| Amitabh Bachchan
Washington, Aug. 26: Sari-clad women prostrated along his path, mothers placed babies in front of his horse-drawn carriage to stop it and hundreds of men ran alongside the carriage, some climbing on it for a touch of their hero.
Their hero was none other than Amitabh Bachchan, who was in Fremont, the most Indian-American city in California, last weekend as Grand Marshal of the annual India Parade and the Festival of India.
Police had to use batons to control the crowd. When that did not work, they abruptly changed the parade route and took Bachchan to a “secure location”, preventing his carriage from leading the parade all the way.
Police sergeant Mark Riggs, who was responsible for Bachchan’s security, told The Argus, a Fremont newspaper, that the stampeding crowds posed a “significant hazard”.
“Hundreds of people began to gather around and press on the vehicle. It got to the point where everyone wanted to get in and touch him,” Riggs said.
The police, however, allowed the screen hero to go to the festival stage later to distribute awards and participate in the on-stage programme. No arrests were made, but several people were treated for cuts and bruises.
San Francisco’s Bay Area has nearly 1.5 lakh Indian-Americans and the largest concentration of them is in Fremont, a city which was in the news recently as the legal battleground in a sexual harassment suit filed against former Infosys executive Phaneesh Murthy.
The city’s annual India Parade and Festival of India, which is in its 10th year, has been dogged by controversy.
Last year, business owners around the Fremont Hall of Justice, the venue of the event, complained that garbage had been strewn around by the Indian-Americans who came for the festival.
They also alleged that public urination during the event had caused all-round stench and that their businesses suffered because the Indian-Americans had parked in their parking lots.
Last year’s festival drew about 70,000 people over two days. This year there were about 100,000 Indian-Americans out on Fremont streets, including those who lined the parade route.
To minimise risks, only 18,000 people were allowed inside the festival grounds, but there were 25,000 clamouring to go in.
In view of last year’s experience, the city authorities in Fremont were reluctant to give permission for last weekend’s festivities, but they relented in the face of pressure from the Bay Area’s wealthy and influential Indian-Americans.
“I think this is pretty much a test of whether we are able to do this,” Fremont Mayor Gus Morrison told The Mercury News of San Jose after permission was granted. “Are we able to do this kind of a festival without a major impact on the rest of the community'” he wondered.
As part of the efforts to make amends for last year’s near-riot, Indian-American community leaders this year hired a professional event organiser instead of the usual practice of relying on volunteers.
City officials also forced them to submit detailed plans for parking, security, toilets, crowd flow and ticket sales.
But all their planning did not take into account the mesmerising effect which Bachchan would have on his fans on the West Coast. And they were totally unprepared for it. So was the screen idol.
Undeterred by the controversies which have dogged the festival, its main organiser has said the annual event should be given the same latitude as the Fremont Festival of the Arts, which closes down city streets and draws about 400,000 people every year.
Romesh Japra, president of the Federation of Indian Associations of Northern California, has been quoted in the local media as saying: “If the Festival of the Arts can have 400,000 people, then we need to be accommodated the same way.”