“There is genuine and justified anger and anguish at the ghastly crime of gangrape committed last Sunday in Delhi. Anger at this crime is justified, but violence will serve no purpose," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in his brief address to the nation.
Even as he spoke, New Delhi's power centre had been virtually turned into a garrison town. India Gate, Rajpath and Vijay Chowk, the area that houses the nation's seat of power, has been the nerve centre of the protests over the weekend and is usually out of bounds for commoners.
The government’s concern over the seizure of Vijay Chowk, something that has never happened since Independence, was reflected in Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde's statements on various news channels. The government has been less rattled about the protest, its spontaneity or its magnitude than about the place where it happened. It has stirred the top brass. In a panic reaction, the government shut down seven metro stations in the vicinity that provided the daily influx of protestors “until further orders”.
In yesterday's protests, the angry crowds had reached the point from where Rashtrapati Bhawan, where the President of India lives, "was just a minute away”, Shinde said. He did not dwell on the possible consequences of this breach, but his gestures conveyed the message. What he did not say was that his own office in North Block, as also the offices of the Finance Minister, the Defence Minister, the External Affairs Minister and, above all, the Prime Minister, were under blockade, unless of course, they chose to drive through Rashtrapati Bhawan or through the other side of the Central Secretariat.
Shinde seemed exasperated, even agitated, about why the protestors should gather at the India Gate lawns again shouting "we want justice” when Congress President Sonia Gandhi had already met a student delegation at midnight and assured action.
The sustained spontaneity of the protests and their determination to brave all kinds of adversities - police action, blockade of public transport, restrictions on the movement of private transport, and the winter chill - apparently made the top leaders in the government realise that they would have to make emotional appeals. The PM talked about his three daughters. Shinde, and Minister of State for Home RPN Singh, also had three daughters. Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar had two daughters. They tried to convey the idea that they had as much at stake in the safety of women as anyone else.
“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 said. Shinde too frequently referred to being the father of three daughters.
Beyond the emotional connect they sought to establish with the victim and the protestors, there was little sympathy expressed for protestors who were injured in the police action.
The home ministry has convened a meeting of Chief Secretaries and Directors-General of Police of all states to discuss issues related to incidents of rape in their areas and suggestions for further action. “We will examine without delay not only the responses to this terrible crime but also all aspects concerning the safety of women and children and punishment to those who commit these monstrous crimes. Our government will keep you informed of the steps we are taking and the processes we are following”, the Prime Minister said in his message.
The government has also constituted a committee to look into possible amendments to the criminal law so as to provide for quicker trials and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assaults of an extreme nature against women. Justice (Retd) JS Verma will be the chairman of the committee. Justice (Retd) Leila Seth and Gopal Subramaniam, former Solicitor General of India, will be the other members. The committee has been asked to submit its report within 30 days.
The fact that all the alleged culprits were arrested within 24-72 hours of the gangrape did not inspire any confidence among people. The police response added to their anger.
There is still no talk of reducing the number of police personnel deployed for VIP security. The number of leaders living opulently with state security and moving around with pilot, escort and tail cars has kept on increasing.
Attempts to cut these numbers down have been resisted by vested interests. According to estimates, around 30 percent of the Delhi police’s total strength of 82,000 personnel is engaged in VIP security. The home minister has not reflected on the issue yet. His constant refrain so far has been that he has been minister for only four months.
Meanwhile, the blame game has begun. While Chief Minister Sheila Diskshit used the incident to reiterate her demand that the Delhi police must come under her (it is currently under the home ministry), a senior police official, on condition of anonymity, blamed her for allowing so many private buses to ply on Delhi's roads without permits. She should explain why there aren't enough state buses on the roads at night.
2013, which is going to be election year for Delhi, will see more of this tu-tu, main-main.