A political war over the presence of armymen near Kolkata rocked Parliament on Friday with opposition parties accusing the Centre of trying to intimidate the West Bengal government and the BJP dismissing allegations.
The controversy broke out late on Thursday after West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced she would stay the night at the state secretariat after army officers were seen stopping vehicles just metres away at a crucial bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah.
Her party, the Trinamool Congress, repeatedly stalled proceedings in both Houses, demanding a response from the government and alleging that the army had been called at the behest of the Centre, in what they called a disruption of India’s federal structure.
They found support from the Congress and a number of other parties, who asked the government to clarify its role.
“Injustice is being done to the Bengal CM and this is a big attack on the Constitution. The army shouldn’t be politicised,” Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati told the Rajya Sabha, according to ANI.
The Congress, too, appeared to back Banerjee, saying the prime minister must clarify why state’s rights were being “impinged on”.
“It seems out of the way. The army doesn’t collect toll. There is no law and order issue in West Bengal for the army to be deployed?” Ghulam Nabi Azad was quoted as saying by ANI.
The BJP dismissed the charges with defence minister Manohar Parrikar expressing that a “routine exercise” had been made into a controversy. “It is a routine army exercise that has been carried out for many years,” Parrikar said.
“Bengal was taken into confidence, it happened last year and last to last year. Let’s not drag the army into controversy,” Union minister Venkaiah Naidu was quoted as saying by ANI.
The army has also issued denials, saying they didn’t collect toll and were present near Kolkata as part of a routine exercise that spanned several states.
“They’re only collecting data of heavy vehicles, this is an annual exercise carried out every year,” major general Sunil Yadav told reporters.
But the Trinamool wasn’t convinced, accusing the minister of state for defence of trying to mislead the House.
The party says this is to intimidate Banerjee, who has been the face of protests against the Centre’s move to scrap high-value currency – a decision which has seen millions of people line up outside banks and ATMs with the poor and small traders the hardest hit.
Late Thursday evening, Banerjee alleged the army was deployed at the behest of the Centre at two toll plazas, Palsit and Dankuni, on NH 2 without informing the state government.
The Trinamool says this move clearly violates the nation’s federal structure.
“Is the army authorised to collect funds from toll plazas? The Eastern command said this is being coordinated, police knows...this is untrue,” Trinamool parliamentarian Derek O’Brien was quoted as saying by ANI.