Haridwar (Uttarakhand): At least 16 people were killed in a horrific stampede at a religious event here Tuesday when tens of thousands had packed the banks of the Ganges, organisers said.
Witnesses said the tragedy occurred when an elderly woman slipped while walking through a barricaded route close to where 1,551 ‘yagyas’ – or fire rituals – were on.
“Once the woman fell, there was commotion. The crowds, however, kept pushing ahead. In no time, people began to fall over one another, crushing many,” an activist for Gayatri Parivar, the organiser said.
The activist as well as local officials said the dead included 14 women and two men. Most were aged and were suffocated to death. Around 40 others were injured in varying degrees.
Ambulances with waling sirens rushed the dead, the dying and the injured to a 10-bed hospital that the organisers had set up to deal with emergency situations.
Some were taken to other hospitals in the Hindu holy town.
Some of the injured — men and women — limped as they tried to walk. Others were taken away on stretchers. Many others looked frightened after surviving the trauma.
Tuesday was the third day of a five-day event that began Sunday.
Local officials claimed that the organisers had not told them that lakhs would throng Haridwar during the event but the Gayatri Parvar denied this.
“This is not at all true. A senior minister of Uttarakhand was at our inaugural function, so was a former chief minister and a central minister. And they all knew what a mammoth function we were organising,” the activist said.
Gayatri Parivar spokespersons last week had said that they expected some 50 lakh people to attend the event over five days.
On Tuesday itself, an estimated four to five lakh people had thronged Haridwar. “We knew about the crowds and we had told everyone including the media,” the spokesperson said.
He added that Gayatri Parivar, which commands millions of members mostly in northern and western India, had urged the elderly not to visit Haridwar but many chose to do so.
He also said that despite the tragedy, the organisers continued with their rituals because cancelling the event would have led to more panic.
“We did not want that to happen,” he said. “In any case, the situation is now under control.”
Gayatri Parivar organised the event aimed at propagating Gayatri Mantra — one of the foremost chants in Hinduism.
It also marked the centenary celebrations of the group’s founder, Pandit Sitaram Sharma.
Among those expected to attend the event are the chief ministers of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
It is not known if the VIPs will still make it to Haridwar, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism.