India came face to face with a political tipping point as protests in several cities, especially here in the capital, over the gang rape of a 23-year-old last week turned into a clash with the police.
Frustration and anger against the condition of public transport, the treatment of women and delays in the system of justice spilled out first as an entirely spontaneous congregation at Raisina Hill, India Gate and Jantar Mantar.
Awed by the turnout, political groups tried to be an interface between the protestors and the government. Some boys and girls met Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But the talks came to nothing and East Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit was roughed up as he tried to talk to the mob. Other leaders were booed away and the protest grew chaotic, in a complete vacuum of leadership or direction.
Although Delhi Police reinforced its presence and reconfirmed Section 144, which prevents the assembly of more than four persons, the crowd was having none of it. The police got more aggressive as the day wore on, in its effort to protect public property. Towards the evening, damage to vehicles and violence took over as the movement was infiltrated by anti-social elements.
There was no connection between what the protestors seemed to want and what the government was offering. A large number of people wanted the alleged rapists to hang, unmindful of whether they got a trial or not. Others said they were angry at patriarchy and the oppression of women generally.
“Sonia Gandhi told us that I am with you. She said the law and order situation would change very soon and the victim would get justice very soon. She said Sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 201 (tampering or falsifying evidence) of the penal code would be added to the charges against the accused,” said a protester who met the UPA chairperson but didn’t want to be named.
Although Gandhi didn’t give any time frame for the action against the accused, she told the protesters the Union government would take strict action. “We assured the students this case will be fast-tracked, will be included in the ‘rarest of the rare’ bracket,” said R P N Singh, minister of state for home affairs.
President Pranab Mukherjee was in touch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and conveyed to him that Rashtrapati Bhavan would do nothing to intervene or interact with the boys and girls in any way. The city government’s ministry had an emergency meeting, as the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party got into action on the fringes of the protest.
Worries for the government are mounting, as President Vladimir Putin arrived just before midnight for a day’s visit. The areas he will visit for meetings will be precisely the places where the angry protests are going on.
Meanwhile, Prime Minster Manmohan Singh said in a press release: “We are all joined in our concern for the young woman who was the victim of a heinous crime in Delhi. There is genuine and justified anger and anguish at this ghastly incident. Let us all pray for her and her loved ones during this critical time. I feel deeply sad at the turn of events leading to clashes between protesters and police forces. I appeal to all concerned citizens to maintain peace and calm. I assure you that we will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety to all women in this country. I seek the cooperation of all sections of the society to help us in this endeavour and maintain peace.”