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24 December 2012

Almost A Jallianwala

But it was a manifestation of the "functional anarchy" that India is known to be, which unravelled in central Delhi this week, as non-violent demonstrators bore the brunt of a frustrated police force

I am managing to write this post with immense difficulty in typing as my right hand that received a big blow from a policeman's lathi last evening is reluctant to cooperate in this necessary exercise of reporting the eyewitness account. I was surrounded by five Delhi Police and RAF personnel who dealt massive blows all over my body in a fit of rage even as I kept screaming that I was a peaceful protester exercising my democratic right. I am not joining the demonstrations today because a few more hits in the same parts of the body will render me motionless, while I am entrusted with the task of organisation building.

The day before yesterday, 22 December, we were squatting around the canopy at a distance of about half-a-kilometre from North Block where Rajpath ends, in the evening, with many fellow activists taking turns to deliver speeches outlining the problems with the society in general and the legal recourse in particular. Specifically, our demand was to the Members of Parliament to convene a special session to enact an effective law against the scourge of sexual and other attacks on women,

At a distance along the walls of the North Block, there were many demonstrators holding placards, demanding justice for the victim of the horrible gang-rape that was perpetrated on a young paramedic student Sunday night. Apparently, they did not have a leader. Going by the faces, they looked young enough to be students of universities. Going by the lingo, they all hailed from upmarket locales of the city who are normally not given to expressions of public outrage. This was obviously their first venting of frustration at the lack of adequate security for women in the Delhi society.

Mix of confusion and fear as the police attack unprovoked
A while later, some cops emerged from the ramparts and walked in a queue along the walls near the Parliament House. Immediately, hurling of expletives and invectives followed from the side of the young, leader-less protesters. The landscape there is so spic and span that no miscreant, even if s/he wanted to, could lay her/his hands on rocks lying here and there, and hurl it at the policemen. At the most, there could have been some half-empty mineral water bottles. Yet the provocation of abuses and innocuous plastic bottles was enough for the law enforcers to retaliate. They rushed towards the Rajpath corridor to Rashtrapati Bhavan, holding sticks high and beat up whoever came their way indiscriminately. My left thigh received a blow even as I was updating my Facebook status via mobile.

A while later, Vishnu Som of NDTV was caught with his pants down as the assembly of protesters stopped him mid-way into his act of concocted reporting, wherein he was claiming the police had to take recourse to violence because of ample provocation from the demonstrators. The heckled reporter perhaps still suffers from the hangover of the 1990s when his employer was a production house making programmes for Star News, where unfettered pro-establishment apologism of the presenters and wanton heckling of all representatives of the opposition ruled the roost.

Punishment disproportionate to the 'crime'
Later at home I came to know that some protesters had turned unruly earlier that morning. Scenes of stone-pelting one wonders where they got the rocks from were played on TV. The question that arises from the day's events is whether the police, an instrument of the state, is supposed to be a tool of wanton retribution. When the violent lumpen elements of the morning could easily be separated from the peaceful demonstrators of the evening, what was the need for the lathicharge?

The next morning, we heard demonstrations were allowed at India Gate, though all Metro routes approaching the venue were sealed by the authority. I took an auto-rickshaw to reach the spot, which took a tortuous route, circumventing all the police barricades on the way. It dropped me at the crossing of Ashoka Road and Firozshah Road.

Virility of the impotent
As I walked towards India Gate, encountering inquiries from stray policemen as well as battalions on the way, who made me move in thoughtless directions, I came across a group of young and middle-aged women exclusively women, mind you wailing in pain at the junction of Rajendra Prasad Road and Ashoka Road. They were howling in protest for being mercilessly beaten with sticks for doing as much as raising women's lib slogans damning the establishment. Some senior policemen were trying to placate the protesters in vain and the rest of the armed force was cutting sorry faces as the women questioned the sheer impotency in the execution of brute state power on unarmed, dignified lady citizens.

Leaving this ramshackle car unattended was a ploy
The scene near Hyderabad House on the circumference of India Gate appeared like a prelude to a genuine people's movement, which switched from a ruckus to organised demonstrations. There was a short-lived sign of the authority's intelligence as it had left a long-abandoned, vintage police jeep on the spot on which some ruffian-like elements were venting their anger, smashing it with sticks. Student demonstrators, who were otherwise conducting a signature campaign against atrocities on women, were pleading with the unwashed masses for restraint, but to no avail. As the vandals quietened, several members of the recently established Aam Aadmi Party (of which this blogger is a member) made people sit in circles on the road. Anguish-ridden speeches of women, whose female kin had tales of woe to tell, followed, interspersed with Kumar Vishwas's ample display of oratory skills and Gopal Rai's revolutionary demagoguery; the latter has interestingly developed in his political philosophy an engaging mix of nationalistic, non-violent ideals suffused with the training in communism he received during his formative years.

The speeches and slogans continued for about two hours after which boredom must have got the better of the leaders of the congregation. They mooted the idea of walking up to Rashtrapati Bhavan in a queue, or holding hands. Unfortunately, neither order could be maintained for long, as the crowd marched, brisk-paced, towards their just-assigned destination.

