Hitting the streets for the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March, Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were prevented Thursday from going to the village of the Hathras Dalit teenager, who died after she was brutally assaulted and allegedly gangraped by upper caste men. Their cavalcade was stopped en route, after which they began to walk, only to be arrested by the Uttar Pradesh Police.
Dramatic visuals of Rahul walking with over a hundred party workers, falling during a scuffle with police personnel, and both him and Priyanka — the Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh — being taken away in a police vehicle were a strong signal, meant for both the ranks of the grand old party and others, who have been urging the Gandhis to take on a more hands-on role.
The UP Police offered them that opportunity on a platter on Thursday. Several opposition leaders rallied behind the Gandhis, and slammed the state government, even as the BJP called it a photo-op.
The Opposition, particularly the Congress, has been accused of not being visible on the ground. Many in the Congress too have been arguing that it is high time the leadership “came out of the Twitter world” and hit the streets. During the lockdown, Rahul had come out only once to meet migrants.
Rahul and Priyanka set off for Hathras around 12.30 pm, along with senior Congress leaders Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Randeep Surjewala and party women’s wing chief Sushmita Dev among others, after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi. “We knew we would not be allowed. We were prepared,” a top leader told The Indian Express.
At 1.30 pm, the cavalcade was stopped on the Yamuna Expressway, and the Gandhis said they would walk to Hathras, over 140 km away. “That message had to be given, that we will not back out,” a leader who was part of their team said.
When the UP Police physically stopped them from moving forward around an hour later, with Rahul falling in the melee, the Congress leader pressed on, demanding to know under what rule he was being arrested. When a police officer cited Section 188 of the IPC (disobedience to order promulgated by a public servant), Rahul asked him to explain the provision. When the police officer said Section 144 was in place, he said, “I am not going to violate 144. I want to go alone.” He told reporters, “I want to ask, can only Modiji walk in this country? Can’t a normal person walk?”
Noida ADCP Ranvijay Singh later said a case under IPC Section 188 and the Epidemic Diseases Act had been registered against Rahul and Priyanka. He denied there was a lathicharge, and added that they couldn’t have let the Congress leaders proceed to Hathras due to Section 144 being imposed there. On Rahul’s statement that he was ready to go alone to Hathras, the ADCP said, “Rahul Gandhi cannot go anywhere without his security cover, which means there will be more than five people.”
The teenager’s village was completely barricaded by the police starting Thursday morning, with no outsiders — including mediapersons — allowed till late night. Only the SIT formed to investigate the case, the DM and SDM were inside the village with the family.
Around 4 pm, Rahul and Priyanka were taken to a guest house in Greater Noida, as Congress workers sat on a dharna. About an hour later, released on bail, they were sent back to Delhi, escorted by police vehicles.
“Repeatedly we were stopped when we set off on foot with Rahul… We were beaten with lathis… Many of our workers are injured… but our resolve is strong… The lathis of an arrogant government cannot stop us,” Priyanka tweeted.
Talking to reporters, she asked why the BJP that claims to be the custodian of Hindu religion did not allow a father to light the funeral pyre of his daughter. “I am angry. I am a woman, I have an 18-year-old daughter… Every woman, every daughter, every sister of the country should be angry.”
“Jungle raj in UP has come to such a pass that even meeting a family which is immersed in grief scares the government. Don’t be so afraid, Mr Chief Minister,” Rahul tweeted.
If the Congress is hoping that the UP government’s handling of the Hathras woman’s death might find resonance among Dalits, especially given the Bihar elections — BJP Dalit MPs are among those who have expressed unease — Rahul will next take up another issue that the Opposition is rallying around. In the coming days, he will be travelling to Punjab and Haryana holding “tractor yatras” in protest against the recently passed farm laws.
The Congress, that has lost a lot of ground in UP, sees a space vacated by parties like the BSP. The Hathras incident also strengthens its criticism of the Yogi Adityanath government over the law and order situation, voiced by Priyanka daily in tweets. Neither the BSP nor the Samajwadi Party has taken up the Hathras death yet.
The Congress’s silence on the other hot-button issue, Wednesday’s Babri verdict acquitting all the 32 accused, has been striking in contrast. However, the party doesn’t want to give the BJP an opening to rally its supporters on the issue, and hence limited its reaction to slamming the order.
Among the Opposition leaders who criticised the UP Police’s actions was NCP chief Sharad Pawar. “It is reprehensible for those who are supposed to uphold the law to trample upon democratic values,” he said. JD(S) leader H D Deve Gowda, the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan all called the protest and Rahul’s demand to visit the Hathras village “a democratic right”. Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said never before in the country had the police dared to manhandle national leaders.
In a statement, the Gautam Buddha Nagar Police said Rahul and Priyanka’s cavalcade had comprised 200 party workers and 50 vehicles. “Congress party workers pushed police personnel around. Both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi started walking with their party workers, which led to a massive traffic jam in which ambulances also got stuck.”
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