26 children, 37 women killed as 15,000 stampede in UP ashram

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KUNDA (Pratapgarh): In one of the worst stampedes in Uttar Pradesh, 63 people -- 26 children and 37 women -- were killed and more than 300 injured when volunteers at godman Kripaluji Maharaj’s ashram in Kunda used lathis to beat back the unmanageable crowds on Thursday afternoon.

According to police, around 15,000 people had gathered at the Ram Janki Mandir compound at the ashram -- also known as Bhakti Dham -- for a bhandara (religious feast) when the organizers started distributing free utensils and clothes. The ashram volunteers, in order to control the surging crowds, tried to push them back just when the steel gate leading to the temple collapsed, leading to a mad scramble. There was deafening commotion, and, as it usually happens in such tragedies, women and children were the worst victims.

Thursday’s event at the Ram Janki Mandir coincided with the `shraadh’ ceremony of Kripaluji’s wife. Not learning from the past instance when free distribution of sarees by BJP MP Lalji Tandon in April 2004 led to a stampede in which 23 women died, the event organizers started distributing clothing and utensils to a roughly 6,000-strong crowd.

As news of the freebies spread, people rushed towards the courtyard. The organizers, sensing trouble, locked the three gates to restrict further crowding. By this time, another 5,000-plus crowd had gathered at the three gates -- including those who came for the feast.

"Within an hour, at least 10,000-odd people had gathered at the gates," said Dr D P Singh, incharge of the Kripaluji Maharaj Trust Hospital situated within the ashram compound. "I have been here for several years and this is an annual affair. But never in my life have I seen even half the gathering seen today."

"Everyone tried to escape to a more open space and, in the process, trampled on women and children," said DIG, Allahabad, Chandra Prakash.

"By the time the mob cleared, scores of women and children were seen lying on the ground," said Dilip Kumar, a transporter from Pratapgarh, who was at the ashram to seek Kripaluji’s blessings. "Not one patch of ground could be seen. It was covered with women and children -- some of them dead, some writhing in pain," Dilip told TOI.

UP cabinet secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh told reporters the government had ordered an inquiry by Allahabad divisional commissioner Ajay Upadhyay. An interim report on the basis of the findings would be submitted within the next 24 hours. Later, chief minister Mayawati rushed two cabinet ministers to the site of the tragedy and said that FIRs should be lodged immediately against the culprits.

Talking to TOI on phone from Pratapgarh, Kripaluji said he was deeply hurt by the mishap. "The turnout has never been so huge. This time, it was unexpectedly high," he said, adding that the incident had actually taken place outside the ashram compound and not within. "I have promised an ex-gratia relief of Rs 50,000 to the kin of each of the deceased and Rs 10,000 to the injured," he said.

Rescue operations took off quickly and the injured were rushed to the trust hospital in the vicinity. The district administration, too, made quick arrangements for the injured to be rushed to the primary health centre -- the closest being 25km away. Ambulances and vans were roped in to rush the critically injured to hospitals and some private nursing homes in Pratapgarh township and Allahabad as well.

Initial reports suggest that the organizers had not sought any permission from the district administration to hold the event nor even sought help to manage the crowd.

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