One youngster died, another is critical, and several others were injured after Telangana police allegedly opened fire on hundreds of protesters at Secunderabad railway station on Friday morning as agitations against the Centre’s new Agnipath scheme for recruiting soldiers across the three services escalated into large-scale violence and arson.
Hundreds of protesters, most of them with their faces covered with handkerchiefs, thronged the Secunderabad railway station Friday morning at around 9 am, demanding long-term Army recruitment instead of the new four-year period of service.
The situation escalated with protesters going on a rampage, setting at least three trains and several stalls on fire, vandalising trains, blocking railway tracks with two-wheelers, wooden boxes, garbage cans, gunny bags and wheelbarrows of railway porters, and stealing goods kept in the parcel office. An official of the Railway Protection Force said that one train was set on fire.
Protesters also damaged offices on Platform Nos 1 and 10, ransacked computers and electronics, destroyed CCTV cameras, lights and fans on all 10 platforms and pelted stones on the police. Food and convenience stalls on all the platforms were also looted and set on fire. As the protesters tried to enter electric locomotive engines, railway officials cut power to the entire railway station.
In videos that have gone viral, protesters could be seen wielding long sticks and smashing signboards, fans and electronic display boards, as well as stalled trains and shops and establishments.
To disperse the mob, the police reportedly fired at least 10 rounds. Gandhi hospital superintendent Dr Raja Rao confirmed that one person was brought dead to the hospital. Thirteen people are undergoing treatment at the hospital. One of them is critical with a bullet injury in the chest and his surgery is underway.
With all the facilities for passengers, cabins of railway officials and properties on all 10 platforms being destroyed, South Central Railway (SCR) officials called for an emergency meeting and estimated that property worth at least Rs 20 crore has been damaged.
Lakhs of passengers use Secunderabad railway station every day. Following the violence at the station, the SCR announced the immediate cancellation of 71 long-distance trains and 5 local MMTS trains. Adjoining Secunderabad East and West metro stations were shut down. Soon, the Hyderabad Metro suspended all operations for the day.
Secunderabad is also the headquarters of the South Central Railways. Railway Protection Force, Government Railway Police and the local police forces were outnumbered by the protesters.
Later, as protesters sat on the railway tracks blocking trains, police vacated the railway station and blocked the roads leading to it. Protesters continued shouting slogans against the Union government as police prevented them from coming onto the platforms.
Harsha (24), one of the protesters, said that the agitation will continue till the government announces dates for the written exam for Common Entrance Exam(CEE). “For two years, we have been waiting for the exam dates. I have qualified for physical and medical levels. About 5,000 youngsters like me who dream of joining the Army are left with no other option but to protest indefinitely,” he said.
By noon, DGP (Rail and Road Safety) Sandeep Shandiliya held a round of talks with the protesters and left, assuring that he would take their demands to higher-ups.
“We were protesting peacefully on the tracks. Why did the RPF battalion charge against us? That is when our protest turned violent. We had no option but to protect ourselves. Now, protests are happening nationwide. Who gave orders to open fire? One of us is dead now. Who will take the responsibility?” a protester asked.
According to him, the police have asked the protesters to approach the Army centre and submit representations to the government. “We are not going to fall for this. We won’t move from here till the Centre abolishes Agnipath and announces exam dates for CCE,” another protester added. They said at least 5,000 Army aspirants from Telangana awaiting announcement of dates for written exams are in contact with each other on WhatsApp.