NEW DELHI- Indian riot police armed with batons beat back dozens of supporters of Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday to prevent them from joining the self-declared anarchist at a sit-in protest.
On the second day of his dramatic showdown with the capital’s police force, Kejriwal ruled out all talk of negotiations and then watched his supporters try and storm the barricades sealing off the protest site outside the home ministry.
The police drove back around 100 of them using sticks known as lathis, leaving many with cuts and bruises but no immediate sign of serious injuries.
The clashes came after Kejriwal, a grassroots anti-corruption crusader before coming to power last month, vowed to escalate a campaign which opponents have dismissed as a publicity stunt.
“We will continue our protest. How can Home Minister (Sushilkumar) Shinde sleep when so many crimes are happening in Delhi? When women are unsafe in the city? We won’t negotiate,” Kejriwal told reporters.
Hundreds of police have barricaded off the roads leading to the protest, causing traffic chaos and forcing the closure of nearby subway stations.
More than 1,300 police have been deployed at the protest site, a high-security area that houses the parliament and the presidency building, said deputy police commissioner SPS Tyagi.
“Since early today morning the supporters .. have tried to break the security barriers a couple of times. But we won’t allow that to happen. We have the full deployments and arrangements in place,” Tyagi told AFP.
Kejriwal was sworn in as chief minister of the city of 17 million last month after his new Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party made sensational gains in state elections against India’s two biggest parties.
He plans to shake up national elections due before May by once again taking on the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Kejriwal began his protest on Monday to demand that the city police, widely viewed as corrupt and inefficient, be transferred to his state government’s control from the national home ministry.
He says the police, the focus of public fury after the fatal gang-rape of a student in December 2012, have failed to prevent crimes against women.
As he launched the sit-in, Kejriwal told supporters: “Yes, I’m an anarchist.”
But after enjoying overwhelmingly positive media coverage and support from the poor and middle-class, there are signs his latest campaign has backfired and the honeymoon is over.
“Anarchist CM (chief minister) Plunges Delhi Into Chaos,” read the front-page of The Hindu newspaper, while The Economic Times headlined “Kejriwal Reduces Govt to a Chaotic Street Play”.
Kejriwal, a former tax official, rejected criticism that he was failing to govern responsibly, and was instead relying on grassroots tactics.
“Some people say I’m not working, that the Delhi government is not working. We are here to support women’s safety which is an important issue,” he said.
Supporters sleep on the street
After speaking with reporters, Kejriwal moved into his small blue car parked at the protest site, with the windows rolled up to stay warm.
The 44-year-old chief minister slept overnight on a pavement under a thick blanket, awakening to rains and strong winds.
Supporters also slept on the pavement under plastic sheets while a state minister could be seen brushing his teeth in the street.
If the demonstration continues, it risks disrupting the annual Republic Day parade on Sunday when India’s military might goes on display.
Kejriwal’s sit-in caps a difficult week for his party, which hopes to surf a national wave of support for his anti-corruption cause by contesting parliamentary elections.
Last week Aam Aadmi politician and Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti was accused of vigilantism after he and his supporters detained four Ugandan women on suspicion of prostitution.
G K Vasan, a federal government minister with responsibility for Delhi, accused Kejriwal of shirking “his responsibility” and instead indulging in “a publicity stunt”.
Retired civil servant Neeru Nanda was among those taking part in the protest but questioned Kejriwal’s tactics.
“He has got power and should use it to first improve and reform the systems and the departments under him,” Nanda said.
“He is well intentioned but I don’t know why he is using this method.”