AT LEAST 24 people, including 20 women, were killed and 13 others injured in a stampede on a bridge over the Ganga in Varanasi on Saturday afternoon during a procession by followers of the Jai Gurudev sect, police said. The stampede broke out while around 3 lakh followers were crossing the Rajghat bridge towards Domri village, said district officials. “Some elderly women suddenly sat on the side, probably due to fatigue… people behind them lost control and started falling down. By the time the situation was brought under control, 20 women and four men had died,” said Vijay Bahadur Singh, City Magistrate.
ADG (law and order) Daljit Singh Chowdhary said the stampede was fuelled by rumours that the bridge had collapsed. Expressing grief over the deaths in his Lok Sabha constituency, Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter: “I have spoken to officials and asked them to ensure all possible help to those affected due to (the) stampede in Varanasi.”
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident, said officials. The state government has also suspended five police officers, including two Additional SPs, in connection with the incident. City Magistrate Singh said that permission was granted four days ago for a Jai Gurudev follower, Bechu Prasad Gupta, to stage a procession in Varanasi over a distance of around 12 km, but around 3 lakh people turned up.
When contacted, Gupta said that the procession was on its way back to Domri in the Ram Nagar area after completing a yatra organised by the Jai Gurudev Dharam Pracharak Sanstha in Mathura “to spread awareness against alcohol addiction and promote vegetarianism”.
Police sources said that the Sanstha is run by Pankaj Yadav, a rival of another Jai Gurudev follower Ram Vriksha Yadav, whose followers had encroached upon the Jawahar Bagh in Mathura and attacked a police force that tried to evict them on June 2, leading to the death of two officers and 27 followers in clashes. “Pankaj Yadav was leading the procession today,” claimed Gupta.
Gupta accused the district administration of “mismanagement” and claimed that the procession had earlier passed through the narrow lanes of Varanasi “smoothly without any trouble”. ”At the Rajghat bridge, the administration did not make any arrangements to let the crowd pass. Traffic was not diverted and vehicles were allowed to move on the bridge during the procession. Administrative negligence led to the stampede,” he alleged.
“I had stated in my application that 3,000-4,000 people would gather for the event. I never expected such a huge gathering. But the administration is wrong saying that there were 3 lakh people at the procession. There were about 80,000 followers,” claimed Gupta.
District Magistrate Vijay Kiran Anand said the process of identifying the deceased was on. “The exact cause of death would be ascertained after the autopsy reports are received,” said Anand. Apart from ADG Chowdhary, Principal Secretary (Home) Debasish Panda, DGP Javeed Ahmad, and Officer on Special Duty (Home) S K Raghuvanshi reached the spot to “take stock of the situation”, said officials.
Officials said that the Prime Minister has sanctioned compensation of Rs 2 lakh each to families of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each to those seriously injured from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. The Chief Minister announced monetary compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to families of those killed and Rs 50,000 each to the injured, apart from free treatment. The state government also announced additional financial help under the Samajwadi Kisan Evam Sarvhit Bima Yojana of Rs 5 lakh to families of the deceased and Rs 2.5 lakh each to families of the injured, said officials.
The government also announced that Rs 1 lakh will be provided for artificial limbs to the seriously injured, if needed. Six of the injured were discharged after treatment and the condition of the others was stable, said officials.