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Jantar Mantar: India’s protest street

Some protests attract crowds in their thousands while other causes are championed by lone campaigners

  • Protesters shout slogans against the government as they are hit by a water cannon during a protest against theImage Credit: AFP
  • Members of the Indian Youth Congress shout anti-government slogans during a protest against the demonetisationImage Credit: AFP
  • Activists of Hindu Sena offer sweets to a poster of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.Image Credit: AFP
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New Delhi: At one end of a backstreet in downtown Delhi a group of women hold a vigil to demand rapists be executed, while at the other acolytes of a spiritual leader arrested for sexual assault demand his release.

Anyone seeking a glimpse of the bewildering range of issues animating voters in the world’s largest democracy should stroll past parliament and head a few hundreds yards north to Jantar Mantar.

Here on any given day, everyone from retired generals to landless widows can be seen holding forth in a tree-lined avenue tucked behind some of the city’s swankiest hotels and most famous landmarks.

Some protests attract crowds in their thousands while other causes are championed by lone campaigners who hand out leaflets to curious passers-by.

A stone’s throw from India’s corridors of power and fenced off with barricades, Jantar Mantar carries echoes of Speaker’s Corner in London or the Occupy movement’s takeover of McPherson Square in Washington.

But as the smell of freshly-cooked dosas and other street food wafts down the road, mingling with the smoke of hand-rolled bidi cigarettes — it has a uniquely Indian aroma.

The mishmash of malcontents includes some who turn up day after day for years and others who camp out overnight to air their grievances.

A veteran demanding reforms to army pensions poisoned himself to death in early November and in 2015, a farmer hanged himself from a tree in front of horrified onlookers.

Santosh Singh has been protesting here for four years to persuade authorities to return land that he says was effectively stolen by his own family by declaring him dead.

Singh says his family destroyed all his records and then told the authorities he had died because they wanted his land for themselves.

“The media is witness to the fact that I’m alive,” Singh told AFP when asked what motivated him day after day.

Anjit Kumar, an official in the Aam Aadmi anticorruption party who is a regular visitor in support of a string of causes, says Jantar Mantar is a good place to catch the eye of journalists milling around parliament.

“You can show your strength there,” he said.

Civil protests have a rich history in India, with Mahatma Gandhi’s campaigns of non-violence, such as the 1930 Salt March, playing a vital part in shaping opposition to British colonial rule.

In the early 1990s, protesters in Delhi used to be able to march up and down Rajpath, the thoroughfare which sweeps past the presidential palace and major government ministries that were built by the British.

But authorities then began imposing restrictions, eventually designating Jantar Mantar as one of the few places where protesters could gather.

Local historian Sohail Hashmi said it was shameful politicians had shunted their critics into a side street.

“Those mass mobilisations on Rajpath were an opportunity for the people to communicate their anger directly to the government. Now it’s no longer possible to do anything more than have a symbolic protest,” said Hashmi.

“How can a government, an elected government, refuse to meet people who have brought them to power?”

While ministers and lawmakers rarely deign to visit, the ranks of outside broadcast vans attest to the media’s appetite for the protesters’ stories.

When Donald Trump won the US presidency, cameramen were on hand to capture a group of ultranationalist Hindus celebrate by banging drums.

Some campaigners are less interested in publicity but rather want to demonstrate commitment to a cause, whatever the personal sacrifice.

One group of women has been campaigning for nearly four years to demand the death penalty for anyone convicted of rape, including minors, since a deadly gang-rape on a bus in Delhi in December 2012.

Some initially quit their jobs but “life became very difficult to manage and they had to go back to work,” said one of the protesters who comes in the evenings after a day in the office.

Further down the line is an equally passionate group whose demand is for the release of Asaram Bapu, a self-proclaimed Hindu goodman or guru, who has been in custody since 2013 on charges of sexual assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

Several hundred of the 75-year-old Bapu’s supporters clashed with police in May — one of the rare occasions when Jantar Mantar’s general culture of lively but peaceful protest degenerated into violence.