At least 24 people were killed and more than 50 others were injured in a stampede on Saturday when thousands of devotees rushed to cross a bridge over the Ganga during a religious gathering in Varanasi, officials said. The dead included 15 women.
Around 20 other people who lost consciousness after being suffocated in the crowd were also being treated in different hospitals, said Kumar Prashant, Chandauli district magistrate. Police said the death toll could rise.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in Parliament, expressed grief over the incident and announced compensation of Rs two lakh each for families of the dead and Rs 50,000 each for the injured.
“Deeply saddened by the loss of lives in the stampede in Varanasi. I have spoken to officials and asked them to ensure all possible help to those affected due to the stampede,” he tweeted.
Deeply saddened by the loss of lives in the stampede in Varanasi. Condolences to the bereaved families. Prayers with those injured.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 15, 2016
Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who also announced ex-gratia of Rs five lakh each to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured, ordered a magisterial probe into the tragedy.
Stampedes in religious gatherings in India have left hundreds of people dead and injured over the years, with police and volunteers often overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds. However, government intervention, better infrastructure and crowd-control techniques at places of annual gatherings have brought down the frequencies of stampedes.
According to officials, the organisers of the two-day conclave on the outskirts of Varanasi had sought permission for a procession of about 3,000 people. However, the crowd swelled to over a lakh on Saturday, according to rough estimates by traffic police and the district administration.
“We are investigating crowd management and will take action against those responsible,” said Javeed Ahmed, director general of police.
Police said that the stampede was triggered when some people collapsed on the Rajghat bridge due to dehydration and exhaustion after walking for hours under a blazing sun. Others tried to get off the bridge as a rumour spread that the old bridge was collapsing.
The heat generated by the iron girders of the bridge also added to the discomfort of the large number of people struck for hours in the procession.
Clothes and slippers of the injured lay scattered on the bridge as rescuers rushed the dead and injured to hospital. Ambulances were struck midway as the roads leading to the stampede site were choked with people and vehicles.
Ravindra Sharma, who was injured in the stampede, said his teenage daughter was missing and the authorities were unable to trace her.
“We came to seek the blessings of our god, only god can help me find her,” he said.
Rajbahadur, the spokesperson of the Jai Gurudev Sansthan – which manages the seer’s trust -- blamed police for failing to make proper traffic management during the procession.
Jai Gurudev, who died in 2012, is among several charismatic self-styled “godmen” who enjoy a cult-like following among lakhs of followers in India.
Typically clad in white robes and turban, the seer espoused vegetarianism and morality and claimed “to liberate the soul from the rotation of birth and death”, according to a bio on his website.
He is said to have left behind a vast empire worth over Rs 10,000 crore, apart from 250 luxury cars – all supposedly gifted by his devotees. He also left behind a palatial ashram in Mathura and properties in several cities in northern India.
One of his most prominent followers, Ram Vriksh Yadav and a large group had broken away to form a radical organisation and encroached upon a large plot of government land in Mathura. Yadav and more than twenty others were killed in June during clashes with police attempting to evict the group members.
With assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh barely a few months away, the opposition BJP and BSP blamed the Samajwadi Party government of failing to gauge the situation in time. The ruling party said it was not the time to point fingers but concentrate on relief and rescue.
(With agency inputs)