Violence erupts at Delhi chief minister's anti-police protest

by Reuters
Tuesday, 21 January 2014 12:26 GMT

* Police, protesters clash in sensitive district housing ministries

* New chief minister's party seeks national prominence ahead of national election

* Protest and chief minister's tactics have divided public opinion (Recasts with clashes between police and protesters)

By Frank Jack Daniel

NEW DELHI, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Police clashed with protesters led by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday, the first violence during a two-day rally in the heart of India's capital that has put a focus on the radical politics of the man shaking up a national election.

Television images showed a group of police punching and kicking one man after protesters toppled a barricade and surged through police lines at the rally. Other officers beat fallen protesters with sticks.

The clashes subsided quickly but hundreds of protesters remained at the site in one of India's most sensitive areas where top ministries are located. The standoff is a headache for the central government as it prepares for a military parade in the same area on Sunday.

Kejriwal launched the sit-in demonstration to protest against alleged inaction against crime by the city's police force, which is under central government control. He spent the night sleeping outside at the protest site.

"I am of the opinion and perhaps the public is also of the opinion that in any given area, at least 90 percent of the crime happens in connivance with the police," he told supporters after emerging from a blanket in the morning.

Coughing and struggling to speak, he declared that his protest was indefinite. He demanded the resignation of several officers who didn't follow the orders of one of his ministers last week, and said the police should report to him.

The corruption-fighting former activist was elected in December on promises of fixing problems faced by residents of the chaotic city of 16 million people. The protest comes just over a year after thousands of Delhi residents took to the streets to protest the gang-rape of a trainee physiotherapist.

Kejriwal's one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, is now trying to leverage its success in Delhi to build a national presence ahead of a general election due by May.

"This kind of effort will increase the Aam Aadmi Party's chances nationally by increasing its visibility," said Arvind Gupta, a telecommunications engineer who took a day off work to go to join supporters at the protest site.


In the first three weeks in office, Kejriwal has transferred dozens of officials accused of graft, slashed electricity and water prices and refused the posh housing and security that comes with his new job in an attack on hated VIP culture.

But he has also been criticised for his style of governing, after a near stampede earlier in January blighted a meeting where he called on Delhi residents to air their grievances and one of his ministers was filmed shouting at police.

The anti-police sit-in has divided opinion. Opponents called it anarchic and unseemly for an elected leader of a major city.

"Delhi aspires to becoming a global city," said Arun Jaitley, a leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. "This kind of behaviour that leads to anarchy, where there is complete rejection of the rule of law is totally unacceptable."

But the protest also tapped into deep anger with alleged police corruption and inaction in a city plagued by an epidemic of sex crimes.

His head wrapped in a woolly scarf, Kejriwal called on more supporters to join the protest, a move that could disrupt a military parade due on a nearby avenue on the 64th anniversary of India's constitution.

When an unseasonal rain storm drenched a crowd of a couple of hundred supporters, Kejriwal retreated to his trademark blue Maruti Wagon R, a low-cost car favoured by the city's taxi drivers, and held a cramped meeting with aides.

Kejriwal on Monday said he embraced the sobriquet of "anarchist" used by his critics, saying he wanted Delhi's political elite to feel the kind of anarchy that lawlessness brings to the lives of normal citizens.

His row with the police started last week, when one of his ministers was filmed arguing with police during a night raid in a neighbourhood popular with African immigrants. Police refused to search a house the minister claimed was being used as a brothel, saying they did not have a warrant to go in. (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Malini Menon and Ron Popeski)

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