A popular protest spot in Hyderabad has become the subject of a heated agitation in the city.

On Monday, Indira Park, the site of a designated protest spot known as Dharna Chowk, saw violent clashes between a group representing activists and Telangana’s Opposition parties and another purportedly comprising residents of colonies near the park. The two were sparring over the state government’s decision to bar protests at Indira Park and move them to a spot on the outskirts of the city. While the Telangana Joint Action Committee, an activist group, joined by the Congress, the Left parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Telegu Desam Party have opposed the move, residents are in favour of it. As the clashes between opposing groups turned violent, the police lathi-charged agitators, injuring some.

The clashes began after the participants of the “Occupy Dharna Chowk” protest led by the Telangana Joint Action Committee-led group entered the park to find that a group of agitators had already gathered there, demanding that the government go ahead with the plan to move the protest site.

Telangana journalists/via Facebook
Telangana journalists/via Facebook

Hyderabad’s Jantar Mantar

The Dharna Chowk at the Indira Park is located close to the state secretariat and Assembly, and is the preferred site for protests, similar to New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. In February, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti led by Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao expressed support for a proposal by the Hyderabad Police to move protests out of the Indira Park and to a spot on the outskirts. The ruling party claimed the decision was prompted by frequent complaints by residents who were fed up of noisy agitations and crowds disrupting their daily lives.

However, the move was seen as a way to curb dissent in the state and Opposition parties as well as the Telangana Joint Action Committee had been opposing it since. As recently as May 12, as a precursor to the Occupy Dharna Chowk stir, a silent protest was held at another site in the city. None of the earlier protests had escalated into violence. So how did the events on Monday take a violent turn?

Chaos and clashes

A few hours before activists and Opposition parties were set to enter the Dharna Chowk on Monday, Hyderabad Police Commissioner Mahender Reddy announced that permission had been granted for protests by residents as well as by groups opposing the relocation of the spot.

A slogan chanted from the group representing residents is said to have set off an argument between the two camps, which soon turned violent. The Telangana Joint Action Committee-led group, as well as some media reports alleged that the residents’ group also had some members planted by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti and plainclothes policemen. They alleged that it was a policewoman dressed in plainclothes who had chanted the slogan that had set off the clashes, which also saw chairs and tables being thrown. The Hyderabad police then entered the melee and caned the agitators.

via Facebook
via Facebook

Stifling dissent?

Monday’s incident led to a flurry of criticism for the ruling government and political observers said it was ironic that KCR, as the chief minister is known, who had risen to fame through protests demanding statehood for Telangana, was curbing agitations.

The government responded by obfuscating its stance on the proposal to shift the protest site. Hours after the clashes on Monday, KCR met Governor ESL Narasimhan, informing him that some “vested interests” were trying to create law and order issues in Hyderabad under the guise of agitating against shifting of the protest site. “The government is yet to take a final decision on the issue,” he reportedly told the governor. “The locals near Indira Park have moved the High Court seeking relocation of the Chowk and the court had asked the police to consider their request and suggest alternative locations. That is all.”

However, Opposition parties said this was the Telangana Rashtra Samiti’s strategy to pit Opposition parties against city residents. “Why have the residents not voiced their concern till this day? asked Telangana state Congress President Uttam Reddy. “During the Telangana [statehood] agitation, noise and disturbance was at the peak. Why did they not protest then?”

Different voices

Political observers see the ban on protests at Indira Park as a way to weaken the Telangana Joint Action Committee and its chairman, Professor Kodandaram, a compatriot-turned-critic of KCR. Kondadaram and KCR had together been at the forefront of the movement for the creation of Telangana. However, differences emerged between the two after KCR took charge as chief minister of the newly formed state.

The state government had announced its support for moving protests out of Indira Park just days ahead of a rally for unemployed youth in the state, led by the Kondadaram and the Telangana Joint Action Committee. The rally, scheduled on February 22, was to be held at the Dharna Chowk, but did not get a go-ahead from the state government. The state foiled the protests by arresting several Committee leaders, including Kodandaram, ahead of the rally.

“For the last 20 years and also for the Telangana movement I have led demonstrations and rallies at this venue,” Kodankaram said. “None of the locals had objected and instead had showed us hospitality then.”

He added: “Such blatant misuse of official machinery against protesters was never seen earlier. How can police, in civil clothes, sit in the opposite camp and attack us?”

Human rights activist Professor Hargopal, who has been campaigning against the plan to shift Dharna Chowk, compared the situation in Telangana to the 1975 Emergency under Indira Gandhi, when criticism of the ruling Congress was vehemently put down. “More or less similar situation is prevalent in Telangana today,” he said.

However, residents said noisy protests at the Dharna Chowk were a nuisance for locals and morning walkers at the Indira Park. “Our children and women are affected by free speech of political parties, day in and day out,” said K Ananda Rao, who lives in the Life Insurance Corporation colony near Indira Park.

Park Walkers Association president A Sudhakar Yadav said, “We are not opposed to the dharnas but are upset with non-stop blaring of loudspeakers and the added nuisance of vendors throughout the day.”