Funerals begin, relatives beg for bodies
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Funerals begin, relatives beg for bodies

Many of the bereaved said they were turned away at morgues by officers who demanded proof that they were truly family members and not tricksters.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2003 15:11 IST
Neelesh Mishra (Associated Press)
Neelesh Mishra (Associated Press)

Ancient mantras echoed at the cremations on Thursday for the first of 39 pilgrims killed in a massive crowd stampeded on the banks of Godavari river. Grieving relatives of other victims complained that police were stopping them from claiming the bodies of their loved ones who died in the mishap.

Many of the bereaved said they were turned away at morgues by officers who had demanded documented proof that they were truly family members and not tricksters seeking personal effects or wanting to fraudulently claim insurance money.

"They are insisting on paperwork. They keep sending us back when we ask for the body. We don't know where to go," Mukesh Saidas Sharma, 28, said as he wept in Nashik's government hospital seeking the body of his dead aunt.

Similar charges of bureaucratic insensitivity were made after Mumbai's twin terror bombings on Monday, when at least 51 people were killed.

About 125 people were injured in Wednesday's riverside chaos where an estimated 1.6 million worshippers had gathered. Most of the dead were women who had been trampled underfoot. Vikram Marathe, Nashik's deputy police commissioner, defended the policy of making sure bodies were collected only by close relatives. "We will not give the bodies to anyone else. We are willing to wait for five or six days," Marathe told The Associated Press. "People might take advantage of the deaths. We know what people can do in cases like these. They can take the insurance money, or seek property, if they have the body," Marathe said. He did not elaborate.

Worshippers believe they can bathe away their sins in the Godavari River, which is considered holy to many Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the muddy brown water.

Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Most recently, 51 pilgrims died in 1999 after a rope meant to channel worshippers snapped in a landslide at a Hindu shrine in southern India. Fifty people died in 1986 in a stampede in the town of Haridwar.

Police in Nashik estimated that nearly 1.6 million people attended the festival Wednesday. About 60 million people are likely to participate at various times during the festival, which started July 30 and ends Monday.

Witnesses said the stampede happened when impatient pilgrims pushed past barricades.

Police tried to hold them back by beating some with canes, said Ram Phool Maina, a farmer from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh whose arm was fractured in the melee.

"They tried to stop the people. No one stopped. I fell down and people were walking over me. I lunged to save my mother. Then I heard my arm bone crack into two," Maina said. "Other people from my village dragged me to the side or I would have been dead." "Old women were crying, 'Take me out. Help me,"' said Lalji Mistry, a 35-year-old pilgrim who escaped unharmed. "People, even women, were pushing forward. Due to the weight of the crowd, people started falling down."

Witnesses said rescue workers pleaded with crowds to give way so ambulances could rush the injured to hospitals. Workers also heaved dozens of injured people into cars and police vehicles.

First Published: Aug 28, 2003 11:30 IST