RATANGARH, India // Outrage mounted in India today after at least 115 devotees were crushed to death or drowned near a Hindu temple, the site of another deadly stampede only seven years ago.
As survivors of Sunday’s tragedy on a bridge recounted how desperate mothers threw their children into the water below, authorities came under fire over policing levels amid claims the panic was aggravated by baton-charging.
Medics were also battling to save the lives of 10 people classified as critically ill after the stampede in the town of Ratangarh in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
“The death toll has now gone up to 115 and more than 110 injured,” deputy police inspector general DK Arya said.
“Ten of those are in a very critical state.”
The operation to recover the bodies was completed by yesterday and police investigators were scouring the site.
The tragedy cast a long shadow over celebrations marking the end of one of the holiest festivals in the Hindu calendar.
Police said the panic had been sparked by rumours that the bridge was about to collapse.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple when the stampede took place while there were around 20,000 people on the bridge which spans the river Sindh.
Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses, on the penultimate day of the nine-day Navaratri festival, which is dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga.
The disaster comes only seven years after another stampede outside the same temple when more than 50 people were crushed to death while crossing the river, after which authorities built the bridge.
“Cops learnt no lessons from 2006 stampede,” read a headline in The Hindustan Times, saying the tragedy “underlines the sheer ineptitude of the authorities responsible for the safety and security” of devotees.
Manoj Sharma, one of the survivors, described a scene of utter mayhem.
“People were jumping off the bridge to save themselves, but they could not swim against the tide. I also saw children being tossed from the bridge, only to be washed away,” he told the Times of India.
Man Singh, a fruitseller who had set up shop near the temple, told how people caught up in the crush in the bridge tried to save themselves with the clothes of some of the female victims.
“Some pulled garments off the bodies, making ropes out of them, and tried to lower themselves into the river but they weren’t able to save themselves and ended up drowning as the river was flowing fast,” Mr Singh said.
Mr Singh also cast doubt on the official toll, saying some survivors had already left with the bodies of their loved ones before rescue services arrived.
Another survivor told the CNN-IBN news channel that the police had charged into the crowds, wielding baton sticks known as lathis.
“There was a huge crowd and the police started lathi-charge. It caused panic and the people were killed,” the unnamed witness told the network.
Mr Arya denied that the police employed such tactics.
“One would be stupid to use lathis (truncheon) on a crowd which was 25,000 strong,” he said.
“That would have also led to a frenzy and a bloodbath because people would have jumped off the bridge. These reports are absolutely ridiculous,” he said.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a senior figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party, was facing calls to resign over the tragedy.
“Had there been adequate police, administration and health officials at the temple site, the loss of lives could have been averted,” said Kantilal Bhuria, the leader of the Congress party in the state.
But speaking on a visit to a hospital in the Datia district to meet some of the victims, Mr Chouhan said a commission of inquiry would establish exactly what had happened and who was to blame.
“This is a great tragedy which has shaken me deeply,” he told reporters.
“By tomorrow a judicial commission will be set up and I will request it to complete its probe within two months.
“It should decide within 15 days of the completion of the probe what action is to be taken and assign responsibilities for this disaster.”
India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.
About 100 Hindu devotees were killed in a stampede in January 2011 in the state of Kerala, while 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hilltop temple in Jodhpur.
* Agence France-Presse