Six arrested in connection with stampede in north India, police say

Aftermath of a stampede at a religious gathering in Hathras

By Sakshi Dayal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Indian police said on Thursday they had arrested six people over a stampede at a Hindu religious event in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh this week in which 121 people were killed.

The incident occurred on Tuesday in the village of Phulrai Mughal Garhi in Hathras district where about 250,000 people had gathered to listen to preacher Suraj Pal Singh, also known as "Bhole Baba".

Organisers of the event had obtained permission for a gathering of only 80,000 people, an initial police report said.

Baba blamed the stampede on "anti-social elements", but did not elaborate.

The four men and two women arrested were aides to Baba who were involved in organising the event but fled when the stampede broke out, police said.

Asked about Baba's role, a senior police officer said the preacher was not named in the case they had registered.

"If there is a need, we will question (him) ... It is too early to say whether he had a role," Uttar Pradesh police Inspector-General Shalabh Mathur said.

A.P. Singh, Baba's lawyer, said he would also represent the six people who were arrested.

"Police are doing their job but the people they have arrested are people whose family members are victims of the stampede," Singh said. "Those who actually caused the stampede have run away."

The stampede broke out on Tuesday afternoon when attendees were exiting the canopied ground by a highway where the event was held, police said.

Several people ran towards the preacher's vehicle but were stopped by his aides, leading to commotion during which some of them fell to the ground and were trampled, officials said.

Others who tried to run to open fields to escape slipped on the uneven ground and fell in the path of the rest of the crowd.

Singh said Baba never asked anyone to touch his feet or gave anyone the dust touched by his feet, countering media reports that cited these as reasons for people running towards his vehicle.

The bodies of the dead, which included 112 women and seven children, were handed over to their families, officials said.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India's main opposition Congress party, plans to visit Hathras soon "and speak to the people who are affected", Congress officials said.

Stampedes are not uncommon at religious events in India that involve large crowds and are often poorly managed.

(Additional reporting by Shivam Patel; editing by YP Rajesh and Mark Heinrich)