On New Delhi street, protest simmers nonstop
March 31, 2013
The massive protests that swept India after the gang rape of a paramedical student in the capital last year may seem to have disappeared from the headlines here.
The young woman who was assaulted died; the government gave her family a new apartment and financial compensation. The accused are on trial, and a new law has toughened the penalties for sexual assault.
But on one street in New Delhi, the movement — dubbed the 16 December Revolution after the date the gang rape occurred — is still alive, kept in the public eye by bandanna-wearing, placard-wielding activists who sleep in plastic tents and hold daily candlelight vigils.
Jantar Mantar, the capital’s official protest street, is the place where much of the anger and dissent in this teeming democracy finds a voice. On Friday, the anti-rape protesters sat in the rain next to people demanding cleaner rivers, affirmative action, pension funds, disability grants and a corruption-free government.
When it comes to grievances, India is a buffet. And anybody with a cause can find slogan-shouting time and space at Jantar Mantar — as powerful an advertisement for free speech as Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, only more crowded and more littered.
As public outrage over corruption and sexual violence grew in the past two years, it appeared for a while as if the India Gate boulevard that runs past Parliament, the prime minister’s office and the president’s residence would again become the demonstration hub it had been until the 1980s. But the protest-wary government imposed curfews on India Gate and herded activists back into the tiny street, named Jantar Mantar after the nearby 18th-century astronomical observatory of the same name.
Protesters describe Jantar Mantar evocatively. “Temple of democracy,” one said. Another likened it to the bell that citizens rang to alert the king of their grievances in olden times. One man said it was like the “anger palace” of the Hindu epics to which queens withdrew to indicate to the king that they were sulking.
But Ram Shankar Ojha, 56, who was protesting the condition of the city’s polluted Yamuna River, said the street could also be seen as “a jailhouse for protesters.”
“The government has set aside this street for us to come, shout, vent our anger and leave,” he said. “The government wants to contain our anger within Jantar Mantar so that it does not spill out into the rest of the city.”
Anti-rape protesters said they will not leave the street until all those accused in the Dec. 16 incident, including the juvenile defendant, are hanged.
“The so-called fast-track court is taking too long,” said Mohammad Faiz Khan, 32. “Today it is three months since the woman died.”
In another tent, a mother was protesting on behalf of her daughter, who she said was raped by a policeman in the northern state of Punjab in 2010.
“The police have not even filed a complaint,” said Mahinder Kaur, 60. “It has been nearly three years.” Buoyed by the anti-rape protests in the capital, Kaur and her daughter have camped in Jantar Mantar since January. Activists helped her write letters to the government’s human rights panel and women’s commission.
Policemen stand around on the street all day, keeping an eye on things & plainclothes intelligence officers speak to protesters in the evening and take notes.
Meanwhile, ideas and activists circulate and sometimes meld.
Several auto-rickshaw drivers demanding speedier vehicle registration and a new fare schedule wore white caps bearing the slogan “I am the common man,” the signature protest prop of the anti-corruption movement that began in Jantar Mantar two years ago.
One driver said he had volunteered at the office of the anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal, who is now on a hunger strike in a distant slum to protest electricity prices. Kejriwal was invited to speak a few days ago at the Jantar Mantar protest tent of activists demanding a separate state for the ethnic Gorkha community in eastern India.
“He said he supports our cause for a separate state because of our distinct Gorkha ethnic and linguistic identity,” said Bhushan Rai, 37.
A law student protesting against rape said he had also taken part in the anti-corruption drive: “In a way, the anti-corruption movement gave me the first exposure to activism, then the rape protests took place and I went to that, too,” said Mohit Ranjan, 21. “I am still here because I don’t want that spirit to die out.”