The controversy surrounding mismanagement of an award ceremony organised by the Maharashtra government on April 16, in which 14 persons succumbed to heatstroke, is getting bigger after a video surfaced on social media on April 18 showing a possible stampede at the same event that was not mentioned by the State government anywhere.
The State government said the same day that 150 persons had been admitted to various hospitals and 11 persons, including women and the elderly, had already died. The toll increased in the next two days, and as of April 19, a total of 14 persons had died.
On April 18, NCP MLA Jitendra Awhad put out a video on Twitter which showed people getting trapped and choked in a stampede. A Maharashtra government ambulance was also seen. Within hours, the video went viral. Awhad said: “The State government needs to tell us what exactly has gone wrong at the event. It is trying to hide its failure by trying to push a stampede-like incident under the carpet.”
He was joined by Shiv Sena (UBT) Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, who said: “Now Devendra Fadnavis should ask [Eknath] Shinde to resign. Because it is his failure, and he is trying to hide it from the public’s eyes.”
The event and the aftermath
The State government had organised the event to felicitate veteran social worker and Dattatreya Narayan Dharmadhikari, popularly known as Appasaheb Dharmadhikari, with the Maharashtra Bhushan, the State’s most prestigious civilian award that has been given since 1996. (Appasaheb Dharmadhikari is the chief of the Shri Nanasaheb Dharmadhikari Pratishthan. Nanasaheb Dharmadhikari, his father, had started a spiritual movement called Shri Sampraday in the 1970s that became highly popular.)
The event was held at a 208-acre open ground at Kharghar, Navi Mumbai. The State government reportedly spent Rs.13.62 crore for the function, in which Home Minister Amit Shah was the chief guest and Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis prominent dignitaries.
Adderssing the people who had attended, Amit Shah said: “In this huge open ground, you are all sitting in scorching temperature of 42 degrees Celsius, which shows how much respect you have for Appasaheb.”
The function was held at 11 a.m. when it should have been held in the evening as most of Maharashtra has been reeling under a severe heatwave since the second week of April. Moreover, there was no roof or tents to protect the public from the intense heat of the afternoon. The government had set up two temporary tents for VIPs. Everyone else sat on the ground in the scorching heat for nearly five hours.
Industry Minister Uday Samant said, “It was wish of Appasaheb Dharmadhikari himself to hold the function in the morning.” But this statement is clearly an attempt by the Maharashtra government to wash its hands of any responsibility for the tragedy.
The State government has announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.5 lakh for family members of each of the deceased and also declared that it would take care of the cost of treatment of all those admitted to hospital. Shinde visited the patients on Sunday evening itself.
In a statement, Appasaheb Dharmadhikari said: “People who died in the heatstroke are part of my family. This is a tragedy. We are with the affected people and their families. This was an unfortunate incident, and we expect no politics out of it.”
Earlier, Culture Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar appealed to everyone not to politicise the tragedy, but that was inevitable as the event itself was subtly politicised from the beginning.
An award that turned political
Although it is generally accepted that awarding the Maharashtra Bhushan is beyond party considerations, it became clear early on that the current BJP-Shiv Sena (Shinde) dispensation was planning to gain political mileage from this year’s award.
The Maharashtra Bhushan award function is usually held at Raj Bhavan, where the Governor felicitates the award winner. For instance, renowned singer Asha Bhosle was given the award for 2021 at an event at Gateway of India, in the evening.
However, in Appasaheb’s case, the government decided to bring in lakhs of his followers to a huge ground, which was politically motivated.
Political analyst Vijay Chormare said: “Shinde and the BJP thought this function could help them in the Shiv Sena (UBT) stronghold.” The local body elections, including those to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, are scheduled this year. Shri Sampraday is spread across Maharashtra and has supporters in other States too, and it has a strong presence in the Mumbai metropolitan region as well.
The movement started by Nanasaheb Dharmadhikari began spreading in the coastal regions of the State in the late 1970s. Over time, politicians sensed his popularity and grip over the masses and started attending his functions. The Congress-NCP government honoured Nanasaheb with the same Maharashtra Bhushan award in 2008, posthumously.
Now, a year ahead of the general and Assembly elections scheduled for 2024, the current dispensation decided to honour his son with the same award, also eyeing the same political gains, but ended up causing a humanitarian tragedy.