(Note: There are so many ways for a city to exclude its citizens. Yesterday, talking to the police who were there to prevent this small, sincere band of protestors from marching up to India Gate, I asked a few how they felt about guarding the Gate from us–all 300 or so of the women’s rights activists, young students, men who had come out to register their protest along with the women, everyone who had showed up to ask for more freedom, more rights for women.
“Kya kare,” said one cop. “Waha VIP movement hi allowed hain aaj kal.” (“What to do, there’s only VIP movement allowed at [India Gate] these days.”)
The architecture of the India Gate area is classically imperial–the statute of George V used to look down that long vista towards Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Emperor of India should have been able to see the dome of the seat of power, except for an error in the plans by Baker and Lutyens; as you walk up Raisina Hill, a walk that every citizen was freely able to take not so long ago, before security barriers began to define Delhi, Rashtrapati Bhavan dips out of sight, the dome of power disappearing.
Some of the policemen were shyly embarrassed when they realised that the might of the state had been brought out against a scant 300 citizens. There were few political parties–the organisers had asked politicians to refrain from using their banners, not to use Gandhi caps or national flags, and not to make speeches: in the face of these restrictions, the party support for women’s rights melted away remarkably fast.
Some cops were angry, like the policeman who was talking into his phone as I passed by, passing him, passing the four trucks that held the water cannons: “There is a city beyond India Gate, and who’s supposed to police it,” he was asking, “when all of us are here? Guarding what?” What they had been brought to Feroze Shah Road to guard was the immaculate emptiness of Rajpath, that blank space at the heart of Delhi.
If these protests are to go beyond the immediate cries for “justice”, a justice that veers between being the rough hanging justice of a mob as violent as its targets, and a more idealistic justice that asks only for women to be treated as equal, free citizens (yes, that enormous, preposterous demand), then it needs to abandon this city’s empty heart.
It feels so strange, to be told that Rajpath does not belong to its citizens; but through years of shifting its citizens around, to Welcome in the Emergency years, to Bhalaswa and Najafgarh in the slum-clearing years, Delhi’s had a lot of practice at telling its citizens that they don’t belong in many places. Perhaps the protests need to go to the many Delhis that never make it to the media glare, because they’re outside the zone of power and comfort: to Shahdara and the slums of Kusumpur Pahari and Bhalaswa, to Dwarka and to Shakarpur. Those Delhis matter more than Imperial Delhi; and they have a tolerance and a space for citizens that Imperial Delhi has long since forgotten.)
On survivors and victims: the language of rape: Talking Rape
On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill
On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour
What do they want? (Home Minister Shinde, of the students)
The students in Delhi who were protesting on Saturday didn’t know exactly how to get to what they wanted. Some thought that the death penalty and castration for rapists would do it, some thought appealing to the people in power might do it, some thought telling the police off would do the trick.
They wanted safer streets. They wanted the police, and their parents, to stop telling them what to wear, when to go out, which friends they should be with, how to behave. Many of the young men wanted no part of a system—a system they recognized clearly, though they didn’t call it “patriarchy”—that took in boys and men, and spat them out the other end as rapists and abusers. The girls and young women out there wanted, as many banners said, respect and freedom, not protection; they really, really wanted to be treated equally.
They may have been confused, but they were articulate in their confusion. The only problem was that they were articulate in a way that baffled those on Raisina Hill—the government officers in North and South Block, the parliamentarians to the right of the Hill, the police officers who formed that thin khaki line in between the protestors and their state. They had no leaders. They had no urgent list of demands to be met, because they were not politicians with an agenda to be haggled over. “I thought this was what you were supposed to do,” said one 17-year-old girl to me. “Go out into your public spaces and express your opinion. We want lots to change about how we’re treated, so we’re here to say that.”
For Residents Only
Delhi is the city of warning signs. Do not park here or your tyres will be deflated. This space for residents only. Some signs are unspoken but understood: do not attempt to come out into (male) streets, or you will be raped. One sign is always understood, in this city of power and gated communities: all “public spaces” exist at the pleasure of the state, and the state may withdraw your rights to “your” space at any time it chooses.
The students saw Raisina Hill as a public space. But over the years, the Hill has become less and less public. Boat Club demonstrations have retreated further down Rajpath. The public has access to Raisina Hill chiefly on Republic Day and Beating The Retreat, when it may watch tanks, fatuous floats and folk dances, and military bands. For the rest of the year, Raisina Hill is used exclusively for the entry and exit of government vehicles, Parliament vehicles, even though there was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case. Each of the radial roads that span out around Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament and North and South Block has slowly been closed down, or become increasingly policed.
