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December 30, 1998
ASSEMBLY POLL '98
Inquiry clears Pawar of blame for Gowari tragedy
The Justice S S Dani Commission, which investigated the 1994 stampede death of 114 Gowari tribals in Nagpur, has absolved then chief minister Sharad Pawar and his government of any responsibility for the tragedy.
But the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra has rejected the judge's findings.
The much-awaited report of the commission was tabled in the state legislature today, the last day of its three-week winter session, along with the government's action-taken report (ATR).
"The government is unable to understand the reasons that necessitated the commission to go out of its way, as if to give a clean chit to the then chief minister and his other colleagues," the ATR said.
Pawar had expressed a fear last week that though the commission would absolve him, the government would try to implicate him.
Thousands of Gowaris had marched on the Nagpur Vidhan Bhavan on November 23, 1994, during the winter session of the state legislature to press for classification as a scheduled tribe.
When no minister turned up to receive their memorandum, the marchers became restive, necessitating the use of police force. In the resultant stampede, 114 people, mostly women and children, were trampled to death.
A month later, Pawar appointed Justice S S Dani to inquire into the incident. After repeated extensions, the commission submitted its report to the government on March 13 this year.
The opposition had accused the government of delaying its presentation in the legislature as the findings were inconvenient for it.
This is the second commission appointed under the Commission of Inquiries Act to have its core findings rejected. The Justice B N Srikrishna Commission, which inquired into the Bombay riots of 1992-93, was the first.
Justice Dani observed that Pawar was unaware of the demands of the Gowari marchers and the background of the incident as well as the incident itself at the Morris College junction. So no liability could be fastened on him. Pawar had flown back to Bombay just before the incident.
The Gowari Sanghatana, organiser of the march, and the opposition in the state legislature -- the Sena-BJP combine -- had blamed Pawar and Tribal Development Minister Madhukar Pichad for "mishandling" the march, resulting in the tragedy. They had also found fault with the chief minister for not flying right back to Nagpur to visit the injured and organise relief measures.
Pichad, now leader of the opposition in the assembly, had resigned his ministerial post accepting moral responsibility for the tragedy.
Describing the tragedy as "unfortunate", the commission held that the police baton-charge to restrain the marchers was justified.
The government accepted this finding of the commission.
Dealing with the events leading to the tragedy, the commission noted that the march by some 50,000 people was stopped by the police near Morris College. Some disturbance began when the marchers started dashing against the barricades at about 5.30pm IST. Then marchers at the front got up and rushed towards an Ambassador car with a red light presuming that a minister had arrived. Fearing trouble, the police resorted to a baton-charge.
The commission said it was necessary to use force. If no action had been taken to stop the surging mob from advancing on the assembly, it might have resulted in a worse catastrophe in the form of a serious law-and-order problem.
The commission further noted that the lathi-charge made the marchers retreat and they started running helter-skelter. Many of the marchers at the front of the procession were squatting and many kids were also asleep. The lathi-charge resulted in a melee.
Medical evidence conclusively proved that the cause for almost all deaths was "traumatic asphyxia", a result of chest compression and obstruction to the respiratory system. Many participants became breathless and some were trampled underfoot.
The commission also absolved the marchers and their leaders of responsibility for the incident. "It cannot be said that the conduct and behaviour of the participants of the morcha was reprehensible and the only cause of the incident."
Going by the evidence given by all concerned, the incident could only be said to have been an unfortunate one, the commission said.
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