Presence of army personnel at toll plazas in West Bengal triggered a row with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee remaining at the state secretariat overnight in protest, asking was it an "army coup", drawing a a stinging condemnation on Friday from the Centre which said the remark showed her "political frustration".
The row also echoed in Parliament with Trinamool Congress seeing "sinister" designs behind the move and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar vehemently denying the charge, saying it was a routine exercise. Parrikar also said it was very unfortunate that army has been dragged into an "unnecessary controversy".
The Army on its part strongly rebutted Banerjee's allegations that its personnel were deployed at toll plazas without informing the state government and were collecting money, saying the exercise was being carried out in coordination with Kolkata Police. The Army personnel, however, had left the toll plaza near the secretariat on Thursday night.
TMC MLAs and ministers also staged a dharna outside Raj Bhavan in Kolkata.
Banerjee left the state secretariat in the evening after she spent over 24 hours and fired a fresh salvo at the Modi government.
Accusing the Modi government of making a "wrong and concocted" statement in Parliament regarding the deployment of Army, Banerjee said her voice could not be stifled by "hatching conspiracy and showing force".
Banerjee also said the state government will take legal recourse if there is no withdrawal of army personnel from all toll plazas in the state.
Speaking to reporters late Thursday night at 'Nabanna', the state secretariat in Kolkata, she said, "I will stay at the secretariat to guard our democracy".
"Is this a military coup?" she asked.
She said that army personnel were there in different districts like Murshidabad, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, North 24 Paragans, Burdwan, Howrah, Hooghly etc.
"The army is deployed without informing the state government. This is unprecedented and a very serious matter."
The issue was raised in both Houses of Parliament with main opposition Congress too seeking clarification on the army deployment at 19 toll plazas in West Bengal.
In the Lok Sabha, Parrikar termed the deployment a "routine exercise not unique to West Bengal" and saying similar operations to collect information on heavy vehicle movement that can be used during national emergencies had last month being conducted in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
Along with West Bengal, similar exercise was carried out in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram, Parrikar said while responding to TMC and Congress MPs.
He also stated that originally the exercise was planned for November 28-30 but was shifted to December 1 and 2 at the request of Kolkata Police as those dates were clashing with the protests against demonetisation.
"It is shocking that a chief minister is saying this. The Army's deployment was part of routine exercise which has been going on for several years, which has been going on for last 15-20 years. Even last year it was held on November 19 to 21. Concerned officials were informed in West Bengal. The original date was fixed for November 28 to 30 but due to Bharat Bandh the local police had advised the army to shift it to December 1 and 2," he said. "Due to traffic congestion, the exercise is being done with the help of local police."
TMC leaders in both Houses alleged that neither the state government, nor local administration including police were taken into confidence on the exercise or their permission sought.
The Congress and BSP too wanted to know from the government how such an unprecedented move to carry out an army exercise was done without taking state government into confidence.
"It was very unfortunate that army has been dragged into an unnecessary controversy," Parrikar said. "It was political frustration rather than projection of correct situation."
The Army also released letters written to the West Bengal government on the exercise.
"It is happening in nine states now across 80 locations," GOC Bengal area (officiating) Maj Gen Sunil Yadav said.
Reacting to Chief Minister's allegations on collection of money, he said, "We deny all charges with all contempt."
"Allegations of collection of money by Army personnel are also totally baseless," he added.
IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addresses a media conference on Army deployment at various places in the state, at Nabanna in Howrah near Kolkata on Friday. Photograph: PTI Photo