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17 Jul 2018

The crash, the crack and the knack

 Suspected BJP workers thrash a policeman on NH6 at Kharagpur, alleging that traffic snarls were deliberately created to keep them away from Modi’s rally. (Saikat Santra)
Devadeep Purohit and Anshuman Phadikar, TT, Midnapore: Mismanagement, bad weather and a conspiracy theory gate-crashed Narendra Modi's implicit launch of the Bengal campaign on Monday, triggering a shamiana collapse that injured 90 people, overshadowed his attack on the "syndicate raj" and prompted the target of his attack to offer solace.

"I saw a new Bengal today.... The weather was adverse, an overhead shade came crashing down, but the people were still so disciplined. They displayed so much courage," the Prime Minister said after the accident. "Didi, see this strength and courage."
A part of the collapsed shamiana at Modi’s rally venue in Midnapore 
As sections of the audience - estimates of its size ranged from 5 lakh to 1 lakh - appeared to have turned restless after the accident, Modi switched focus from agriculture to predicting the demise of what he described as the "syndicate raj" in "a few months". 

But chief minister Mamata Banerjee refused to join issue with him and tweeted: "We pray for the speedy recovery of all those injured at the Midnapore rally today. The government is giving all help for medical treatment."

Mamata, who left it to her party to respond to the criticism by Modi, said later: "Politics should be in place of politics. This is a case of humanity and the state government will extend all possible support to the injured."

The injuries happened when a part of a shamiana, erected with metal scaffolding for the Prime Minister's Kisan Kalyan rally in Midnapore, collapsed in the afternoon while Modi was delivering his address.

The conditions of two people are said to be serious. While 24 of the injured were given first aid at a hospital and discharged, 66 were admitted.

The collapse took place around 250 metres from the main dais. Modi and the others on the dais were unharmed. In the evening, when the area was deserted, another shamiana and a part of the boundary wall collapsed, providing a fresh reminder of how precarious the situation was in the middle of incessant rain.

The crash stirred questions about the capabilities of the Bengal BJP leadership, which had organised the rally - an issue that had arisen earlier in the day when state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh and minister Babul Supriyo were caught brawling. 

"The collapse at an event attended by the Prime Minister is unheard of. Had it caused large-scale panic, there would have been a stampede," said a police officer who was on duty on the College Ground in Midnapore. The Centre has sought a report from the state government.

Amal Pan, a schoolteacher who was under the shamiana, recounted: "Some among the audience climbed up the iron scaffolding for a better view of the Prime Minister. That led to the collapse."

The BJP blamed the police. "The security at the venue was the state police's responsibility. What were they doing?" asked Raju Banerjee, a state BJP general secretary.

A police source said the deployment was not large enough to manage such a "large and unruly crowd".

A BJP volunteer said the rain had made the ground soggy, prompting the scaffolding to fall off. Some suggested the shamiana had been put up only on Sunday, hinting at possible oversight in haste.

"The incident took place because of a lack of planning.... Now, instead of focusing on what the Prime Minister said, we are all discussing what might have led to the collapse," a leader said.

A Calcutta-based decorator had prepared the venue, sources said. He added that the guidelines were usually laid down by the Special Protection Group, which oversees the Prime Minister's security.

Modi visited the hospital where the injured were being treated. "I pray for the quick recovery of those injured due...," he tweeted.

The chaos was not restricted to the meeting venue: the whole of Midnapore town had come to a standstill. Many marched through the narrow roads to the venue after the vehicles carrying them got stuck in traffic snarls outside the town.

Their patience wearing thin, the BJP activists stuck on NH6 at Kharagpur thrashed the police, injuring at least 10.

Some accused the police of deliberate inaction to prevent them reaching the venue.

"Police baton-charged our workers. So they retaliated," said Arup Kumar Das, the BJP's Midnapore district general secretary.

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