The public, the citizens in whose name the powerful run the country, have been pushed down Rajpath. At India Gate, they can have an illusion of public space—balloon sellers, boating, candyfloss and golgappa sellers, a few photographs against Amar Jawan Jyoti. But larger and larger parts of Rajpath have been annexed for official purposes only.
The students didn’t know that. They thought that the correct way to approach those in power was to come to them, and to sit at their doorsteps, waiting for them to step out and say hello. But on December 22nd, when the protest was still peaceful and still belonged to the students, most officials in North and South Block chose to use the back way home, around Rashtrapati Bhavan, down North and South Avenue. Not one of them thought that they might want to step out of their white Ambassadors, and take that short walk up to the yellow police barricades, just to see for themselves how dangerous these young protestors, chanting their slogans, might be. The Home Minister, Mr Shinde, said today he didn’t think government should be expected to run around meeting its citizens—what if, he implied, others protested, demanding meetings?
Imagine that. What if those in power actually had to spend their time meeting their citizens, listening to their grievances? Do we not know that government has more important things to do than to talk to us?
The students thought Raisina Hill was for everyone. Today, nine metro stations have been closed, to prevent protestors from using Rajpath—the King’s Way—and this has been justified by the violence created, not by students, but by political cadres, by faceless men attracted by the presence of TV cameras, happy for a chance to smash something up in front of an audience.
Lutyens’ Delhi sits safe and sanitized today, in the circle of those nine metro stations where no ordinary citizens will be permitted to get off the trains, go upstairs into their city. The bungalows of ministers and government officials, the prime minister’s house, the offices of North and South Block, the Hill and all it stands for are encased in their own, private bubble of security, emptied of mobs, protestors, aam janata.
The students have been asked to take their protest somewhere else, somewhere out of sight, preferably. Women in this city are often asked to step back, to not use public roads or transport after dark, to stay away from roads, parks, metro stations, bars, parties, malls, schools, places where they might not be safe. In this city with its broad avenues (in Lutyens’ Delhi, if not in the newer colonies and in neglected, invisible West and East Delhi), its planned open spaces, there is little in the way of public spaces for women, for the young, just as little as there is for the poor. These protestors will eventually be shunted around the city, asked to protest here, and there; just as we ask women not to do this, not to do that. It’s always framed as a question of someone’s safety, never as a question of your right to be free and safe in public space.
What wasn’t being said
At the embryo protest on the 22nd, there were many issues that stayed unspoken and dormant. Were the students aware of the wider issues surrounding rape—the silence in families and homes, where women are most vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, the deliberate, centuries-old practice of using rape as a weapon to keep Dalits and lower castes in line, the innumerable instances of custodial rape and rape by military forces and the police in areas where they were supposed to be serving the people? Would they have been as exercised, as angry, over the many rapes of women in the slums, of homeless women—and if not, were they prepared to ask themselves why? Were they engaged in the debates over the death penalty, the reasons why so many people are opposed to capital punishment?
Were the students aware of the extent to which child abuse and violence in the Indian family affect both men and women? Was there an understanding and a sense of solidarity among the students of the far more severe and lethal violence meted out by the state against young adults and protestors in Kashmir, in the North-East? Were there broader issues underlying women’s rights, or the politics of violence, that might have emerged?
Perhaps those 10,000 students who came out of nowhere on December 22 didn’t care about these issues, or didn’t see the connection, for instance, between Honey Singh’s vile, pro-rape rap songs and the violence they were protesting on the streets; perhaps at least some of them did.
Talking to just a few students and protestors, you see a spectrum of views: some are very politically aware, some just want to see a rapist hanged and don’t really care about the wider context. But what they seemed to want was to be allowed to occupy this space while they expressed their feelings and groped their way to a different understanding of the city around them. Perhaps that occupation would have led to more and more political conversations, of the kind that often does happen on college campuses. Instead, they were routinely patronized, by a state that didn’t seem interested in what they had to say, by politicians who didn’t bother to sit down with them and listen, and by a city administration that treated them as a nuisance, squatters to be evicted.
On the 23rd, when the city administration shut down Metro stations, it effectively prevented students from reaching the city centre. It did not prevent organised (and sometimes highly politicised) students’ unions from bringing in their NSUI and JNUSU and BJP students’ wing and AISA agitators; it did not prevent random hooligans from gleefully wrecking the protest; it did not prevent political cadres from showing up to mug for the TV cameras.
It did, however, manage to shut down and silence the students who’d started out with no agenda, beyond the simple one of wanting to be heard. At the heart of the city, at the heart of power, there was no space for them.
