New Delhi — Pressure is mounting for Delhi's law minister to be suspended after allegations he led a mob which illegally detained and harassed a group of African women on suspicion they were part of a prostitution and drugs racket.
Women's rights activists and opposition political parties said Somnath Bharti's attempt to raid an apartment in south Delhi early on Jan. 15 where Ugandan and Nigerian nationals were residing was not only illegal but also sexist and racist.
"We have asked the Lieutenant Governor to intervene and direct Delhi police to act according to the law. Whatever legal action is to be taken, should be taken," Arvinder Singh Lovely, a politician from the opposition Congress Party, told reporters after a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung on Thursday.
"The Lieutenant Governor has assured that he will see to it that an impartial probe takes place in the matter."
The women have lodged complaints with the police over the incident, alleging the mob led by Bharti threatened and intimidated them. Some said they were manhandled and beaten and forcibly taken to undergo medical examinations at a government hospital. One woman said she was forced to urinate in public.
"We were attacked on Wednesday night (Jan.15) by Indians who were led by Somnath Bharti. They are claiming we are blacks and we should leave their country. We were harassed, we were beaten, they had long sticks and they said we should leave their country or they'll kill us one by one. We don't know if being black is a crime," one Ugandan woman told reporters on Wednesday.
Bharti admits that an incident took place, but says there was no ill-treatment of the women. He says he was forced to act because police failed to do so despite complaints from local residents. Critics say he is promoting vigilantism in the Indian capital.
Bharti, a lawyer, is from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which swept to power in the Indian capital last month, promising to root out corruption and bring good governance to ordinary Indians disillusioned with paying bribes for what should be free public services.
FIGHTING FOR WOMEN?
Bharti has been backed by the AAP leadership, who staged an unprecedented two-day sit-in in the heart of the capital earlier this week, demanding that the ministry of home affairs suspend the police for not doing their job. They also demanded the suspension of police officers who had refused to take action in a case involving the burning of a woman over a dowry.
Two policemen - one involved in the case of the African nationals and one in the case of the gang rape of a Danish tourist last week - have since been asked to go on leave. Four people have been arrested in the dowry case.
The AAP says the sit-in, which brought parts of the city to a standstill, was necessary and that it wants the city police placed under its control.It says crime is on the rise and this is due partly to an incompetent and corrupt police force.
"This is a serious matter and racism in any form cannot be tolerated. The Lieutenant Governor has instituted a judicial inquiry ... " AAP spokesman Yogendra Yadav told NDTV news channel late on Wednesday. "...if we find that the minister has done any wrong, believe me, he will not be spared."
But in an open letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kerjirwal, over 40 academics and rights groups demanded action be taken against Bharti, and not against the police, who they said were doing their duty.
"It is with extreme dismay that we write to you regarding the horrific act of harassment and racial profiling of Ugandan and Nigerian women by a group led by Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti, comprising among others members of Aam Admi Party," said the letter published in newspapers on Wednesday.
"Such targeting goes against the sense of security and human rights of all women in general, and of single and working women in particular," said the letter, signed by the All India Democratic Women's Association, the National Federation of Indian Women, the All India Progressive Women's Association and other groups.
Television footage of the incident, Bharti's own statements, CCTV footage from the hospital and the women's complaints clearly indicate that the law minister "endangered the women and instigated the crowd to violate their human rights, by branding them as prostitutes and asking the crowd to catch them," the letter said.
The External Affairs Ministry condemned the incident and assured African diplomats at a meeting on Saturday that their nationals were safe in the country.