NEW DELHI — The heart of India’s capital was gridlocked Tuesday, with police and protesters clashing during the second day of a standoff between police and the city’s chief minister.
Activist Arvind Kejriwal swept to power on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment just about three weeks ago, but he was back on the streets Tuesday, leading a protest against alleged police misconduct that roiled the city core. Major roads were blocked, subway stations were closed, and commuters were stuck in traffic. Tensions heightened through the day as the crowd swelled, with some protesters jumping barricades and throwing stones. More than two dozen officers and civilians were injured.
Late in the day, a jubilant Kejriwal — nursing a cough and swathed in a head scarf — emerged to say that he had decided to call off the protest after police officials agreed to place some officers on leave.
“The people of Delhi have won today,” Kejriwal said as his supporters cheered.
An unprecedented scene had unfolded on the street Tuesday just steps from Parliament as the chief minister sat inside his small blue car away from the clamor, holding meetings and reading and signing government documents. Supporters pressed their faces against the car windows and took pictures as he worked. Kejriwal and about 400 others had slept on mattresses overnight on the street, braving the wet winter chill. The protest had delayed and inconvenienced thousands over two days.
“This is madness,” said Sushma Sharma, 52, a government employee who works near the site. “We want our chief minister to govern and bring order to the street, not create more unrest. This is irresponsible.”
But in an interview Tuesday, Kejriwal rejected such criticism.
“Who is saying that I am spreading chaos?” he said. “Who are all these people who are saying I am spreading anarchy? If staging a peaceful sit-in makes me an anarchist, then, yes, I am an anarchist.”
The tension began last week, when a Kejriwal cabinet minister and supporters descended upon a Delhi neighborhood that they said was beset by prostitution and drug-dealing. The cabinet minister ordered police to begin making arrests, and the officers refused, saying they lacked the proper warrants. Four African women later said they were roughed up by supporters of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party in the early-morning raid, prompting rebukes from African diplomats.
Kejriwal was also critical of the police’s handling of the high-
profile gang rape this month of a Danish tourist and was demanding that authority over police be transferred to the Delhi government. New Delhi, a city of 16 million, functions as a state, but it is a union territory with a police force overseen by the central government. Late Tuesday, it appeared that the government had conceded partially to Kejriwal’s demands, placing officers involved in the two cases on temporary leave.
Kejriwal was a well-known activist who had crusaded against government corruption when he founded Aam Aadmi in 2012. After the party surprised the political establishment by performing well in the Delhi elections in December, its ranks swelled by thousands amid hopes that it could compete in national elections this spring.
But critics say the party’s performance in recent days has raised questions about its members’ ability to govern. In his first days in office, Kejriwal has riled the establishment by refusing police protection and moving to block expansion of foreign investment in the city.
Manish Tewari, minister of state for information and broadcasting, said the party has been unable to make the transition from agitators to administrators, adding that it was “reducing administration to anarchy and governance to gimmickry.”
During Tuesday’s protests, Neeru Nanda, a 66-year-old retired civil servant who had worked for the Delhi government, argued with some Aam Aadmi members, saying the chaotic scene near Parliament made her uncomfortable.
“We all supported and worked to make AAP come to power. We wanted a good man to be the chief minister of Delhi, and Kejriwal is a good man. But I must say, I am a little disappointed and am uncomfortable with what is going on now,” Nanda said. “It is time to govern. If you want to continue protesting, then sit in the opposition.”
But many support Kejriwal’s stand against Delhi police, who have a reputation for bribe-taking and other misdeeds. On Tuesday, the union of street vendors expressed support for the protest.
Vinoo Samuel, 49, a Web designer, also defended Kejriwal.
“He’s doing things differently because that is the only way the old order will change,” Samuel said. “We have become too used to things making no difference one way or the other, so any action is seen as disturbing. I don’t think Delhi cops or corruption will change without some kind of drastic action.”