Over the past few months, India’s capital has seen an increasing number of protests against corruption, but until now, police avoided making use of their weapons in favour of simply arresting demonstrators. However, a scandal involving the government’s sale of coal fields has made tensions boil over. On Sunday, police quelled an impromptu protest with bamboo batons, water cannons, and tear gas.
Hundreds of protesters – supporters of the nationwide organisation India Against Corruption – were trying to approach the homes of several of the country’s political leaders when the police decided to crack down. The protesters were angry over an audit report claiming that the government’s sale of coal fields without competitive bidding cost the country 33 billion dollars (about 26 billion euros).
Police use a water cannon on protesters, behind barricades, in New Delhi on Sunday.
According to Gopal Mohan, one of the founding members of India Against Corruption, this kind of violence had never been meted out to its supporters in New Delhi:
The authorities tend to be more careful in the capital, as anything that happens here can spread like wildfire to the rest of the country. A little over a year ago, when they attacked another anti-corruption activist and his followers, their reputation suffered terribly. [In June 2011, police conducted a night raid on the protest camp of Baba Ramdev and his supporters, who were protesting against “black money”.] Since then, they have usually just arrested anti-corruption protesters. [During a major protest two weeks ago, they arrested 1,300 people.]
I think the authorities cracked down on us because, in the past, when we protested against everyday corruption – that is, having to pay bribes for everything from drivers’ licenses to birth and death certificates – the government could still ignore us. However, this time, we have an official report by one of the highest authorities in the country, the Comptroller and Auditor General, proving our leaders at the highest level have engaged in corruption. The government has no answer for this; its back is against the wall.
The police may also have felt they had more leeway because, while opposition parties would usually raise a ruckus against any violence against protesters, the opposition is also implicated in this scandal. [Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also defended his government by alleging that opposition bore responsibility for creating the system for selling off coal blocks.]