Jammu: Overcrowding, lack of contingency plans and chaos after ‘lathicharge’ over a scuffle led to the stampede at the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine that killed 12 people in the early hours of Saturday, eyewitnesses and vendors said.
On Sunday, ThePrint visited the revered Hindu shrine in Jammu and Kashmir’s Katra town and went uphill to the exact spot where the stampede took place — a few metres from gate number three outside the sanctum sanctorum atop the Trikuta hills.
Eyewitnesses as well as vendors on the 13-km route said the new year’s rush resulted in a much bigger crowd than the 35,000 people who were anticipated and this led to chaos around 2.30 am. An alleged scuffle followed near gate number three, which resulted in a lathicharge.
The management, Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, allegedly didn’t have a contingency plan. However, a government statement said the situation was brought under control “within a span of five minutes”.
J&K Director General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh told ThePrint that the initial “probe has revealed that a scuffle broke out between a group of men — those coming down after darshan and those going up”.
“Eyewitnesses have informed us that initially it started with yelling and shouting between the group of men followed by a scrimmage. That must have triggered further altercation and led to the stampede,” he said.
“I visited the spot Saturday. The tehsildar and SHO informed me that they were standing about 30 feet away but since it was dark, they couldn’t identify much. It all happened within a couple of minutes,” the DGP said, adding that a three-member high-level panel formed to probe the incident is currently working on the report.
The panel comprises principal secretary (home), additional director general of police (Jammu), and divisional commissioner, Jammu.
“We are still probing the matter. Cannot comment on it right now,” said Jammu ADG Mukesh Singh, who is a member of the panel.
On Sunday, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha chaired a meeting of the committee. Official sources told ThePrint that the panel and the L-G decided that the probe report will be submitted at the earliest and an additional Rs 5 lakh could be given to the kin of the deceased.
Earlier Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an ex-gratia amount of Rs 2 lakh for those killed and Rs 50,000 for the 16 injured.
ThePrint reached Ramesh Kumar, chief executive of the shrine’s management board, via calls and texts but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Crowd was much bigger than claimed 35,000 pilgrims, say eyewitnesses
For anyone visiting the shrine, a registration pass needs to be made at the taxi or bus stand in Katra. A photo is clicked for the pass, which comes free of cost. Police personnel check this pass, along with the pilgrim’s belongings, at around three checkpoints on the way.
To reach the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine, pilgrims have to trek or take a horse/palki ride for 13 km. The road leading to the spot is under construction at some places and gets narrower in some areas.
While the management has said that “35,000 pilgrims” were allowed to visit the shrine on 31 December and 1 January, below the daily 50,000 cap imposed by the National Green Tribunal, eyewitnesses say the actual number of pilgrims was much higher.
“Yes, there could have been a few thousand people extra. We aren’t sure, but yes there was overcrowding,” an employee at the shrine board’s registration office said on condition of anonymity.
“The crowd was massive. Near gate number three… suddenly people started running and then to control them police had to charge,” said Kartar Singh, who has been running a telephone booth in the market area of the trek route for over two decades.
His shop was run down in the stampede. “People go crazy on New Year’s Eve. Even the ones who come early want to wait to do darshan till 1 January. This creates chaos. Earlier as well, this has happened. I don’t know if a scuffle led to this but one thing is sure, this crowd needs to be controlled,” he said.
“Suddenly people started running from one end, and then it started from both directions. There was no contingency plan, someone should have thought about it,” Singh added.
A sweet vendor at the shrine who didn’t wish to be named said “bas bolne ke liye 35,000 he (there were 35,000 only in name)”.
“Ye toh hona hi tha (this was bound to happen). There have been times when to cross 50 metres on 31 nights, it took me one and a half hours. This time things went out of hand, there was a lathicharge,” the vendor said.
Saurav, who hails from Jaipur, was part of the crowd. He said initially he believed the chaos was the result of stone-pelting.
“The crowd appeared like boulders being thrown. When you see everyone running, you run. All five of us (friends) got lost. Men, women and children were crying. It was a horrible sight. There were only two police personnel at that time at gate number three. They lathicharged to disperse the crowd… we all thought we would fall down and die,” Saurav said.
People entered without passes?
Some others expressed concerns over people entering without passes that night.
“How will they check so many people? There are three-four guards at every checkpoint. When there is a regular crowd, then it is easier but how do you keep track when thousands of people crowd the roads at the same time,” said Sunil, a local resident.
Farooq, who provides horse ride service up to the shrine, noted that the area has developed in the last couple of years “but when there is such a stampede how will any help reach on time?”
He also highlighted the issue of communication as prepaid SIM cards from outside J&K don’t work in the Union territory. “People kept running from here and there. Helpline numbers were busy, so many of my friends attempted to help the pilgrims,” he said.
The 16 injured were admitted to the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Superspeciality Hospital. Of those, 11 have been discharged and five are in the intensive care unit (ICU).
“They are hypoxic (absence of oxygen in tissues) and were put on incubation. When removed, their vitals are fine. They had minor injuries, one or two have a fracture but no hemorrhage,” said J.P. Singh, a senior doctor at the hospital.
Police personnel pushed down during ‘scuffle’, say officers
According to DGP Dilbag Singh, security is enhanced in the area on Navratri and New Year’s Eve. “At night, there is more deployment — police, CRPF. A J&K senior officer himself supervises it,” he said.
However, a senior police officer described what happened Saturday during the alleged scuffle. “Few police personnel were also pushed by the crowd, even the tehsildar fell down. The committee is trying to identify the cause,” said the officer who didn’t wish to be named.
The DGP added that the police are looking for video footage to identify the group of men who were ‘part’ of the scuffle. However, no one has been identified yet.
The shrine was reopened to the public Sunday and large crowds flocked the area. “Ab toh mata ka bulawa aaya he, marna hai toh marenge (Mata has called us, if we are destined to die, we will die),” said Rajeshwari Singh, a pilgrim on his way up to the shrine.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)