New Delhi, Dec. 23: The capital’s iconic India Gate turned into a zone of violence this evening after police used tear gas, water cannons and batons to disperse crowds seething in anger over last Sunday’s gang rape of a young woman.
Late tonight the government, scrambling to avoid confrontation ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s scheduled visit tomorrow, issued a notification for reviewing laws to ensure quicker trials and enhanced punishment in cases of aggravated sexual assault.
The Centre set up a three-member panel headed by former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma to submit recommendations. The panel has been given 30 days to submit its report.
Hundreds gathered through the day around the India Gate grounds despite the Centre’s hint yesterday that it would amend laws to introduce the death penalty for certain cases of rape.
Delhi police claimed “vested interests” had instigated the violence. Some policemen said they retaliated after sections of protesters repeatedly pelted them with bricks and stones. Dozens of protesters, including women, and many policemen were hurt in the clashes. “Hooligans have hijacked public sentiments and peaceful protests — what is the purpose?” said Dharmendra Kumar, special commissioner, law and order.
Officials said the police had to lob tear gas shells and baton-charge protesters who had turned violent. “They have broken the law, damaged vehicles and damaged public property,” Kumar said.
Hours after the crackdown, junior home minister R.P.N. Singh apologised to those injured in the clashes, but said the police action had been prompted by violence perpetrated by “lumpen elements”.
Singh said there was no reason for the protests to continue as the government had accepted the demands, including a decision to put the case in a fast-track court and carry out day-to-day hearings. “I apologise to all those injured in the police action today... but the police action came as some lumpen elements indulged in violence. Anti-social elements were involved in the violence,” he said.
“They stoned my knee,” said one limping constable.
Earlier in the day, the police had asked the protesters to stage demonstrations at either Jantar Mantar or the Ramlila grounds and not at the India Gate grounds where the police have imposed prohibitory orders.
But hundreds had congregated around India Gate by afternoon: students, families, young professionals and also groups of people who, one cop said, appeared skilled at organising crowds.
As their numbers grew, the protesters formed a dense circle just behind India Gate — the circle’s centre a space for speaker after speaker who used a microphone to demand justice.
“It’s heartbreaking what happened to her, that’s why I’m here, I want things to change,” said Charu Guglani, an online marketing executive who had travelled 20km from Faridabad, a Haryana suburb south of Delhi, with two friends. “We need quick and effective justice,” she said.
“I came here only so that women are a visible part of this campaign,” said Sriraka Mazumder, who studied comparative literature at Jadavpur University and linguistics at JNU and is now an editor with a publishing firm.
Nine Metro stations in central Delhi will stay closed tomorrow following the protests, operator DMRC said tonight.