The Struggle Over Hyderabad's 'Dharna Chowk' Is Bringing Out the Worst in KCR

Not even the chief minister's harshest critics would have imagined that the leader who built his political career through agitations would virtually ban dissent.

Hyderabad: K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s (KCR) dictatorial tendencies became clear to his associates the moment the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) chief took over as the first chief minister of the newly-created state and started running the government as his personal fief. But even his worst critics had not imagined that a leader who built his political career through agitations would virtually ban agitations and resort to subterfuge for this purpose.

About 2 km away from the state secretariat is Indira Park, close to which there is a designated Dharna Chowk where agitators of all hues and colours come to register their protests. But KCR now wants to ban dharnas at Dharna Chowk and move it 40 km away, to the outskirts of the city. Although all dharnas will be banned, the move is specifically targeted against professor M. Kodandaram who, as the Convener of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC), is fast emerging as the focal point for all opposition to the chief minister and his policies. “Dharna Chowk is a democratic space available to us. There is no meaning to an agitation space outside the city. All opposition to government policies should find expression near the seat of the government,” says Kodandaram.

Dharna Chowk has been in existence for 12 years and has an interesting history. Some time in 2005, the then chief justice of the Andhra Pradesh high court was caught in a massive traffic jam that delayed him for an appointment. On enquiring about the reason for the jam, the judge came to realise that a massive public agitation had caused the snarl. Next, he called the then Hyderabad police commissioner Dinesh Reddy and wondered why Hyderabad (like Delhi) could not have a designated place for public demonstrations like Jantar Mantar. “Thus we identified this place near Indira Park that is now called Dharna Chowk. A government order was issued sanctifying the place,” Reddy says. This also means that the government can only change the venue for dharnas through a new government order that will supersede the earlier one designating the present Dharna Chowk. However, it is doubtful that anybody has brought this to the notice of the chief minister, say government sources. After Dharna Chowk came up, the place has been liberally used for protests – and those using the venue also included the ruling TRS before it came to power.

Although the move to ban dharnas at the present Dharna Chowk is aimed at curbing dissent, KCR’s associates seek to demonstrate that this is only in deference to the wishes of neighbouring communities. It is said that resident welfare associations of colonies in the neighbourhood and walkers’ associations of the area have complained that the regular protests disrupt their lives. On Monday, May 15, when TJAC members led by Kodandaram sought to ‘occupy Dharna Chowk’, many placards went up (including from women) that effectively said that Dharna Chowk should not be Dharna Chowk. TV cameras and newspaper photographers present there in large numbers and were surprised to find a lady police inspector, K. Sridevi, posted in a neighbouring area posing with an anti-Dharna Chowk placard. She was in mufti and journalists said that many of those demanding the removal of Dharna Chowk were policemen disguised as local residents. The local deputy commissioner of police was hard pressed to answer why the lady inspector was displaying the placard and said that an inquiry would be ordered. He revealed that the inspector had been deployed in plain clothes to keep surveillance on potential mischief makers. Meanwhile, with local television channels flashing pictures of Sridevi holding the placard, the lady inspector disappeared. She reappeared a little while later in uniform, but without the placard. On Tuesday, as a departmental inquiry was ordered, Sridevi was transferred to the police control room. The departmental inquiry is also to investigate newspaper reports about policemen in plainclothes taking part in anti-Dharna Chowk protests.

What was interesting was that the day TJAC decided to protest the move to dismantle Dharna Chowk was also the day that local residents decided to express their discontent about Dharna Chowk existing. As a result, violence broke out between the two demonstrating groups with chairs, tables and rods being hurled at each other.  This was is in spite of the deployment of 1,000 police personnel, with barricades and riot control vehicles.

However, Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee chief Uttam Kumar Reddy, who led a march of party representatives from Congress Bhavan to Dharna Chowk, claimed that TRS cadres and policemen in mufti had been pressed into action to counter protest. This is something that mediapersons covering the incident also seemed to feel. By implication, there was a vested interest in allowing the situation to get out of control and turn violent. Kodandaram said that he had never seen such blatant misuse of the official machinery. “How can police personnel sit in mufti on the opposite side and get up to attack us,” Kodandaram, who was later booked by the police, asked. The Congress, TDP, BJP and the left parties are all supporting the TJAC in its Save Dharna Chowk campaign.

Possibly as a tactic, on the evening of May 15, KCR called upon the governor of Telangana to brief him about the trouble at Dharna Chowk. According to sources, the chief minister told the governor that “no final decision” had been taken to shift the Dharna Chowk but there was a proposal to identify four different spots on four corners of the city for the purpose. He also claimed that the local residents had approached the high court asking for the removal of Dharna Chowk and that’s why the police had stopped giving permissions to hold rallies at the spot pending a final order. Incidentally, the police claim that there was no permission to both the parties to hold agitations at Dharna Chowk. But newspaper reports claimed that police had allowed permission informally for ‘one day’ to both the parties to protest and offered them immunity from arrests. Even Hyderabad police commissioner Mahender Reddy was quoted saying so in the morning, before the trouble broke out.

“It is quite clear that KCR wants to snuff out all political dissent and will go to any length to do this. Osmania University was the focal point for the Telangana statehood movement. But the chief minister wants to even silence the students there,” concludes P. Vinay Kumar, a surgeon-turned-politico who proposes to move court on the Dharna Chowk issue.

Kingshuk Nag worked as resident editor of the Times of India in Hyderabad for many years. Prior to that he was the TOI’s resident editor in Ahmedabad.