Guest post by KAVYA MURTHY.
In the middle of the day a few days ago, a group of around ten people held hands and blocked the traffic on the road opposite the police headquarters at ITO, Delhi, protesting and calling for the removal of the Police Commissioner after a young, young child had been raped and the police had done nothing, not file an FIR, nor act.
In this instance, it was not only the brutality of the act that had shaken us up. A young child, five years of age, raped by neighbours, bad enough to hold one’s head in shame – yes. There was outrage. But there was also outrage that a police officer had tried to bribe the family of the girl – with two thousand rupees – to avoid filing an FIR. Then, to add insult to injury, a young woman protester slapped repeatedly by an impatient policeman, an Assistant Commissioner of Police no less, when she tried to get inside the hospital where the child was in a critical condition.
Why were we there, that afternoon outside the Delhi Police Headquarters? What had prompted people to gather at the AIIMS metro station the day the child was shifted there for care, what was being said, who was being addressed? Was it a silent vigil, in hope that this little child does not meet the same fate as the 23 year old woman gang raped just a few months ago? Was it also to say, this is not the first time it is happening after that fateful day on December 16, 2012? 363 rapes already in just around the NCR the last few months, and here we are again, not exactly happy to be standing outside in outrage thinking of a little girl with bottles in her vagina and terrible infections.
A question one was asked recently, if the anger against rape was just now being directed thoughtlessly towards the police and the state. After all, someone said, the police are not responsible for rapes. What exactly does “responsibility for rape” mean? To actually be involved in the act of raping? Or complicit, in ensuring that action towards the rapist is never taken? Or does one need to just hold the thought a second longer to ask- if we stand outside the Headquarters of the Delhi Police asking for the resignation of the Police Commissioner, surely we are not telling him that he is the rapist, but what we are in fact saying is that this contempt, this absolute deliberate lack of action when in fact we have systems in place to punish those who are responsible for the act, is in fact, a failure of responsibility.
Another question asked- how far do the protests and placards go? Does it “seep” into every nook and cranny of the city streets where crimes unfold? Do knowledge of the law exist everywhere? Was this protesting just a misguided channelling of rage, a protest tumbling onward without reflection? And to take this question up one seriously, there are a number of things that can be said. A reflection on the protests themselves- if there were hordes of people repeatedly taking to the streets with outrage in the last few months- against a culture that allowed for rape, created the conditions for it, and a self reflective rage that asked what made us men, women, gendered people, what safety means, what respect means, what it meant for us to ask for justice itself (what would this justice be?)- would that be so unacceptable if not clearly and sharply conditioned by the “correct” demands? What did it mean for a hundred people gathered yet again to stand outside the Police Headquarters, outnumbered several to one, to point a finger squarely at each of the police men and women standing there to keep us from effervescing into something they feared?
It seems almost absurd to have to explain this, but here it was again, when one saw the clip of the policeman slapping the young woman – a culture of impunity fostered by the various apparatuses of power of the State, that had just a few months ago demonstrated to us that not only were they willing to water cannon and tear gas public outrage, but were clearly also implicated in allowing private vehicles where the 16th December gang rape had occurred, to slip through the cracks. It is that moment of ironic laughter getting out of a neighbourhood in Delhi one morning when you look at a police barricade- ‘true, we slow you down,, but we also stop criminals from getting away ‘. Really? Is that what the Delhi Police does?
On that Saturday morning on April 20th, as we stood in line across the road creating a chakka jam, a comrade amidst us came up, distressed, looking at the sea of cars all the way up to the Ring Road from ITO, jammed. The impatient cars huffing and puffing, bosudi ke and ma-behen gaalis issuing from the inconvenienced cars, made this person wonder if we were troubling ‘civilians’. He asked this question almost to dramatic effect. As he said, ‘why are we inconveniencing the public?’ we looked behind him and he followed our gaze, and as he turned, we saw the Delhi Police do an incredibly efficient job as traffic policemen. In a span of five minutes, a whole road of clogged cars had been cleared away. A potbellied police officer guffawed at this exact moment, scratching his belly and looking at us in triumph. When a young woman went up to him and complimented his skills as a traffic policeman [maybe he’d serve the populace better diverting cars], he scratched his belly with even greater glee and said ‘hum to aap ke saath mein hai‘.
