I have just returned from India Gate in central Delhi where police and paramilitary forces fired tear gas and water cannon at peaceful demonstrators, spectators including families, and mobile television studios at around 5pm at the end of six days of country-wide mass protests sparked by the gang rape of a young woman last Sunday night and subsequent government and police indifference.
This irrational vicious action undermined work done during the day by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, as leaders of the Congress Party, to push the largely inactive and apathetic government into positive action and dialogue with representatives of the protestors. More than 140 people were injured in Delhi during the day , including over 80 from the security forces, one of them critically.
I was standing about 100 yards east of the India Gate monumental arch, chatting to a television crew, when two massive water cannon vehicles moved round the side of the gate and advanced on us, followed by lathi (long stick) charging police and security forces.
All around us hundreds of people – many of them young women – were clustered in groups, some singing and some listening to speeches on the theme of “Give us Justice”, while others watched television anchors and interviewers at work. Sellers of chai, sweet potato and other snacks were doing a brisk business.
No one expected that the security personnel, who were attempting to clear troublemakers a few hundred yards to the west, would come round the monument and move towards us. “Stay by our tv installation and you’ll be ok,” joked Jehangir Pocha of NewsX.
When it was clear that his television station’s trestle-table and equipment would not provide protection (click here for his live report), I turned and ran with the crowds till lathi charging police and paramilitary, lashing at anyone they could reach, caught up with us. It was then safer to walk back towards the enraged officials rather than appear to be running away, which is what I did with my hands half-raised saying “press, press”. The police dodged round me, wielding their lathis against whoever else was nearest.
Later, they continued irrationally to beat people, including women, mostly those walking or running on their own – a verbal instruction to leave the area would have been enough. The sound of tear gas shells going off nearby to deal with other demonstrators, including those fleeing from India Gate, could be heard for some time.
I have often watched police and paramilitary brutality in India (and other nearby countries) but I have never before literally been in the middle of it.
If US drones on the Pakistan border fuel anti-American feeling, the police and paramilitary Rapid Action Force (RAF) did a good job this evening of turning ordinary people against them. Like the drones, the police and RAF personnel did not care how many innocent peaceful people they injured in their attempt to clear some violent demonstrators.
Some action was certainly justified. There had been trouble throughout the day west of India Gate on Rajpath, which had been taken over yesterday by thousands of protestors in astonishing and unprecedented day-long demonstrations.
Today, several lines of security forces backed up by the water cannon vehicles formed a barrier to block entry to Rajpath from the India Gate concourse. For several hours they were literally face-to-face with rabble-rousers, almost all men, who taunted and provoked them.
Some tear gas shells were fired around 3pm, but an hour or so later the trouble-makers had managed to advance along Rajpath, smashing police barricades and pelting stones. Later they started fires with wooden media observation towers and fencing, and smashed barricades. This enlarged the area engulfed with violence, but the incidents were isolated and involved just a few dozen of the several thousand people there who were basically peaceful protestors or spectators out for a Sunday afternoon.
As dusk fell, it was understandable that the police would want to stop these violent destructive demonstrations and deal with the offenders. That could however have been contained and there was no need for the water cannon and lathi-charging that engulfed the crowd around me and many others further away.
Sonia Gandhi first met the protestors outside her central-Delhi home just after midnight last night and then had a long meeting with a delegation this afternoon along with Rahul and a junior home minister.
She promised a speedy trial of six people arrested for last Sunday’s gang rape which took place in a Delhi bus, and also a review of laws affecting women and rape.
But along with promised other government measures, it was too little too late and the delegation refused to end the protests which, though sparked by the rape, are also directed at government inaction and indifference and – significantly given this evening’s official brutality – the country’s violent police and security forces who mostly see it as their job to beat and hurt the weak and defenceless, including women, instead of protecting them.