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New Year tragedy at Vaishno Devi shrine: 12 killed in rush, stampede in early hours

🔴 50,000 visitors; scuffle between two groups near shrine leads to the stampede. 16 injured in first-ever stampede at shrine; probe ordered.

Written by Arun Sharma | Jammu |
Updated: January 2, 2022 12:48:25 am
StampedeBodies of the stampede victims have been kept at a Community Health Centre at Katra, in Reasi district (PTI photo)

AT LEAST 12 pilgrims died and 16 were injured following a stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu at around 2.15 am on Saturday, officials said. This is the first such incident at the shrine and raises questions about what officials have often called a “foolproof system” to manage pilgrims.

At the time of the incident, about 50,000 devotees had gathered in a new year surge, sources and eyewitnesses told The Sunday Express. The board that manages the shrine said that only 35,000 people had been allowed to proceed due to Covid curbs for December 31 and January 1.

Officials attributed the incident to a “scuffle” between two groups on a pathway leading to the shrine complex. “The police and officials from the Shrine Board were quick to respond, but the damage had been done,” a senior official said. Eyewitnesses said the situation escalated after policemen resorted to a mild lathicharge to control the crowd.

J&K About 50,000 people had gathered at the place which has a capacity of accommodating not more than 20,000 people. (Express photo by Arun Sharma)

J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, who was informed about the stampede at 3 am, ordered a high-level inquiry into the incident by a three-member team led by Principal Secretary (Home), and including the Divisional Commissioner and Additional DGP of Jammu.

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Officials said the stampede took place in the area between Gate No.3 and a junction of pathways from the Sanjichhat side and the Ardhkuwari side near the shrine. The 16 people injured, including at least seven seriously, were taken to the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Superspeciality Hospital in Katra. Nine of them were discharged following treatment.

All the 12 deceased have been identified: Dheeraj Kumar (26), Shweta Singh (35), Vinay Kumar (24), Sonu Pandey (24), Mamta (38), Dharamveer Singh (35), Vineet Kumar (38), Dr Arun Pratap Singh (30), Akash (28), Monu Sharma, Mohinder Singh and Narinder Kasyap. The ages of Sharma, Mohinder Singh and Kasyap are yet to be ascertained.

Dheeraj Kumar is from Nowshera in J&K’s Rajouri district, and the others from Delhi, Haryana and UP. Ten bodies have been sent to their hometowns and the two others will be sent on Sunday morning, L-G Sinha said after visiting the hospital.

Stampede At least 12 pilgrims have died and 15 others injured in the stampede (PTI photo)

Expressing condolences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “An ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from PMNRF would be given to the next of kin of those who lost their lives due to the stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. The injured would be given Rs 50,000.”

Union Home Minister Amit Shah said he has spoken to senior J&K officials and is monitoring the situation. Union MoS in the PMO, Dr Jitendra Singh, visited Katra to take stock of the situation, and met some of the injured in hospital.

LG Governor Sinha, who is also chairperson of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB), announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 2 lakh each for the injured.

“The unfortunate incident, due to a scuffle between two groups of pilgrims, resulted in the stampede. In this ill-fated incident, a total of 12 pilgrims lost their lives and 16 others were injured,” the SMVDSB said in a statement.

Dheeraj Kumar from Nowshera had got married only a year ago and is survived by his wife, who is eight months pregnant, and his aged parents, police sources said. He had come to the shrine to mark the new year, they said.

Eyewitnesses told The Indian Express that the stampede was preceded by a smaller incident about five hours earlier at the old bathing ghat area, when “a group of 15-20 pilgrims suddenly created a circle, pushing other people, saying they had lost their phones”. “Some people, especially children, were injured,” said Mukesh Singh, a pilgrim from UP’s Baghpat, who was present at the ghat.

In 2017, the National Green Tribunal had placed a daily cap of 50,000 pilgrims at the shrine. In early 2020, the shrine was shut for five months due to the pandemic before being reopened in August that year with a daily cap of 2,000 pilgrims.

In fresh Covid guidelines issued early in 2021, the daily cap was raised to 25,000. In October last year, the J&K administration mandated valid RT-PCR/RAT tests taken not earlier than 72 hours of arrival in Katra for all pilgrims but did not specify any change in the daily cap.

The SMVDSB statement said 35,000 pilgrims were allowed for the new year. “National Green Tribunal has capped the normal capacity of Yatra per day to 50,000. Pertinently, keeping in view the Covid-19 pandemic, 35,000 pilgrims were allowed to proceed for yatra on December 31, 2021, and for January 1, 2022,” the statement said.

Officials said the numbers are monitored through yatra slips that allow entry to avoid overcrowding along the tracks and the shrine area, and to facilitate insurance cover.

They said these slips are to be checked at the entry of the main Banganga and Tarakote routes from Katra town and at “two-three places” along these tracks by police and Shrine Board staff. Apart from this, the pilgrims are frisked and their luggage scanned by X-ray machines in view of a persisting threat from terror outfits.

“Yesterday, except for frisking at police checkpoints, no one checked the yatra slips or the Covid certificates on the way to the shrine,” said Mukesh Singh from Baghpat. Praveen Kumar, another pilgrim from Baghpat, said: “There was such a huge crowd that it was difficult to even stand there.”

Officials said that before the Covid outbreak, the annual yatra used to draw over 10 million pilgrims, with nearly 50,000 arriving on December 31 alone. The Shrine Board has the office of the SDM, too, to manage affairs at the complex. “Unlike the past, it seems the staff did not alert Board authorities at Katra about the huge crowd,” said an official.

Baldev Sharma, the former BJP MLA of Reasi, where Katra is located, blamed the incident on “the total failure of the Shrine Board”, which “neither restricted the number of pilgrims by following the Covid protocol nor checked yatra slips from pilgrims proceeding towards the shrine from Katra”. He demanded the registration of a case on murder charges against Shrine Board authorities.

Later on Saturday, about five hours after the stampede, the yatra resumed with long queues of upto 2 km in Katra town of pilgrims waiting to get entry slips from the Shrine Board.

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