New Delhi: At a time when the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was trying to fight its way clear of corruption scandals and criticism that it had been gripped by policy paralysis, its mishandling of protests over the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi has made it the target of intense public anger.
Apart from allowing the protests to escalate into street battles between protesters and police over the weekend and reacting to this by closing off large parts of the capital to traffic, experts said the episode has been a “communications disaster” for the government. Still, the violence ebbed on Monday as fewer people turned out to protest, although the traffic disruptions saw thousands of commuters stuck in traffic jams or unable to get off at their metro stops.
With India Gate closed off, protesters converged on Jantar Mantar, even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for peace in a televised address on Monday.
“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,” Singh said in his appeal. “We will examine (the) delay (in) not only the responses to this terrible crime, but also all aspects concerning the safety and security of women.”
But that didn’t do much to erase the impression of a government that completely failed to pick up on the groundswell of anger against the rape in particular and the women’s safety in general.
“This is a communications disaster. The government has not been proactive, it’s not even reactive. The way it has responded, it seems it has become insensitive to the concerns of its own citizens,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst. “It certainly puts the UPA in an embarrassing situation in facing the voters. All the good initiatives that it took in the recent past seem to be washed out because of the mishandling of this issue.”
This “communication failure” was reflected in the manner in which the young protesters were handled. The government was unable to get a grip on the situation for a full six days, he said.
It was announced on Monday that two Delhi Police assistant commissioners had been suspended and an explanation had been sought from two deputy commissioners on why the rape couldn’t have been prevented.
“It was decided that if any complaint of misbehaviour by any of the 80,000 personnel is received, disciplinary action would be taken,” Delhi’s Lt Governor Tejinder Khanna told reporters on Monday.
Following the clash between protesters and police on Sunday, the police named former army chief V.K. Singh and yoga guru Baba Ramdev in a first information report (FIR) on charges of rioting and damage to public property.
After its demands for a special session and an all-party meeting on the issue were not met, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said it will raise the issue of crimes against women with President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday. The decision, announced by BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, came after the party held a meeting of its core group and general secretaries on Monday.
The protesters said they want justice for the rape victim and long-term measures to prevent violence against women. “All we want is justice for that girl who is fighting for her life in the hospital,” said Lovely Singh, a Class IX student, who was holding a placard that read Soch badlo, kapde nahi (change views, not clothes).
Another Class IX student, Priya Singh, said the Sunday violence did not deter her from joining the protests. “We have walked almost 5km to reach here. The government might shut metros and roads but they cannot stop us from saying what we want to say,” she said.
The demands of the protesters, according to Sucheta Dey, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, include a call for a special session of Parliament on the issue, judicial reforms including fast-track courts for rape cases, and a stronger gender-sensitization module for security institutions, including the police forces.
“This is an expression of a long-drawn anger and anxiety of young India and the masses at large,” said Dey, who is also national secretary of All India Students Association, adding that gender sensitization should not be seen as “being done out of generosity”.
At Jantar Mantar, men joined in support of calls for better security for women.
“I know it is about women’s security, but we have women in our homes, too. I have a sister. I think it is about the larger issue, about how we make this city and the country safe for the next generation,” said Ashish Gehlot, a final year student of business administration, holding a placard that read, Respect Women.
PTI contributed to this story.