Both Houses of Parliament became a political battleground on Friday after the Opposition raised the issue of armymen posted at toll booths in Bengal, that both the armed forces and the government dismissed as a routine exercise.
"Allegations that Army personnel were collecting money at toll plazas is totally baseless," the Army said, even as Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar maintained that the Trinamool Congress was dragging the army into an "unnecessary controversy" because of their own "political frustration."
"A similar exercise was also carried out in Jharkhand, UP and Bihar from 26 September to 1 October this year," Major General Sunil Yadav told reporters.
They're only collecting data of heavy vehicles,this is an annual exercise carried out every year:Major Gen Sunil Yadav on WB army deployment pic.twitter.com/vX5LCpiIPR— ANI (@ANI_news) December 2, 2016
Earlier today, leader of TMC in Lok Sabha, Sudip Bandhopadhyay, told ANI that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's "life was in danger'.
"We want a clarification by the Defence Minister on army deployment in Bengal, we will be very vocal about this in both the houses. It is a grave situation when a Chief Minister is being continuously harassed and her life is in danger. Without intimating state government, the way they are operating the whole system it is unbelievable and it seems that some emergency is going to be proclaimed in West Bengal," he said.
"Suddenly it was seen that army are covering big important toll plazas and they are controlling bridges under the state government. Without intimating the state government, just near the secretariat of West Bengal government," he added.
A night of high drama was capped by Banerjee staying back at her office, Nabanna, overnight to protest the presence of armymen, allegedly without the state government's permission, at certain toll booths on national highways that run through her state.
"Is this a military coup?" she told reporters at midnight adding that "even for a mock drill, the army has to take the state's permission, and they have not."
Mamata, who does not have the easiest of relationship with the Centre, alleged that this was "an attack on the federal structure" by the Narendra Modi government.
After discussion on various state & national level issues in zero hour of Rajya Sabha, opposition creates uproar as question hour starts pic.twitter.com/u7schJEABL— ANI (@ANI_news) December 2, 2016
"I am the custodian of common people. So I can't leave them insecure. I will stay put here for the whole night and observe the situation," Banerjee told reporters at around 1:30 AM. She said that armymen were present in 18 other districts in the state.
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.
At one point, TMC MP in Rajya Sabha, Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, asked his fellow parliamentarians to "shut up", prompting Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien to intervene and appeal for calm.
Parrikar termed it a "routine exercise not unique to West Bengal" and saying that 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, Meghlaya and Mizoram, he said while responding to TMC and Congress MPs.
"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."
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," Parrikar said.
The Minister said Army's Eastern Command has been carrying out the exercise in West Bengal, Assam and other North Eastern states and a similar exercise has already been carried out in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
This is baseless, we deny this charge: Major General Sunil Yadav on army collecting money from people at the toll counters in WB pic.twitter.com/ZUDI21weRH— ANI (@ANI_news) December 2, 2016
"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.
Congress and BSP too wanted to know from the government how such an unprecedented move to carry out an army exercise without taking state government into confidence was done. (Inputs from agencies)