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19 burnt alive in Bengal tea estate violence

By Marcus Dam

Kolkata Nov. 6. Nineteen people were burnt alive when a mob of nearly 400, mostly tea garden workers, set ablaze the house of a trade union leader in the Dalgaon tea estate in north Bengal's Jalpaiguri district this morning.

The bodies of the persons trapped indoors were charred, making it difficult for police to initially determine the number of the dead.

The West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said the incident was gruesome and raised serious concerns. The police were investigating the incident and senior police officials were at the spot, he said.

The violence was a sequel to a dispute between two sections of the estate's 1,500 or so workers over the filling of three vacancies for the posts of clerks.

An associate of Tarakeshwar Lohar, secretary of the Chabagan Mazdoor Union (the only union in the estate), fired at a 22-year-old youth, Sanik Kachua, as a group of people approached the former's house in the labour lines, the State's IGP (Law and Order), Chayan Mukherjee, told The Hindu.

As news of the attack on Mr. Kachua spread, tea workers emerged from their homes and, after converging outside the factory gates, headed for Mr. Lohar's house and set it on fire. Mr. Lohar was not at home then but 19 others who were indoors were trapped in the flames.

According to Mr. Mukherjee, the officer-in-charge of Falakata reached the spot around 8.30 a.m, and finding the house ablaze summoned the fire brigade. Soon the fire tenders reached the estate and doused the flames.

The police are trying to find out why the workers assembled in front of Mr. Lohar's house. Mr. Lohar is one of the 106 so far arrested. Mr. Kachua has been admitted to the Jalpaiguri hospital. Three others were also injured.

Sources in Jalpaiguri said that tension had been simmering among the workers over the past few days following differences between two sections over the filling of the posts.

While one group insisted that appointments be given to those from the families of garden workers residing in the labour lines, the other, led by Mr. Lohar, said that people from outside should also to be considered.

The bitterness among the rival groups had turned acrimonious recently, climaxing in today's incident.

UNI reports from Jalpaiguri:

The IGP (North Bengal), Bhupinder Singh, said that all the victims, including two women, were CITU activists.

There were conflicting reports about the incident. While one said the mob caught hold of Mr. Lohar's followers and threw them into the fire, others said the followers who were inside the house were not allowed to come out after the house was set afire.

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