x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Protests in New Delhi against rape overshadow India's Republic Day

Some say that today's festivities, while well-attended, do not disguise the discontent simmering beneath the surface of Indian politics, whether with rampant corruption or violence against women. Suryatapa Bhattacharya and Samanth Subramanian report from New Delhi

Activists protest against what they call the Indian government's lax response to the gang rape of a university student last month. Raveendran / AFP
Activists protest against what they call the Indian government's lax response to the gang rape of a university student last month. Raveendran / AFP

NEW DELHI // By tradition, Republic Day commemorations in India are highlighted by a display of the military might available to defend the nation.

Today, demonstrators used the occasion to protest against the country's inability to adequately defend more than half of its own population against sexual assault.

Hundreds of people, mostly students, marched through the streets of the Indian capital demanding implementation of a government panel's recommendation that India strictly enforce sexual assault laws, commit to holding speedy rape trials and change the antiquated penal code to protect women.

"Freedom for Women", the protesters chanted as they marched to Jantar Mantar, the main area for protests close to the parliament in New Delhi. The march was organised by the All India Students Association and several other groups.

Still, calls by activists for a boycott of Republic Day festivities, marking the day in 1950 when India's constitution came into effect, completing the country's transition from a British colony to an independent republic, went largely unheeded.

Tens of thousands of Indians gathered along the Raj Path (King's Road) to watch parading columns of soldiers in dress uniform, military bands and models of the latest additions to the country's arsenal.

More than 20,000 police and paramilitary personnel were deployed to protect the parade route. Along the same avenue last month, demonstrators denouncing authorities for what they said was their lax response to the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old university student were beaten by police and dispersed with tear gas and water cannons.

Nilanjana Roy, a well-known journalist and literary critic who, with others, said the efforts by authorities to maintain calm and keep demonstrators away from the main parade route and India Gate, a national monument, were emblematic of the divisions over violence against women that afflict the country.

"The message coming through is: 'This isn't for you, this is for us and our parade,'" said Ms Roy, who along with other activists called for a boycott of Republic Day festivities.

At the protests last month, she noted, there were teenagers along the same road holding up anti-rape slogans. Now there are "signs all over that are brought to you by the ministry of defence", she said.

Madhav Nalapat, a professor of geopolitics at Manipal University in the state of Karnataka, said that today's festivities, while well-attended, does not disguise the discontent simmering beneath the surface of Indian politics, whether the anger is with rampant corruption or violence against women.

"The public isn't enthused by the parade any more. They want substance. They want better governance, and they're not getting that from the current system. The year 2012, the year of the protests, was the year when substance trumped symbolism," Mr Nalapat said.

On the eve of Republic Day, the India's president, Pranab Mukherjee said it was time for the country to "reset its moral compass" in the rape of the university student on December 16 and her death from her injuries two weeks later.

Mr Mukherjee's words rang hollow, however, to some protesters still bitter about the tactics used by authorities to ensure yesterday's celebrations came off without incident.

"We were forced to leave the grounds, we are asked [by police] to go home straight from work or college," said Sarita Singh, a 26-year-old social worker who was at the protests. "How can we make our voices heard? That is the question we want to know."

"India Gate is a public space. It cannot be taken by the government and closed off when they want for their own purposes. That is against how this country works."

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Associated Press