On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill
On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape
On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour
The presence of the media inevitably changes the nature of protest–Kashmir and the North-East are invisible because they’re not on TV, as many pointed out yesterday, but Delhi’s protests will always attract full coverage. That also changes the nature of a spontaneous protest: everyone from casual gawkers to politicians really wants to see themselves on the nine o’clock news.
Though there were many families, students and mother-daughter pairs present, the crowd this morning was significantly more organised, from the JNUSU and AISA to the BJP’s student wing. Baba Ramdev was supposed to be on his way, because of course *that’s* what yesterday’s young protestors had secretly wanted all along–Baba Ramdev! Riding into Delhi on top of a bus! The solution to the problem of sexual violence against women in India that none of us had been bright enough to dream up!
On a side note, by making it difficult for students and young men and women to reach India Gate after the Metros were shut down and roads cordoned off, the Delhi government may actually have allowed the protest to be taken over by political parties of all stamps.
Despite Section 144 being in place, we weren’t stopped as we walked down with about 700 activists and supporters from Nizamuddin towards India Gate this morning. Police allowed protestors to knock over barricades at India Gate and move towards the centre, only firing teargas and using the water cannons a little later, when some protestors started throwing traffic cones and slippers around. The water cannons and the teargas hit a lot of the more peaceful protestors, unfortunately. But the impression that the police had been asked not to over-react was very strong.
Perhaps because it was a smaller crowd today–about 2,000 when we left–the teargas shells found their targets much more easily than yesterday.
Short of riot situations, I’d never seen the roads around India Gate so eerily silent and empty. At the India Gate-Akbar Road crossing. Students were walking down from various Metro stations, undeterred by the fact that Central Secretariat and other stations were closed, many cheerfully talking about how they’d get there in time for the post-lunch “protest session”.
Update: By evening, the protests had turned violent, sadly, with some protestors blaming political parties and “outside elements” for introducing aggression into what had been, on Saturday, a peaceful protest.
“We want justice! We want justice!”
I went to the protests at Raisina Hill expecting very little. Despite the anger over the recent, brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old by a group of six men, who also beat up her male friend, protests over women’s violence in the Capital have been relatively small.
But the crowds walking up the Hill, towards the government offices of North and South Block, from India Gate are unusual. It’s a young crowd—students, young men and women in their twenties, a smattering of slightly older women there to show their solidarity, and it’s a large crowd, about a thousand strong at the Hill itself. There are two small knots representing student’s politicial organisations, but otherwise, many of the people here today are drawn together only by their anger.
Many say it is their first protest, but “this time was too much”. The women spill over with articulate indignation about how tired they are of being targets of violence—not free in the streets, not free at home, says one. The men talk about how they don’t want to be seen in the same light as rapists; one young student talks about how helpless he feels when his women friends/ relatives are targetted. As more and more join the crowds, I realise that many of the students come from Faridabad, Ghaziabad, outside the insulated circle of South Delhi colleges. Almost all of them heard about the protest on Facebook and Twitter, or from friends—not through the mainstream media.
“Hang the rapists!” “Castrate Men Who Rape!”
Many of the protestors are volubly, enthusiastically for the death penalty, some demanding mob justice. “Give us those six men, and we’ll show them what pain is like,” says one lovely young girl, holding up a “Death To All Rapists” sign. Her friend breaks down when she talks about how she’s followed the progress of the survivor of the recent gang-rape in Delhi: the brutality of the rape (the rapists savaged the woman so badly with an iron rod that her intestines are permanently damaged) has become a kind of uber-nightmare for many. None of them have thought the implications of capital punishment through: this is a from-the-gut, emotional response.
Along with the “Death To The Rapist” chants, the “We Want Justice” refrain that runs through this morning’s protests, there’s also a swell of anger against the government and against politicians. Sheela Dikshit, Sonia Gandhi, the Home Minister—the crowd calls, again, and again, for them to come out and address people. They may not know exactly what they want—safer roads? An end to violence against women? Death to rapists?—but they really want someone to talk to them, anyway. “Come out from your safe offices, your safe cars, come out and see how we live,” says one woman. It’s picked up by many others.
“Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”
The police attempts to disperse protestors thrice in the morning. I miss the first lathi-charge/ tear gassing, but the next two happen shortly afterwards—on what seems like scant provocation. Right at the front, holding the protestors back, a line of young boys and girls reminds everyone to keep it peaceful, to keep it down. “Say whatever you want to say, abuse as much as you want, but no violence,” says a student who’s as much of a leader as this spontaneous, leaderless protest has had. Earlier that morning, some members of the crowd smashed the window of a Delhi Police bus, and apparently that led to the first lathicharge and teargassing.
