More than 120 killed in stampede in India

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By Junaid Kathju/South China Morning Post

New Delhi, June 3: After more than 120 people died in a stampede at a religious gathering in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, police are investigating why local authorities and the event’s organisers did not follow basic protocols to ensure the safety of the enormous crowd, given similar tragedies in the past.

Among the victims was 20-year-old Priyanka from Kasganj village, who attended the satsang, a type of Hindu religious gathering, in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh (UP) along with her family on Tuesday.

“She was trampled as we were trying to leave the satsang. We took her to the hospital but she passed away,” Priyanka’s father Ramsev told This Week in Asia.

Authorities say at least 121 people were trampled to death at Tuesday’s gathering after devotees rushed to receive a blessing from Narayan Sakar Hari, the guru popularly known as Bhole Baba who organised the event.

Authorities estimate around 250,000 people attended the satsang, far exceeding the 80,000 allowed by the event’s permit. The police have filed a case against the organisers.

Chaitra V, divisional commissioner of Aligarh city in UP, also attributed the tragedy to a dust storm that kicked up as the event was ending, blinding the vision of attendees and leading to a melee that caused the subsequent stampede.

Deadly stampede crushes 116 Indians, mainly women, at Hindu gathering

Before the incident, videos showed people gathering in a large tent, listening to Hari as he sat in a chair on a pedestal before them.

Ramsev said his family has been regular visitors to the Baba’s religious gathering over the years.

“I never imagined something like this would happen to my family,” Ramsev said, still in shock after completing the cremation of her daughter.

Photos showing scores of dead bodies lying on ice blocks inside a Hathras hospital, with grieving relatives waiting outside to take their mortal remains home, painted a grim picture of the incident.

While many were waiting to collect the dead bodies of their family members, some were still searching for their missing loved ones late into the night.

According to the official figures, out of the 121 confirmed dead, seven of the victims were children and one was a man. All the other casualties were women.

Who is ‘Bhole Baba’?

Suraj Pal Singh, aka Bhole Baba, was born to a farming family in UP’s Bahadur Nagari village. He served as a head constable in the state’s police Intelligence unit for over 18 years.

In 1999, he retired from the service, changed his name to Narayan Saakar Hari, and began holding religious gatherings, citing a calling towards spirituality and world peace.

As his popularity grew, people began calling him Bhole Baba. Besides UP, he has a large following in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states as well.

Hari has faced other controversies related to the safety of his devotees. According to media reports, in 2022, he held a religious gathering in Farrukhabad, UP, despite rising Covid cases. Although only 50 attendees were permitted, over 50,000 people showed up, causing significant traffic snarls.

Hari is a self-styled “godman”, a type of charismatic guru that is often revered as the equals to deities. Over the years, many of them have been found to have taken part in criminal acts leading to their imprisonment, including Asaram Bapu, Ram Rahim and Ashu Maharaj, among others.

Organisers charged

Religious gatherings in India have often been the site of deadly incidents due to poor crowd management and safety lapses.

As news of Tuesday’s tragic incident spreads, observers are asking questions about how the even was organised, including the arrangement of the venue, ventilation, crowd control measures, emergency entry and exit points, and the availability of ambulances.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) motion has also been filed with the Supreme Court calling for the formation of a high-level committee, under the supervision of a retired Supreme Court judge, to probe the incident.

“In the past, we have seen such kinds of incidents,” Vishal Tiwari, the lawyer who filed the PIL, told the Press Trust of India. “But the government and authorities have not learned from those incidents.”

A similar incident occurred during the Maha Pushkaralu festival on July 14, 2015, in which at 27 people were killed and dozens injured during a stampede at the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh state. The incident happened as tens of thousands of pilgrims pushed forward to bathe in the river on the first day of the festival.

The PIL requests status reports from all state governments, including Uttar Pradesh, regarding past stampede incidents and urged the court to gather information on measures taken and future precautions. The petitioner also appealed for guidelines to be established for organising such functions.

Madhuvan Dutt, a senior lawyer based in UP, told This Week in Asia that in order to hold a large gathering such as Tuesday’s the organisers need to get clearance from four departments.

“According to the guidelines, you have to get clearance certificates from the pollution board, fire department, police and local administration. It is only then that a subdivisional magistrate can give you the permission to hold such large gatherings,” Dutt said.

“However, organisers often get away with [breaking] these guidelines by either influencing the administration or bribing officials.”

“When it comes to a religious gathering, officials don’t check all the parameters given it is a faith-related matter,” Dutt said.

The police have filed a case against a close aide of the self-styled godman and the event organisers. However, the initial police report does not name Hari as one of the accused.

Instead, the report alleges that the organisers misrepresented the actual number of devotees attending the satsang when seeking permission, failed to cooperate with traffic management and concealed evidence after the stampede.

It also states that the crowd of people rushing to reach Hari after his sermon was “forcibly stopped by the organising committee with sticks, due to which the pressure of the crowd kept increasing and women, children, and men kept getting crushed”.

Hathras subdivisional magistrate Sikandra Rao, in his report explaining the reason for the stampede, wrote that people started rushing towards Hari after he left the venue to seek his blessings and his private security “pushed some people and they fell down”.

“The crowd went out of control and panicked. To get relief from this, people rushed towards the open field nearby where multiple people slipped on a slope and the people started running over them”.

Many senior police officials have reached the Hathras stampede site to collect evidence about the incident, while others have gone to Hari’s ashram, the Ram Kutir Charitable Trust, which is located 100km from the event site.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has also set up a committee to investigate the incident and announced that 200,000 rupees (US$2,400) would be given to the families of those who died and 50,000 rupees would be given to those who were injured.

Akhilesh Yadav, leader of the opposition Samajwadi party, held the state government, controlled by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, responsible for the incident.

“It is a very painful incident. The Uttar Pradesh government and administration are fully responsible for this incident. The loss of lives in this incident is due to the negligence of the government,” Yadav said while speaking to reporters in Delhi.


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