Haridwar : Scenes of piety and devotion quickly turned to devastation Tuesday as at least 20 people were killed in a stampede that occurred when massive crowds had gathered near the Ganges for a religious meet in this temple town.
About four lakh devotees were here for a five-day event that began Sunday to propagate the Gayatri Mantra, one of the foremost chants in Hinduism. But tragedy struck the gathering, which had been lauded for its discipline.
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 organisers, told IANS in Haridwar, about 50 km from the state capital Dehradun.
The activist said that while 16 people – 14 women and two men – were killed instantly, four others succumbed to their injuries late in the evening. Most of the victims were elderly and suffocated to death. Around 40 others were injured in varying degrees.
Within minutes, sounds of bhajans being sung were replaced by ambulances with waling sirens rushing 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 are serious but not critical,” a district official said.
Some of the injured — men and women — limped away from the site of tragedy. Others were taken away on stretchers. Devotees walked around, traumatised after the experience as others gathered at hospitals to get news of their relatives.
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 had said last week that they expected some 50 lakh people to attend the event over five days.
“We knew about the crowds and we had told everyone including the media,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.
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.
The event also marked the centenary celebrations of the group’s founder, Pandit Sitaram Sharma.
Among those expected to attend the event were the chief ministers of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare and the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The families of those killed are expected to get Rs.5 lakh each as compensation.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his grief and announced Rs.1 lakh for the families of those killed and Rs.50,000 for each of the injured. Uttarakhand Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri and Gayatri Parivar organisation also offered compensation of Rs.2 lakh to the kin of each of those killed.
Gayatri Parivar head Pranav Pandya, while announcing the compensation, also accepted “moral responsibility” for the disaster.
The event, originally set to end Thursday, will now conclude Wednesday morning.