For decades, Boat Club was the destination for dissent — a go-to spot for protesters of all ilk, from college kids and little-known politicians to disgruntled civil rights activists and even an army of nearly five lakh farmers who once brought the government down on its knees.
That was until early 90s when protests and demonstrations were banned at Boat Club, a prime slice of real estate in posh Lutyens’ Delhi that stood out with its sylvan lawns around a recreational canal with boats for family pleasure rides.
Boat Club is back on the map as the resistance square of the nation, with the Supreme Court yesterday lifting the blanket ban on rallies, dharnas and sit-ins at the iconic lawns that had been in place for over two decades.
In its ruling, the court included Jantar Mantar, a landmark 18th-century monument a few kilometres from Boat Club that also was made off-limits to protesters on October 5 last year.
Perhaps the most famous protest Boat Club ever hosted was led by Mahendra Singh Tikait, a Haryana farmer and leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, who had spearheaded a massive protest by peasants from Uttar Pradesh in 1988 in the sprawling lawns facing the Raisina Hill — the seat of the government.
The crowd of protesting farmers with tractors and bullock-carts in tow, stretched nearly 3 km, between India Gate and Vijay Chowk that overlooks the iconic North and South Blocks.
Former Delhi Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar, who held the post of a DCP here in 1988 when the farmers’ rally was held, said the crowd was “unmanageable”.
“The crowd filled the space between the National Stadium and Vijay Chowk. And, there were several floating crowd too who would join in. The size of the crowd was humongous, and Rajpath was filled with protesters. A number of police officials were also injured,” he told PTI.
Kumar also was Delhi’s police chief when the Nirbhaya gangrape incident took place in December 2012 triggering huge protests as the anger spilled on to streets from Jantar Mantar Road to Raisina Hill.
“As DCP, I had the job of controlling the crowd in north-east Delhi on the border as the protesters streamed in from Uttar Pradesh.
“During Nirbhaya protests too, we tried to manage the crowd that had tried to march up the Raisina Hill towards the Presidents’ Estate. Boat Club is located close to the main government offices, so the crowd has to be properly managed,” he said.
Union minister and senior BJP leader Vijay Goel recalled the time when veteran politician Atal Bihari Vajpayee had addressed a rally at Boat Club.
“The place (Boat Club) was a veritable resistance square, and mostly political rallies were held there. The view of open lawns facing the seat of the government was unusual and I still recall those days very vividly,” he said.
Goel said a huge crowd had gathered when Virat Hindu Sammelan was held at Boat Club.
“It was vibrant spot for people to express dissent. But, after Ayodhya case the site was banned by the then government and Jantar Mantar took the place as the protest square,” he said.
Asked about the rally led by Tikait, Goel said: “The protesters – in such a large numbers – had made the government helpless.”
A former senior police official, on the condition of anonymity, said: “Tikait’s rally was unprecedented in scale. Opening up Boat Club again would entail that crowd spillage.”