrying out it's routine exercise in all states of the eastern region including West Bengal. Permission for carrying out this exercise in West Bengalwas initially sought for November 28 on specific request of the police the date had been shifted to December 1. No permission has been withdrawn so far," the spokesman said.
Routine exercise in all NE states. In Assam @ 18 places, Arunanchal@13, WB@19, Manipur@6, Nagaland@5, Meghalaya@5, Tripura & Mizoram@1@adgpi — EasternCommand_IA (@easterncomd) December 1, 2016
However, the Kolkata police claimed that they had given their objection in writing.
"Army exercise at Toll Plaza was objected to in writing by Kolkata Police, citing security reasons and traffic inconvenience," the Kolkata police said on its twitter handle.