KOLKATA: One police officer was killed and four others were injured Friday in a gunfight with suspected separatists in Darjeeling, the famous tea-growing region of eastern India that has been roiled by protests in recent months.
Police said the shootout followed a pre-dawn raid on a forest hideout used by members of the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), a regional party agitating for a separate state for the Gorkha ethnic minority.
They were searching for the head of the party Bimal Gurung, who has been on the run since government prosecutors brought terrorism charges against him over a 104-day protest that crippled the region and left nearly a dozen people dead.
"A sub-inspector of the state police died and four were injured in cross-firing between the police and Gorkha Janamukti Morcha supporters loyal to Bimal Gurung," said Anuj Sharma, additional director general of police for the eastern state of West Bengal.
Tensions flared in the picturesque hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal in June when the state government announced it was making the Bengali language mandatory in state schools.
That angered the state´s roughly 1.8 million-strong Gorkha population, who speak Nepali.
Gorkhas have campaigned for decades for a new state of "Gorkhaland" within West Bengal, claiming Bengali-speaking outsiders have exploited their resources and imposed their culture and language.
The latest protests severely affected production of Darjeeling tea, regarded as some of the world´s finest, as workers failed to turn out for the harvest.
Around 57,000 people are employed on estates in the hills of Darjeeling, which produces between eight and 10 million kilos of tea every year.
The protests ended on September 27 when the GJM agreed to hold talks with the state government.
But Gurung has told local media he will address his supporters on October 30, urging local people to take to the streets on that day.