India stampede killed 121 in wake of massive overcrowding, police say

By Shivam Patel and Saurabh Sharma

PHULRAI MUGHAL GARHI, India (Reuters) - More than three times the permitted number of people attended a Hindu religious event in northern India that culminated in a stampede which killed at least 121 people, authorities said on Wednesday, adding that most of the victims were women.

About 250,000 people gathered for Tuesday's event in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh state, about 200 km (125 miles) from the Indian capital, New Delhi, despite permission being granted only for 80,000, an initial police report showed.

The preacher at the gathering, Suraj Pal Singh, also known as 'Bhole Baba', said in a statement that the stampede was caused by "some anti-social elements" after the event concluded, without elaborating.

Police said they were trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the preacher. A group of devotees had organised the event, according to a poster at the site.

The preacher's lawyer, A.P. Singh, said Baba had never asked anyone to touch his feet nor did he give anyone the dust touched by his feet, referring to reports in local media which cited these as reasons for the devotees running towards him.

Singh also said Baba's aides were ready to help those who suffered in the incident.

Most of the deaths resulted from suffocation, said doctors at a district hospital treating several victims. Among the 121 dead were 112 women and seven children, while 31 were injured, state authorities said.

In their First Information Report, police described a scene of chaos when the preacher was leaving in his car.

Thousands of devotees shouted and ran towards the vehicle, crushing others still seated, the report said. Some people were trampled after falling in an adjacent field of slush and mud.

In a letter seen by Reuters, a junior official present at the event told the district administrator that the preacher's staff had stopped the devotees running towards the car and that many of them had fallen to the ground.

Some had run towards open fields nearby to escape the stampede but slipped and fell in the path of the rest of the crowd, the official added.


Among the dead was Ruby, 30, who had travelled more than 300 km (185 miles) to attend, along with her father, Chedilal.

Describing the stampede, Chedilal told Reuters: "I heard terrifying screams from women and there were bodies piled up on the ground near the exit."

"I was scared, I ran away and started calling my daughter on the phone," he added.

After an agonising night of hospital visits to locate his daughter, Chedilal said he finally found her body at the Hathras district hospital in the morning.

The state's chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, met some of the injured on Wednesday and inspected the site, which stands amid paddy fields beside a busy highway. Waste littered the site, which was partly inundated by rainfall.

Adityanath said a judicial inquiry would be conducted into the incident, besides the police investigation, to determine who was responsible.

The judicial panel can also help create a protocol to manage such future events and "prevent repetition of such an incident", Adityanath told reporters. "We will ensure this."

Stampedes and other accidents are not uncommon at religious gatherings involving large crowds in India, with most being blamed on poor crowd management.

(Reporting by Shivam Patel, Saurabh Sharma and Tanvi Mehta; Writing by Sakshi Dayal; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Clarence Fernandez, YP Rajesh and Gareth Jones)