Barely a kilometre away, there was a police barricade from where tear gas shells started being lobbed before the procession could reach the cordon. In no time, some delinquents retaliated with stone-pelting. I saw a big rock land on a cop's helmet. The Delhi University students around me identified three of the fiends as members of the National Students' Union of India, the Indian National Congress-affiliated students union. For me, a veteran of street protests since my Calcutta University days, this was plausible. Those days, as a sympathiser of the Congress, I had witnessed many a peaceful protest gone awry by similar machinations of the SFI and DYFI whenever the Chhatra Parishad organised a march to the Writer's Building.

I maintained my calm and walked gently, separated from the crowd. My calmness sent across the intended message to the beleaguered policemen, more so as they observed me taking care of the fallen demonstrators on the way as much as the cops who were hurt. I expressed dismay to the men in uniform as to why no ambulances were arranged for in anticipation of the day's events.

Quietly then, I walked to the Press Club and saw another band of about a hundred students leaderless again who were sloganeering with gay abandon. Police presence on this stretch was negligible. An NDTV OB van lay vacant and a reporter from a Telugu broadcaster was heard narrating incidents that unfolded before him on camera in front of Krishi Bhavan. I walked up to Rail Bhavan where I witnessed a subdued group, fear writ large on their faces, holding aloft placards that had messages to shame male chauvinists and government alike, with a reporter of a Bengali news channel interviewing them.

Till then, I had no clue as to where my fellows from the party were. I rang up two of them and learned that they had reassembled near Amar Jawan Jyoti. On reaching the venue again, the scene I witnessed would warm the cockles of any middle class citizen's heart that laments the numbness of the citizenry at large towards a callous administration not living up to the expectations of a modern democracy. A somewhat jarring note was struck by some hangers-on who made a bonfire of the wooden logs used for fencing the lanes of the India Gate lawn.

They perhaps looked like terrorists to the authority
The largest assembly was one exclusively of women. Some rather intelligent speeches emanated from the congregation. At a short distance, members of All India Students' Association, the students' wing of the CPI-ML (Liberation), were singing ham honge kAmyAb and its English version, "We Shall Overcome". Separated from them was the group called Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, demanding capital punishment for rapists. Almost a similar sentiment was being expressed by members of Bharat Swabhiman at the other side of the monument that resembles L'Arc de Triomphe of France. Overall, the people numbered about 10,000.

The Aam Aadmi Party's presence was in abeyance, respecting the critique from some political observers that the issue of rape should not be politicised. We were all instructed to stay scattered deliberately. Even during the morning dharna, some media persons had sniffed out the presence of a familiar Arvind Kejriwal and a known Yogendra Yadav; they had not invited them for sound-bytes. The police cordon in the evening was along the periphery of the lawns. All demonstrators, cutting across organisational and non-organisational lines, were absolutely peaceful as cameras hovered over the entire stretch.

Reminded one of Brig Gen REH Dyer's forces
It, therefore, took us by surprise when the police cordon began reducing its radius and approaching us menacingly. Soon the water cannons were unplugged. The heavy sprays did not spare even the television cameras and other equipment. Journalists who thought they were immune to the proceedings were in for a rude shock, as the policemen bashed them up with sticks deliberately. These semi-educated hooligans in uniform perhaps never watch TV, as was evident from the way many known faces on the screen as much as those citizens who were wholly non-violent were roughed up with impunity.

As I approached Tilak Marg to go back home, I found a constable limping badly. I made him lie on the pavement and massaged his bruised left knee that was apparently hit by a rock. Grimacing with pain, he wondered why the people were angry at them even after the quick arrest of the accused in the Sunday gang-rape case. I thought it was futile to explain to him that the outburst was not about this case alone; that people wanted to live safe for all times to come. I requested his officer to take him off duty and inquired if their van at least had some first-aid kit to take prompt care of the injured. The officer put up a silly smile in response.

Not entitled to protest
Tilak Marg was dimly lit. Dispersed demonstrators and pedestrians who were clueless where to catch the bus from were walking along the stretch maintaining quite some distance from each other. There was absolutely no signal from them that they could run amok any time. Some moaning was heard from a shelter on the way; some people peeped out of it and pleaded for an ambulance while a woman, whose son was whining, broke down. The young boy had fractured limbs. I came out of the shelter to seek the police's help.

What I got in return, after a few cops pleaded helplessness, was an entire batallion unleashed on me. Fortunately, the winter clothes I had on cushioned the blows on my back and chest. But when a lathi was about to land on my head, I raised my inadequately protected right hand in reflex action, which bore the impact of the hit. The mad cops relented after a while as the rest of the batallion had rushed away in search of more 'hunts' to whet their appetite for retaliation (to what?).

Pendant le roi, le déluge
The swollen right hand was difficult to carry all the way to ITO where I could finally get a bus after some waiting. I would place it once in the trousers' pocket and once in the jacket's, but the pain simply refused to recede.

