Parties hijack student protest

Imran Ahmed Siddiqui

New Delhi, Dec. 22: A peaceful and spontaneous protest by young students at the country's seat of power against Sunday night's bus gang rape turned violent this afternoon after it was hijacked by political parties and their affiliates.

Barricades were smashed, cars and two-wheelers damaged, and stones, water bottles, shoes and bangles hurled at police, who retaliated with water cannons, teargas and batons to drive the mob off Raisina Hill.

Most of the apolitical university students and schoolchildren ' some as young as Class V pupils ' who had marched in from India Gate around 9am had by then left Raisina Hill, which houses the Prime Minister's Office and Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Richa Ahuja, a clinical psychologist who participated in the protest with her mother and watched the vandalism, criticised the political parties for butting in for political gain.

"We do not need (Arvind) Kejriwal or Anna Hazare or any other parties. This is a spontaneous reaction for a cause," she said.

Eyewitness accounts suggested that most of the violence was instigated by 50-odd members of Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party, who arrived around noon led by Manish Sisodia and Kumar Vishwas. They sat in the middle of the road and asked those students who were still there to stay back.

Among the participants were members of politically affiliated student bodies such as the Students Federation of India (CPM), All India Students Association (CPI-ML) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (BJP). Also present were members of the Left-backed All India Democratic Women's Association.

They shouted slogans against the government and the police and tried to breach the barricades around 11.30am and advance towards Rashtrapati Bhavan. The mob smashed the windowpanes of three police vans before being pushed back with a mild baton charge, water jets and tear gas.

"Everything was peaceful till these political parties instigated the young students, seeing an opportunity to stoke anti-government sentiments," said a senior police officer.

The pitched battles continued till evening, when the police called for reinforcements and caned the crowd, sending it towards India Gate. A final baton-charge dispersed the crowd when it turned towards Parliament House.

The police later said 35 protesters and 37 personnel, including two senior officers suffered minor injuries, and the cops fired 125 tear gas shells. Thirty barricades were damaged, as were six buses, two motorcycles and decorative lights.

"A case of rioting and destruction of public property is being registered against unknown persons. Action will be taken ' their faces are clearly visible in the media footage," police spokesperson Rajan Bhagat said.

Street debut

Many of the protesters were taking part in a street demonstration for the first time, virtually stepping into a new world, reflecting the outrage and concern the brutality of the bus rape has engendered.

Asked if she had ever stood up for a woman being harassed on a bus ' an everyday occurrence in Delhi ' a 23-year-old said: "I mostly travel in a car; so I have not really encountered such incidents."

Ahuja, the psychologist, said: "I have helped women co-passengers several times. I did not beat the culprits but made them get off the bus."

Shalini, a Class VII student, said she and her classmates had come with permission from their teachers. "Our parents are very scared about our safety after the incident," she said. Many parents joined the protest with their young daughters.

Anita Rai, a BPO employee from Gurgaon, came with four female colleagues. "I have not gone to office since the incident came to light on Monday. We are scared that such brutality can happen to any of us," she said.

The protesters' main demands were exemplary punishment for the bus attackers and safety on the streets. They marched in groups holding placards that said "You can defend borders but not women"; "Let every girl arm for self-defence"; or "Take some action before we take some".

As emotions surged, some demanded the rapists be hanged in public, some wanted them castrated, and some demanded stoning to death.

Many people gathered at India Gate again after dusk to light candles in solidarity with the victim. Some vowed to return tomorrow to demonstrate.

To contain the flow of protesters near India Gate, the four nearest Metro stations will stay closed from Sunday morning till further orders, PTI said. These are the Patel Chowk, Central Secretariat, Udyog Bhavan and Race Course stations.

Victim's statement

The victim gave her statement to a sub-divisional magistrate at Safdarjung Hospital's intensive care unit in the afternoon, saying she wanted all the six attackers punished stringently. All six accused have been arrested.

"She has given a fearless and bold statement," deputy commissioner (south) Chhaya Sharma said. "She was so enthusiastic that she wanted to talk to me, but I told her she had to talk to another person (the magistrate)."

She said the victim's statement corroborated the version of her male friend who, too, was stripped and beaten brutally.