And this was the moment that has happened again, and again, over the last few months in Delhi- the comrade who had asked that question stunned, sudddenly looking at the now empty road with absolute astonishment. What did it mean, was that the Delhi Police being with us and for us, for the civilians in the car, always? Or was it in fact the absolute insidiousness of their own inability to face up to the groups of people standing outside their Headquarters, protesting their ineptitude and the pervasive misogyny of their forces by a gesture of civil disobedience in blocking the road, their guilt that made them hold their lathis fast in their hands for fear, twitching to undermine groups of people standing there but unable to, except by diverting a street full of vehicles?
And before this unfolded and we stood in line with a road full of vehicles ahead of us, a man on the motorbike right in front of the long line of vehicles took the cue to start calling the slogans- Dilli Police Hosh Mein Aao. For a moment one turned a cynical eye to see- was this man trying to slip through, fooling us to get past the road block and get to work? But it wasn’t this- he called one slogan after another, raised his hands in protest and removed his helmet. And there it was – that sense of being one in a large crowd, screaming for the same thing, and a fleeting but important camaraderie that we can stand against something together in that noon sunlight, again and again and again.
This is how the blazing day started, when several Aam Admi and several and more mahilayen and other screaming and angry people of all sizes and dimensions landed up at 11 am at the Delhi Police Headquarters. There were different political groups [AIDWA, AISA, JNUSU, ABVP, AAP], students from universities, and a mass of floating unaffiliated people, come together in the same place again, and some come together in the same place with the same thoughts again, and looking at each other to say hey there, we’ve met before, and wasn’t it on the street? Strangers who had become familiar friendly faces, walking together, analysing the day, the protest, the police, the situation. Women standing defiantly in front of cars, refusing to move away when cops tried to pull them away, asking quietely and firmly- what exactly are you pulling me away for? Are you embarrassed, dear police people, to see us assembled here, standing outside the life blood of your corrupt system? Looking around us and recognising ourselves and the other, the others within us and the others in uniform, it was the start of another chapter. As a friend later said- how happy can we be about our growing eloquence in describing the dilli police and their failures? And yet, a hundred ways of speaking against the police, the system, gender, patriarchy and violence, are emerging. And this moment was not only an outrage for the five year old girl, but a clear sharp call to say- months have passed, laws amended, an extraordinary report has emerged from the Justice Verma Commission, and this will just not do. With the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 there is now a provision to sentence police officers refusing to file a complaint of rape- but more than this, even without just the law to consider, to call the act what it is- a man assaulting a young woman, a man bribing a poor family in order to avoid performing his duty as a policeman. Assault, corruption. To begin with.
Several hours we stood in the sun, and several hours the police men and women of different sizes and dimensions, too, stood around, perplexed, afraid and watching. And then amidst the grotesque slogans of ‘Sonia Jiska Mummy Hai,wo Sarkar Nikaami Hai‘, a friend in our midst pulled out their phone to read out another slogan. Against the loud voices of the ABVP, the Sampurna Party, the Aam Aadmi Party, and even our friendly Left, the call for Azaadi rose again, the scintillating, never ending, endlessly improvisable Hum Kya Chahte- Azaadi. Read from the phone of a university student who did not want to khada karo barricades, or see khoon on the streets as we remembered the little girl who had been brutalised and screamed in anger at the police, nor make the Delhi Police Commissioner wear chooris to proclaim to us that he was incompetent, rose the call for Azaadi , in the streets, from our baaps and from the khaps, of our desires and joys, in Delhi and everywhere else.
