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Govt battens down and reaches out

- Fingers crossed on victim’s health and fresh backlash

New Delhi, Dec. 24: The Centre today reached out to inflamed citizens on multiple fronts, locked down India Gate and throttled the Metro that offered easy mobility to protesters.

The mix of measures appeared to have worked on Monday — a weekday unlike the past two days when thousands marched on the seats of power — but the government and law-enforcers kept their fingers crossed.

One explosive imponderable is the health of the gang-rape victim, whose condition worsened today.

Police barricaded roads leading to India Gate that had become the hub of the protests. Many key Metro stations in Delhi were shut, crippling movement around the city. The stations will stay closed on Tuesday, too.

The protest today was largely concentrated around Jantar Mantar, where the number of participants was in the hundreds compared with the thousands that had poured into Rajpath on Sunday.

Along with the security blanket, the government also unfurled a series of gestures and measures. (See chart)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had last night issued a statement justifying the anger, built on the theme through the rare avenue of an address to the nation.

Manmohan Singh added a personal touch — an unusual gesture from a reticent public figure. “As a father of three daughters myself, I feel as strongly about this as each one of you. My wife, my family and I are all joined in our concern for the young woman who was the victim of this heinous crime.”

The Prime Minister added: “We are constantly monitoring her medical condition. Let us all pray for her and her loved ones during this critical time.”

At an event in the evening, Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur added her voice to the wave of outrage.

“This is a horrible crime.... Such an incident needs to be condemned in the strongest possible way,” she said, calling for strong punishment. “We all are very sad at this incident but if they (the protests) are conducted in a peaceful manner, they will yield more results,” Gursharan Kaur added.

The Prime Minister also touched upon the violence. “Anger at this crime is justified but violence will serve no purpose. I appeal to all concerned citizens to maintain peace and calm. I assure you that we will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety of women in this country,” he said.

He also promised to keep the citizens posted on “the steps we are taking and the processes we are following”.

The committee headed by former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, formed to suggest ways of improving street security for women, has issued notices seeking suggestions from the public.

A government statement today asked the “public in general and particularly eminent jurists, legal professionals, NGOs, women’s groups and civil society members” to share their “views, knowledge and experience” with the committee.

They have been invited to suggest “possible amendments to the criminal laws and other relevant laws to provide for quicker investigation, prosecution and trial (and) enhanced punishment for... sexual assault of extreme nature against women”.

The other members on the committee are Justice Leila Seth, former Himachal Pradesh chief justice and mother of author Vikram Seth, and Gopal Subramanian, former solicitor-general.

A senior minister who didn’t want to be named told The Telegraph that both Singh and Sonia Gandhi realised that policing on the streets was “woefully inadequate”.

“They are also worried at the poor conviction rate and understand the public anger. The government intends to do something substantive instead of indulging in lofty rhetoric,” the minister said.

Sources said Sonia had spoken to Singh and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde on the subject several times in the past two days.

The government has spoken of amending the law to provide for the death sentence in the “rarest of the rare” rape cases but Girija Vyas, chief of the Congress’s Vichar Vibhag, said the prime issue was “the status of women in our society”.

“We have to review our textbooks as we need to tell our children from Class I that boys and girls are equal,” the former chairperson of the National Commission for Women said.

A section of the government is said to be unhappy at the administration’s “incompetent handling” of the street protests, which were hijacked by those politically opposed to the ruling combine such as Baba Ramdev and Arvind Kejriwal.

Some ministers felt the police and the home ministry should have learnt lessons from the protests held by Anna Hazare and Kejriwal in the recent past.

Today’s firm action, particularly the decision to keep Raisina Hill and India Gate out of bounds for protesters, ensured near-normality.


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