New Delhi: The Congress party reacted with fury Thursday after police arrested general secretary Rahul Gandhi, widely tipped as a future prime minister, as he took part in protests by farmers.
Gandhi was briefly arrested then released on bail when he joined farmers protesting against land being taken over for a $2 billion highway, media reported.
Gandhi was held for more than two hours under preventive detention laws late on Wednesday after he sat all day with farmers angry at police for shooting dead two people in the week-long protest in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh.
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Gandhi has made high profile campaigns across India for the rights of villagers, a move widely seen as preparing his path as a future prime minister.
The highly unusual move to arrest someone as powerful as Gandhi may increase tensions between the fiery Uttar Pradesh leader Mayawati and Congress party.
Mayawati is not part of the ruling coalition but has often voted with the government.
The protests in Uttar Pradesh’s Greater Noida are the latest in a series across the country over attempts to acquire land for industry and Congress has seized on them to muster support ahead of state elections next year.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state and Gandhi has set his eyes on strengthening Congress there in time for elections in 2014.
“I feel ashamed to call myself Indian after seeing what has happened here. The (state) government here has unleashed atrocities on its own people,” Gandhi said as he joined the farmers.
Despite the public anger, Gandhi’s smiling face as he was driven away by police was captured on most newspaper front pages Thursday and the arrest might further burnish his leadership credentials and popularity.
“How can the state government arrest Rahul Gandhi? He is fighting for the farmers and that is not a crime,” Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.
“The state government of Uttar Pradesh is greedy for farm lands. They are attacking farmers, killing people, destroying crops. We will not let this happen.”
Singhvi said the Congress party would hold a massive protest rally against the Mayawati government.
The Congress spokesperson said: “We are working towards the Land Acquisition Act but till such time the law is amended there is absolutely nothing which requires the government to acquire land at throwaway prices without negotiations and to give it to rich persons for rich projects”.
“The government is entitled to ensure that the average farmer gets a good deal. This is not something which happened yesterday. These people have been protesting for last several months...Some compensation, some land ...something could have been worked out,” he said.
He also alleged that skeletons were lying in Bhatta Parsaul village and asked if the absence of a central law on land acquisition allows the Mayawati government to “shoot down people”.
At a late night press conference in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh cabinet secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh had said the situation in Bhatta Parasaul was calm and attempts were being made to vitiate the atmosphere there.
Singh said prohibitory orders were re-imposed in the area after Congress leaders sought permission from the state authorities to hold a rally in the village.
Mayawati’s government had sought to restrict access to the Bhatta and Parsaul villages on the outskirts of New Delhi where farmers and police clashed at the weekend, leaving three people dead.
Gandhi sneaked into the area riding pillion on a motorbike in the early hours of Wednesday to avoid police deployed there. Before his arrest, he spoke with farmers and denounced the local government.
The highway will link New Delhi to the Taj Mahal city of Agra and is seen as a prestige project by Uttar Pradesh’s government.
NDTV reported on its website that farmers were paid a little over Rs800 ($18) per square metre for the land. That same land was sold to developers for Rs3,200 a square metre. Some is now being offered as residential plots for 14,000 a square metre.