The Calcutta high court on Tuesday stayed the withdrawal of Central Armed Paramilitary Forces from Darjeeling hills, the scene of unrest over the statehood demand, till October 27, in a relief to the West Bengal government.
Hearing a plea by the state against the Centre's decision to withdraw CAPF from Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts, a division bench of Justices Harish Tandon and Debangshu Basak ordered an interim stay.
It asked the state government to move a regular bench of the high court when it reopens on October 23 after the Diwali holidays.
Appearing for the state, Advocate General Kishore Dutta prayed for status quo on the deployment of the forces. Altogether 15 companies of CAPF are deployed in the area. He said the matter would be mentioned before the Chief Justice on the first PIL day after the court reopens. The PILs are generally heard on a Friday.
He referred to the killing of a police officer a few days ago when Bimal Gurung-led Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters fired at the security forces hunting for him, to buttress the state government's claim about the need for continued deployment of CAPF.
The high court had while hearing a PIL on July 14 directed the Centre to deploy four more companies of CAPF in addition to the 11 already present in the hills then.
The advocate general submitted that as the deployment was made following an order of the high court which had also been endorsed by the Supreme Court the same day on another petition before it, the Centre cannot withdraw the forces unilaterally without the permission of the court.
The vacation bench on Tuesday directed the Centre to file an affidavit in response to the state government's plea by October 23. It asked the state government to file its reply to the Centre's affidavit by October 26.
The West Bengal government had written to the Centre seeking extended deployment of CAPF till December 25, but was told that out of the 15 companies present, 10 would be withdrawn on October 15 and the rest by October 20.
The state was later informed by the Centre that three companies of women CRPF personnel out of the 10 proposed to be withdrawn on October 15 would stay there till October 20, he said.
Dutta said the state government was making efforts to restore normalcy in the Darjeeling hills and that the withdrawal of forces at this juncture would seriously hinder the process.
Noting that the Centre's resources were limited, its counsel submitted that the forces were required for deployment in different parts of the country for other commitments including elections in some states.
Bipul Kundalia, counsel for the central government, claimed that the situation in Darjeeling hills had improved compared to what it was in July when the order on deployment of paramilitary contingents had been passed by the high court.
Noting that only the Himachal Pradesh Assembly election has been announced, the court told the Centre that it should have reasonable grounds for withdrawal of the forces.
When asked by the court about the Centre's assessment of the situation, Kundalia said it was for the state government to evaluate it.
Image: Security personnel patrol during GJM strike in Darjeeling. Photograph: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI Photo