‘Caged relay’ in India for Olympic torch, Chinese relieved

April 17th, 2008 - 10:17 pm ICT by admin  


New Delhi, April 17 (IANS) The Beijing Olympic torch passed through its most sensitive India leg peacefully Thursday in a tightly orchestrated event where overwhelming security concerns over protests by Tibetans seemed to overshadow the sporting spirit. The run from Raisina Hill, with the majestic presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in the backdrop, to the India Gate memorial a couple of kilometres away lasted only a little over 30 minutes.

But the ripples were felt in many parts of the country, which has the highest population of Tibetan refugees, with demonstrations in the seat of the government in exile Dharamsala, Bangalore and Mumbai. In Delhi, protesters tried to breach the security cordon in several places.

The multiple layers of security encircling the flame ensured that nothing went wrong, but outside the sanitised centre, which is also the corridor between north and south Delhi, the city was virtually paralysed with barricaded roads and massive traffic snarls.

As police and paramilitary personnel swamped the area to keep away Tibetan protesters who had disrupted the event in Paris and London, film stars joined sportspersons past and present to hastily pass the flame from one to another.

The India Gate lawns were empty, except for officials, some sponsors, swarming security personnel and the Olympic Holy Flame Protection Group that formed the inner circle protecting the flame.

Chinese Olympic Association vice president Jiang Xia Oyu flagged off the relay of the Olympic flame, which arrived here just after midnight Wednesday under a thick security blanket and was kept overnight at the Le Meridien Hotel.

Amongst the 70 odd who carried the flame were former track queens P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson, hockey stars Aslam Sher Khan, Zafar Iqbal and Dhanraj Pillai, shooters Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh Sandhu, film stars Saif Ali Khan and Aamir Khan and cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi.

The honour of the last lap, cut short from nine kilometres to 2.3 kilometres due to security concerns, particularly after protests in the West, was reserved for tennis stars Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, known as the Indian Express, who lit up the Olympic bowl at India Gate.

Joining them at the end of the track were Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, Lt Governor Tejinder Khanna, Indian Olympic Association chief Suresh Kalmadi, newly appointed Sports Minister M.S. Gill and Chinese ambassador Zhang Yan. The event rounded off with a performance by bhangra pop artist Daler Mehndi.

Said a visibly relieved Jiang: “The arrangement was excellent. I take this opportunity to thank the organisers and all the runners. Olympics is a celebration of sports and peace for people around the world.”

Added an equally delighted Gill: “Our people welcome the torch’s visit to India and we look forward to the Olympic Games in August.”

While officials congratulated themselves on an event gone smoothly, elsewhere in the city trouble broke out with Tibetans trying to breach the thick security cordon.

About 50 protesters were rounded up close to the India Gate area, which saw a three-tier security akin to the highly secured Republic Day. Several people had declined to participate in the run, with former woman police officer Kiran Bedi saying she would not take part in a “caged” relay.

At Le Meridien Hotel, where the Olympic torch had been kept overnight, nine Tibetans including a monk tried entering the premises but were swiftly whisked away by police.

Earlier, thousands of supporters of a ‘Free Tibet’ marched from Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial Rajghat to the Jantar Mantar observatory in central Delhi three kilometres away. They were joined by activist Nafisa Ali and politicians George Fernandes and Jaya Jaitly.

Shouting “Free Tibet” and “Hu Jintao murdabad (Down with Hu Jintao)”, the marchers carried placards saying “Free Tibet”, “Stop Cultural Genocide” and “Support Tibet”. The demonstration, however, passed off peacefully, ending barely a kilometre from the Indian parliament.

India is home to over 100,000 Tibetan refugees.

From New Delhi, the Olympic torch travelled to Bangkok.

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