And it was this that one was happy to be a part of- making new friends on the road, standing together even as we stood apart from those we didn’t agree with, but making meaning, sense and politics as we understood things that warm Saturday afternoon. And this politics does not need explaining nor teaching, but is being made, as new people join the group, and new thoughts join in to the crowd, and we meet and witness and learn afresh, how paranoid, and fearful, and incompetent, the police are, the Home Minister is [who shut down the metro, but of course he’s scared we’ll get to his residence], the State is, how we agree and how we disagree and how we choose to fight.
This protest rolled on, through the weekend, as we met in India Gate, late afternoon on a surprisingly stunning and cool April Sunday, the 21st. There were more police than protestors, Lutyens Delhi sprinkled with liberal doses of multi-hued police camouflage despite which the police [and their potbellies] were extraordinarily visible. Several of us milled around- noting the details of the Bh?rat?ya Pulis Sev? and their uniforms, and good gracious, was that the Border Security Force, and then over there the blues of Rapid Action Force against the yellow barricades? And what blues the police had that day, as hundreds of them stood around in wait, giving us the anticipation of a thronging uncontrollable mob, as Section 144 of the IPC reared its ugly head in fear of the unruly mob, prowling janpath as rajpath was afraid. And what a gloriously small but unruly,unlawful assembly we were against the setting sun! In one remarkable moment we suddenly walked together, from Rajpath towards India Gate, as police officers had a fresh bout of much needed exercise following us towards the barricades, to stop us, to tell us again we were unlawful, and the city was under siege from the palpable sense of paranoia from a police force unwilling and disinclined to acknowledge that they were quite seriously and grievously in the wrong.
As a new friend made on that day has written so well,
‘The site was so bizarre, I thought to myself maybe there is a bigger threat that I may not have been aware of. Surely, such heavy artillery would not be required for the protesters, now, would it? I found myself in awe of the tens of police trucks and the water cannons around me…Call me a fool, but I was under the impression that since we were assembling for a peaceful protest (which we maintained throughout the day), we wouldn’t face too many problems. We started walking through India Gate chanting our demands for freedom without fear, and asking for the resignation of the officials responsible for misbehaving with the rape victim’s family and also the immediate de-throning of the official that slapped the female protester multiple times in connection with this case. For some reason, as we started walking, I realized people were starting to run. I was a little confused, before I realized that we were running because the police was starting to put up barriers preventing us from walking towards India Gate.
Keep in mind, now, that we were equipped with words, signs and demands, and nothing else. We had no intentions of getting violent at all, and we didn’t We just wanted to be able to protest in our own city about things that affected us, and do that without fear. The irony shines through, however, as our demands of freedom without fear were met with such an aggressively enforced attempt to limit our freedom to be able to walk in a city that apparently belonged to us….”
But protest we did, for hours, as the bats and the birds flew home. Other comrades had gathered at ITO, and we joined them there, and of course, since we could not march to ITO by foot as a big crowd, we were escorted by the Delhi Police in DTC buses and taken through the most crowded city streets to ensure we got there as late as possible. Did this make us distressed? No. Instead, we shouted, instead we sat quite merrily together, and got to ITO yet again. Here [https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10200886913476535] is a small snippet of this moment, before we reached ITO.
By late evening the police had made sure that the areas around the police headquarters were people-free, and to this people-free zone we arrived, now a crowd of people talking, tired, singing, shouting, sitting, speechifying, thinking, gathered in a circle, in streets emptied out by police paranoia, fringed by construction for the Delhi metro and the police standing in a solemn line and orange city lights. In that strange moment, the IPL match at Ambedkar Stadium had just finished, and another mass of people walked through the same space saying ‘Dilli Jeet Gaya!’, making us laugh, making us wonder if the crowds would merge, and making some of us decide to walk home ourselves, since the police had ensured that no buses and autos were plying around the area. Who had inconvenienced civilians, and what civil disobedience had played out? Thinking this through, many of us left the place, content that we were still standing together, clear that nothing does change overnight, but that something was reverberating in the city, and that as long as it would take, we could and would, at least, keep coming together to protest.
And to conclude as Dhruv Arora does,
“Thank you for holding me back, dear system, for you have ensured that I never hesitate to raise my voice ever again, and you are not going to threaten me into shutting up.”