When at home, I heard on television police authorities issuing appeals of calm and was amazed by the rank inanity of the act. Did those at the helm presume there were large TV screens installed at the sites of protest, from where the demonstrators could get the message? Why did no armoured vehicle take rounds of the arena, fitted with a loudspeaker, making appeals to the people to withdraw their demonstrations as all their demands had been 'met'? This much was expected even if the Nero and Louis XV of 10 Janpath and 7 Race Course Road were too scared to make a public appearance. If the Madame de Pompadour in the Congress dispensation is acting smug, declaring, "Après moi, le déluge," she must note, le déluge est déjà là.

Media reports told us that several policemen were injured in the skirmishes of the day, and one cop was battling for life. In hindsight, I could rationalise the embitterment of the police, which went berserk. It happens to men both in the police and the army that they retaliate indiscriminately when their fellows are hurt. But the buck stops at the Union Home Ministry that governs Delhi Police, controls CRPF and manages RAF action in the national capital region. If they say the police's unmeasured action was justified, they are lying or have been misreported. If they say the junior men in khaki and blue acted on their own volition which they won't, but which may well be trueyou know why India is called a functional anarchy.

All that was mercifully missing on the site of the state-sponsored rampage in central Delhi was a well in the middle of the India Gate lawns. You know how the panic-stricken crowds would have reacted if you have read about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

When I narrated the day's incidents to my wife, she asked why I did not hit back the policemen though I was physically disposed enough to do so. I explained to her it would have justified the otherwise unjustifiable barbarism of the police. My four-year-old son, in the meantime, has begun sounding like a rebel with a cause though I consciously kept him away from all discussions of the state of affairs of the country I used to engage my wife in before he was born. The little one has strangely started finding news broadcasts more interesting than entertainment programmes on television. I shudder to contemplate the end of innocence of the upcoming generation, if similar things are happening in other households as well.

The blogger's right hand
I am still explaining to myself this chaos is not my kind of a revolution. I am still a disciplined worker of a political party whose national convenor is a Gandhian to the core. Till I am here and until all the democratic options are exhausted, I will adhere to the principle of non-violence. We are at the stage in today's Mahabharata where some Krishnas have gone as emissaries to Hastinapura, today's Lutyen's Delhi, to plead with them the case for peace a deal of returning a mere five villages (some democratic concessions) to the ordinary citizens of the country, who are now in the shoes of the Pandavas, in lieu of the Indraprastha usurped by a bunch of Kauravas, the established political parties led by the ruling Congress. The time for Kurukshetra has not yet come. If and when it does, the brains that will open the final frontier will not be such snafus in their approach. That strategy, of course, cannot be revealed as of now. Let's pray democracy and peace in the form of an electoral victory of the hassled ordinary citizens of India, followed by a slew of indispensable reforms in the judiciary, the legislature and the executive succeed.


Durga said...

With this incident, the youth of this country must have realized the importance of politics. Why all these chaos are happening? The ignorance, the " I hate politics " one liner of the citizens, civics is dry so also politics; a notion propagated by the academically educated class altogether has lead to the sad state of affairs of the nation.

What is even more disheartening is the lack of collective social responsibility prevailing in our society. In the Delhi gang rape case, both of them were lying naked on the road. There were onlookers, others who traveled through that way, the police also said there was a female who was wearing a pull over..And none thought of covering them? I am ASHAMED!

Surajit Dasgupta said...

I was shocked and pained to hear the tragic news of policeman Subhash Chandra Tomar this morning. Whoever is guilty for his untimely death must pay for the crime. Those hoodlums have rendered a tremendous disservice to the cause of a genuine people's movement against official apathy towards citizens' safety and security.

Some miscreants from among the unwashed masses of the capital city had sneaked into groups of altogether decent protesters on 22 and 23 December. They were the ones behind all the instances of violence that marred the otherwise democratic exercise that the middle class was engaged in. They were amply assisted by elements of the Congress-affiliated NSUI that had infiltrated the protesting groups to sabotage the movement and give it a bad name.

Delhi Police must be pulled up for its poor human resource management, too. First, the provocation was always from the police's side; it's not clear whether the deceased cop succumbed to direct assault or one of the several instances of stampede caused by the utter stupidity of unprovoked police action. Second, the Delhi Police administration erred in putting such a staffer on duty who was not medically fit to serve on the given day. How does one explain that while unarmed protesters suffered no casualty despite heavy blows of the police's lathis and tear gas shells landing on their heads, a cop whose head is protected by a helmet and his body guarded from the shoulders to the waist with a hard shield succumbs to a few hits by bare hands and legs?

I was not on the spot where this particular condemnable incident occurred. I am basing my case on the general scene observed across central Delhi, where I did not come across a single policeman who was not sporting protective gear all over the body.

Once again, I condemn in strongest possible terms the hooligans who not only snatched away from an innocent family its sole bread winner but have also threatened to unduly change the public discourse from criticism of the government to criticism of even those demonstrators who were totally peaceful.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.