Kolkata/New Delhi : The army was out in Kolkata Wednesday as the city turned into a combat zone after protests over atrocities in Nandigram and Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen's stay in India made for a volatile mix, snowballing into arson and violence.
Several policemen were injured in clashes with the protesters in the centre of the city. Many vehicles, including ambulances, were set ablaze. So were local offices of the ruling party in the state. Commuters and schoolchildren ran helter-skelter for safety. The resultant traffic snarls left a large portion of the city choked.
An army spokesperson in New Delhi said military authorities had been asked for help and two columns of 100-120 soldiers each had moved out for a flag march at 3 p.m. in the West Bengal capital. Four more columns were set to move immediately afterwards.
"The state government has asked for six columns of military to bring the situation under control. The army would be deployed at different locations where the violence erupted," West Bengal Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy told reporters at the state secretariat, Writers' Buildings.
"About 60 people have been arrested so far. If needed, curfew might be clamped during the night but that decision would be taken later," he said, adding that protesters also set ablaze two local offices of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), one of them at Beniapukur, central Kolkata.
"We have heard that two party offices were attacked," CPI-M leader Shymal Chakraborty told IANS.
At least seven vehicles were also set on fire by the mob even as police fired teargas shells and baton-charged them at various places in the centre of the metropolis.
Police said the violence spread like wildfire in all directions across the area.
Trouble started when a protest programme organised by the All India Minority Forum (AIMF) to block roads over the issue of Nandigram and stay of Taslima Nasreen turned violent.
Thousands of AIMF members had gathered at crossings on major roads such as Sealdah railway station, Park Circus, A.J.C. Bose Road, Ripon Street and CIT Road.
The crowd went out of control when the police tried to intervene and stop the protesters from gathering together. The crowd went on a rampage and started throwing stones, soda water bottles and other missiles at the policemen.
Several media personnel from television channels were hurt in the stone pelting.
Deputy Commissioner (south division) of Kolkata Police Jawed Shamim was amongst those injured in the violent face-off.
"The DC (South) is injured but no one was injured seriously," Home Secretary Roy said.
"We gathered at different crossings to stage a road blockade programme in the city. I suddenly heard a section of protesters became furious and started throwing stones at the police.
"We have always tried to voice our protest in a peaceful manner and so I fear this is a sabotage," AIMF president Idris Ali told IANS.
"There might be some outsiders who intentionally caused this untoward incident in our protest. I have already instructed our men to maintain peace. I am rushing to the spot myself," Ali said Wednesday afternoon.
"The protest and road blockade programmes were called to voice our protest against the CPI-M-led West Bengal government's Nandigram policy and allowing Taslima Nasreen to stay here," Ali confirmed.
The violence had a cascading effect, leading to major traffic snarls during the morning rush hour several crowded areas near the central business district - including Sealdah railway station, Mallik Bazar, Alimuddin Street, CIT Road, Padmapukur, Moulali and Entally.
Opposition Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee appealed to all to maintain calm.
"I urge the people to maintain calm though this was not our programme. I also appeal to police to be patient in tackling such situations," she said.
"We strongly condemn this. How come (the) Taslima Nasreen (issue) became mixed up with Nandigram? This is highly irresponsible and violence to protest Nandigram violence is unacceptable," filmmaker Aparna Sen said.