Crush at India religious event kills more than 120, mostly women

By Aishwarya S Iyer, Mariya Knight, Sugam Pokharel, Rhea Mogul and Esha Mitra, CNN

New Delhi CNN  — 

A crowd crush at a religious gathering in northern India killed more than a hundred people Tuesday, mostly women, in one of the deadliest such incidents the country has seen in recent years.

Many of the scores killed had fallen into an open sewer next to the venue. Police are investigating the organizers, saying a quarter of a million people arrived at the venue – more than three times the number expected – and just a few dozen police officers had been deployed.

Investigators are pursuing Bhole Baba, the self-styled godman who led the event. The disaster happened at a prayer meeting, known as a satsang, in Mughal Garhi village in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The village, in Hathras district, is around 200 kilometers (124 miles) southeast of the capital New Delhi.

At least 121 people died and 35 others were injured, Sandeep Singh, the Minister of State for Education, told reporters Wednesday, after a large number of people rushed to touch Bhole Baba’s feet, leading to a crush.

Almost all those killed were women, Singh said earlier, with at least seven children also among the dead.

About 72 bodies have been identified so far, and dozens of injured people are being treated in nearby hospitals, according to local health officials.

Local officials have suggested overcrowding was the cause of the crush.

An estimated 80,000 people had been expected to attend the event, where Bhole Baba was giving a sermon. However, “a lot more people showed up,” Singh said.

Police have been on the hunt for Bhole Baba since the deadly incident and have accused the event’s organizers of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, wrongfully restraining a person, causing disappearance of evidence or providing false information, according to a police report seen by CNN.

Permission was sought for the event with 80,000 attendees, however a crowd of more than 250,000 devotees gathered, the report said.

Organizers and officials tried to direct the crowd as thousands attempted to leave and in the ensuing chaos dozens were trampled, it added. The report alleged that event organizers provided no assistance to the injured and attempted to cover up the incident by hiding the clothes and shoes that people had lost in the crush in a nearby field.

About 40 policemen had been deployed to provide security at the event, additional director general of Agra police, Anupam Kulshreshtha, told reporters.

The deadly scenes unfolded after the event had finished, when Bhole Baba’s devotees rushed toward the stage to touch his feet, according to chief secretary Singh, who described scenes of chaos as people began to fall on top of each other and into an open sewer nearby.

He accused the organizers of failing to comply with a list of requirements given by the district. A high-level inquiry has been launched to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident and a police report will be filed against the event organizers for allegedly exceeding permitted attendance levels, according to local officials.

“There has been a major lapse on the part of the organizers. They will face a strict punishment,” he said.

Survivors spoke of the harrowing incident in its aftermath. “People started falling one upon another, one upon another. Those who were crushed died. People there pulled them out,” Shakuntala Devi told the Press Trust of India news agency, according to the Associated Press.

Efforts are underway to provide the injured with medical care and arrangements are being made for post-mortem examinations at various locations, said Inspector General Shalabh Mathur, of the neighboring district Ambala Range.

A video distributed by Reuters showed crowds gathering outside a hospital in the nearby Etah district, where distraught families cried for the victims. Medical personnel could be seen carrying people on stretchers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his condolences in a parliamentary address.

Modi said the government is conducting “relief and rescue work” and is coordinating with the state government. “The victims will be helped in every way,” he said.

Crowd crushes at religious gatherings in India are not uncommon, and deadly incidents have made headlines in the past, highlighting the lack of adequate crowd control and safety measures.

A new year’s crush in January 2022 at one of India’s holiest shrines in Jammu, in the north of the country, killed at least a dozen people. In 2008, nearly 150 people who had gathered for a religious event in western India died in a hilltop crowd crush, and three years prior, more than 250 people were trampled to death during a pilgrimage in the western state of Maharashtra.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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