NEW DELHI// On a day of protests against rape and sexual assault, police shot dead a journalist in the north-eastern state of Manipur and tear-gassed crowds in New Delhi.
Th. Nanao, a 36-year-old cameraman, working for a private television channel, was killed when police fired upon protesters in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Manipur was rocked by protests after an actress known as Momoko was dragged from stage in full public view last week by an armed militant belonging to a banned rebel outfit, despite the presence of security personnel.
Momoko was allegedly attacked on December 17, a day after a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus by six men. She and her male friend were also severely beaten and thrown off the bus. The attack set off days of protests in the capital, and authorities struggled to control the protests all weekend. Yesterday, a police ban on gatherings of more than four people was defied by thousands who gathered near the India Gate Monument in central Delhi.
Fog added to the sullen mood of the city as police also shut down several metro stations and central roads to prevent people from reaching protest sites, giving parts of the usually bustling city a feeling of being on lockdown.
Early in the day, one group of protesters was evicted forcibly by police, who instructed them under threat of violence to get off the lawns around India Gate. Inexplicably, after a second wave of protesters was allowed entry into India GATE, police fired tear-gas to disperse them.
The crackdown came after massive protests on Saturday, when a crowd of thousands, gathered on the road leading to the official home of the Indian president, was repelled by policemen using tear-gas and water cannons.
Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party, which heads the national coalition government, met protesters at her residence yesterday.
"She heard all their demands and suggestions. We appeal to protesters to maintain peace," R P N Singh, the junior home minister, said.
The senior home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, has promised to amend the law to ensure "enhanced and more effective punishment in the rarest of rare cases of sexual assault".
Although Mr Shinde did not specify that this would include the death penalty, his use of the phrase "rarest of rare" - which is used in India when death sentences are pronounced - suggested capital punishment.
As the protests unfolded and raged over the weekend, the victim of the December 16 gang-rape, still recovering in a hospital, submitted her statement to the police.
Along with a male friend, she said, she had watched a movie and then unknowingly boarded an off-duty bus occupied by six other men.
The men, police said, were drunk and joyriding in the bus. "All six men took turns to sexually assault me," the police quoted the victim as saying. "They threw us on the side of the road, where I then fainted."
Nilanjana S Roy, a New Delhi-based writer who attended the protests, said that the latter half of Saturday's protests "were taken over by opportunists and political parties and lumpen elements."
"But on Saturday morning, it was the most astonishing thing I've seen in Delhi: mostly young students who were confused about what they wanted to accomplish but who knew that things had to change," Ms Roy told The National.
Ms Roy remarked that yesterday's crowd was better organised than the one on Saturday.
"This protest march is being led by the All India Students Association, among other student bodies," she said, standing in the middle of a crowd of roughly 500 people who were raising slogans and moving in the direction of India Gate early yesterday. "There haven't been any obstructions by the police so far and they've been cooperative."
An hour later, the first tear-gas rounds were fired at India Gate.
Although the weekend's demonstrations were triggered by last week's rape, they have also drawn upon a wellspring of frustration over how increasingly unsafe women feel in Indian cities.
According to statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau, the incidence of rape rose by 9.2 per cent in 2011. During the past six years, rape cases have spiked by 25 per cent. National crime records show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year were against women.
Delhi has shot into particularly sharp focus in the protests against sexual assault. Government figures have shown that the number of rapes in the city rose by 17 per cent to 661 this year.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse