Varanasi: At least 24 persons, most of them women, were crushed to death and 60 others injured in a stampede during a religious procession here on Saturday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed grief over the deaths while Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav ordered a probe.
The stampede occurred at around 1.30 p.m. at the Rajghat bridge in the Ramnagar area, as thousands of people, who had turned up at a religious congregation organised by disciples of the late spiritual leader Jai Gurudev, took out a procession.
Ramanagar police station incharge Anil Kumar Singh told IANS that 19 people were killed in the stampede, while five of the injured succumbed to their injuries in hospital. However, state Director General of Police Javeed Ahmed said the death toll was 20.
The identities of the deceased are yet to be ascertained.
Varanasi's Chief Medical Officer V.V. Singh said the injured were admitted to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital in Ramnagar as well as the Trauma Centre in the Banaras Hindu University. He said the toll may rise as the condition of several of the injured is said to be critical.
District authorities said the number of seriously injured was 21 while over 80 people were discharged after primary treatment.
Police attributed the stampede to the "impatience" among the participants due to the prevailing heat and humidity.
Varanasi Senior Superintendent of Police, Akash Kulhari said: "The participants were feeling uncomfortable in the heat due to which the stampede might have occurred."
He said that as the incident spot was on the district boundary with Chandauli, police from both areas had reached the spot for rescue and relief operations.
Chandauli District Magistrate Kumar Prashant told IANS that a 'satsang' for Baba Jai Gurudev was going on in Domri village, on the banks of the Ganga, in the district, and a large number of devotees from Varanasi's Pili Kothi area were on their way there when the stampede occurred.
The Akhilesh Yadav government announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the deceased, while top police and government officials including Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Daljit Chowdhary and Home Secretary S.K. Raghuvanshi reached the site where state minister Surendra Singh Patel supervised rescue operations. Chowdhary said a high-level probe would be held to ascertain the reason.
Varanasi District Magistrate Vijay Kiran Anand however blamed Acharya Pankaj Das, the successor of Jai Gurudev and the organiser of the two-day congregation in Domri village. "The organisers had told us that 3,000 people would come but over 300,000 turned up," he said, adding action would be taken against those responsible after an enquiry.
Pankaj Das however blamed the administration for failing to take proper measures.
Prime Minister Modi, whose parliamentary constituency is Varanasi, expressed grief over the incident and announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each to the seriously injured.
"Deeply saddened by the loss of lives in the stampede in Varanasi. I have spoken to officials and asked them to ensure all possible help to those affected due to the stampede," tweeted Modi who is in Goa for the BRICS summit.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi also expressed shock and grief over the deaths.
Hoping that the authorities concerned were providing adequate medical relief and compensation to the victims, Sonia Gandhi also instructed party workers to provide all possible assistance to the people, a Congress statement said.
Rahul Gandhi, in a statement, said: "Shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the stampede in Varanasi. My heartfelt condolences to families of the victims of this tragic incident."
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that he inquired about the incident from Varanasi Divisional Commissioner and directed him to provide all possible help to those affected.
Akhilesh Yadav, who initially had announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the kin of the dead, said that it has been increased to Rs. 5 lakh. He also said that the Varanasi Divisional Commissioner has been asked to order a magisterial probe into the incident.