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26 deaths, all for a free sari
Stampede at birthday show in Atal seat

Lucknow, April 12: Drawn by the hope of a free sari, 25 poor women died under a stampeding crowd in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s constituency today when a function to celebrate his election agent’s birthday turned into a chaotic rush.

A child also died in the scramble towards safety that left in its wake an overcrowded park that resembled a death zone.

Vajpayee, who was campaigning in Jharkhand, reached here late in the evening and headed for King George hospital, where he stood silently before a row of 10 bodies. The Prime Minister covered his face with a towel provided by his securitymen. “This breaks my heart. There is no word strong enough to express my grief,” he said.

More than 5,000 people, mostly women with infants in their arms, were crammed into the Chandrashekhar Azad Park since morning after supporters of Uttar Pradesh BJP leader Lalji Tandon announced they would give away free saris. The function was organised by the BJP’s city youth wing and funded by traders.

“It is my birthday and I want to share my happiness with the happiness of the poor,” the Opposition leader told the crowd before leaving around 2 pm.

By 3 pm, the dead lay on the ground littered with chappals while a pile of saris remained undistributed in one corner. The park, in the heart of a throbbing business centre, can accommodate at most a thousand people. Usually, small religious gatherings are held there.

Lucknow SSP R. Verma said police are looking into a complaint that the birthday celebration was unauthorised as no permission was taken.

The stampede started around 2.15 after Tandon had left. “There was a sudden rush towards where the saris were kept,” said district magistrate Aradhana Shukla.

Witnesses said the crowd surged towards the dais, erected in one corner of the park, as soon as some of Tandon’s supporters started distributing the saris. As the handful of policemen present charged with their lathis, the women panicked and started running. In the chaos, one of Tandon’s supporters threw a couple of saris at the crowd. It triggered the stampede.

By the time some of Tandon’s supporters rushed to the Mahanagar police station, a two-minute walk from the park, the tragedy had taken its toll. Eighteen of the dead were between 40 and 75, while seven were between 20 and 25. The child was about two years old. Ershad Ali, chief medical officer at Balrampur hospital, said none of the women was brought alive.

R.K.S. Yadav, the DSP investigating the case, said the police had not anticipated that the situation would take such a turn. “Officers present said it spun out of control. Those who fell screamed but no one stopped. People ran over them,” he said.

Maya Gautam recalled the horror from her hospital bed. “…I could see a shower of legs on me. I was being scorched by the heat…. I could see more legs coming and then I don’t know what happened,” the 35-year-old said.

“We had come here to hear his (Tandon’s) speech. He celebrated his birthday and went away and gave us death,” said a woman.

Party workers said over a thousand saris were to be distributed and more were to be added to the stock.

BJP sources conceded the tragedy was bound to cast a shadow on the election campaign. Not only did it involve Vajpayee indirectly, television images of the bodies of old, emaciated women would detract from the “India Shining” and “feel good” themes the BJP has relentlessly plugged, they said.

Chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, who rushed to Lucknow from Azamgarh, some 300 km away, said “an inquiry will be conducted but loss of human lives cannot be compensated”.

The Election Commission has sought from the state government a report, on the basis of which it will be decided whether the model code was violated.

Vajpayee has announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh each from the Prime Minister’s relief fund to the next of kin of the dead. The state government will also give Rs 1 lakh to the relatives of the dead if the poll panel permits.

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