Entering Delhi’s largest “detention centre” was blindingly simple. Or then, perhaps, we didn’t know any better. “Come in, come in,” waved the clutch of policemen, “take a look at what’s happening.” In we went. And before you could say Anna, we had become “guests” of the state. For over two hours on the evening of August 16, the day Anna Hazare was arrested and sent to Delhi’s Tihar Jail, a couple of Outlook journalists were illegally detained in North Delhi’s Chatrasal stadium, the detention centre for about 1,700 of his supporters.
The police strategy was smart, aggressive and devious — and one that IPS sources say is definitely micro-managed by the “higher up” (note the singular!). There was no way the state could hold so many people for too long. But at that stage, with Anna Hazare still in jail, the police was more than happy to encourage more people to step into the spiffy stadium, note their details, and keep them there, contained. The road outside the stadium — neatly sanitized by a huge police force — had a lot more protestors. Many of them knew the quid pro quo; but some, we noticed, just stepped in out of curiosity.
Inside the stadium, it was calm, even festive in parts. A couple of ringleaders made speeches, without loudspeakers, at the centre of the stadium. While corruption was a recurring theme, the overall tone was anti-government, and there were loud cheers of laughter as the speakers took potshots at Sonia Gandhi and the Manmohan Singh-led government. There were all kinds of people gathered around, from farmers to middle-aged families to kurta-clad activists. Representatives of Left unions were around, and so were members of the religious Right. A volunteer was distributing booklets on Sonia Gandhi by an organization dubbed Sanskriti Rakshak Sangh. But there appeared to be no overt political hand at play.
Predominantly there were young students — of both sexes — huddled in little groups, chatting and laughing, discussing how they could fight corruption (“listen to me, do you really need to pay that Rs 100 to the policeman?”). The students we spoke to were knowledgeable about Anna Hazare’s demands about the Lokpal Bill. They seemed passionate, assured and at ease. “Don’t worry, we’ll all get out,” they reassured us. You have to be young to run around and around the synthetic tracks, waving a flag, with a bunch cheering you on. One flag-decked man even did 400 meters on roller skates. And the crowd in the middle would race up and down the stairs, in what seemed like a version of the Mexican Wave, but was more an attempt to capture the attention of the crowds outside and to escape the light drizzle.
And what about the police? They had ringed the stadium with a sea of khaki, shutting all the doors. Of course, people were still trickling in. When we asked a senior police officer when everybody would be let out, he replied, tiredly: “I’m also dying to get home, I haven’t slept for days. First there was Independence Day, and now this…”. But as the evening wore on, the crowds started getting restless, demanding to know under what section they were being detained. The men in khaki had no response.
Later, we joked that the ultimate subversive act would have been offering to bribe a policeman to let us out! But, luckily, we managed to step out by showing our press identity cards. As we gingerly walked pass the sea of khaki and TV vans outside, it felt good to be free. But there was lot about that evening detention that smelt terribly wrong too.