When four boys start pushing out another of the Delhi Police buses, other protestors immediately stop them. “Don’t give them an excuse!” one calls, but it’s too late. The bus has been rolled back into place. But the water cannon starts up and the teargas shells start bursting, as the police decide that’s the best thing to do with a bunch of young protestors who’re clearly trying to keep it peaceful. We cover our faces with shawls, hankies, and run for it, shells bursting around us. When one of the boys lobs a shell back, he’s yelled at: “Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”
The third tear-gassing is equally unwarranted: the police open up the barricades, leaving a tempting gap, and when protestors start to move in (and therefore technically towards Rashtrapati Bhavan), out come the cannons again and the teargas shells. But though the crowds disperse, they keep coming back. The mood has changed slightly. There are more calls of “Delhi Police Hai Hai!” and in a silent shift of tactics, the crowd does its best to bait the police. “Stones are being thrown at the police,” one over-excited reporter says, and he has it wrong. What some of the protestors were throwing were coins, taunting the police: you don’t do your job well enough to keep us safe, perhaps you will if we bribe you. Every so often, obeying some unspoken signal among themselves, the protestors amiably give the cops the finger.
Some boys climb up the lamp posts, holding up their slogans: Hang Rapists, Stop Violence, Respect Women. They’re received with loud cheers, and then an even bigger cheer goes up when one young woman scales a lamppost. Soon, all five of the ornate iron lamp-posts in the park near Raisina Hill have been taken over by young women, sending out sincere if mixed messages. One of them, a fiery shouter of slogans, holds up bangles in the direction of the police, sending out a message that may be singularly unfeminist, but that is also very clear: you should wear these, like weak women, because you can’t do your job, which makes you weak, like women. Seekers of metaphor and symbol would have a field day with this.
The protest stays calm and peaceful, settling down into a kind of rhythm, with separate knots performing their versions of homely street theatre, till about 2:30 pm. By that time, the sting of the teargas has left most of us, and I am recognising, with some surprise, just how safe I feel in this crowd, safer than I have ever felt in any public place in Delhi in decades.
Afternoon: a different crowd
But the crowd is changing, fast, and in unpleasant ways. The students, and their spontaneous protest, form a small wedge at the top of Raisina Hill, flanked by long lines of police and media. Behind them, swirling in eddies through the body of the protestors, are packs of activists, beginning to catch up to the televised, pulsing energy of this particular protest. I see cadres from all kinds of political parties, many of them, like the Shiv Sena, not known for their interest in women’s rights or women’s issues, here just to barrack the government and soak up some TV time. Loose knots of gawkers are beginning to stroll in, attracted by the tamasha—TV crews, out at India Gate on Saturday—and the composition begins to change, radically. If there were as many women as men during the first part of the day, now the back end of the protest, near India Gate, seems to have mostly men—few students, by the look of it.
However confused the protest of the morning was, it was also impressive in its own way—and moving, to see so many young people come out for a cause they felt strongly about, even more moving to see how caring they were of each other. “Do you need water?” the boys had asked, their own eyes streaming. “We have a little extra water,” women had said, sharing what they had with the other girls who’d been teargassed. “Here, take my scarf, take my handkerchief, cover your face.” All through the morning, there’d been that little ripple through the crowd: Is everyone all right? Is everyone safe?
By afternoon, that has changed. I’m at India Gate when the crump of the teargas shells starts up again. The cries of “We want justice!” still echo up Rajpath, but now groups of activists are performing for the TV cameras; the political cadres mug for their audiences; and back at the Hill, what started as a spontaneous gesture of solidarity from a bunch of unrelated young people with no agenda of their own has become yet another mixed, messy business. Not one politician, not one government official, came out on the ramparts of North or South Block to talk to them this morning; and if anyone does, later this evening, they’ll be talking to a completely different crowd. I hope the curiosity of the idle won’t last, and that other protestors from Delhi, who care about the issue more than about being on TV, will join this young, impassioned group.
In one of my favourite moments from the day: just after the first teargassing, as we tried to help a girl who was retching from the gas, her friend stood up and said, “So yeh hai Dilli Police ka motto, With You For You Gas You Always!” “Yaar,” said another girl, “what a bunch of losers they are. Total losers.” The refrain got picked up by the crowd. It may have been the first time in Indian history that a group of protestors responded to being teargassed by giving the police the bird, and chanting: “Losers, losers, tussi loser-log hai!”
It’s a pity, because this bunch of protestors had something interesting about them. Their messages were mixed, and lacked the coherence you’d get from the average activist group, but their energy and will to at least try and make a change was unmistakeable. They have a lot to say for themselves, and though I hadn’t planned to spend my Saturday morning on Raisina Hill, I’m glad I went.
More pictures from the December 22 protests:
Teargassed; this was a slightly watery-eyed shot
On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape
On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour