Police investigate deadly Indian temple stampede
Associated Press Writer
KUNDA, India (AP) – Police launched a criminal investigation Friday into a deadly stampede at a Hindu temple in northern India as relatives made funeral preparations for the 63 victims, most of them women and children.
The stampede occurred Thursday afternoon as thousands of poor villagers scrambled for free food and clothes at a commemorative event at a temple in the small town of Kunda, on the northern plains of Uttar Pradesh state.
Authorities were not informed of the event beforehand and adequate measures to ensure the safety of participants were not in place, Superintendent of Police S.M. Mishra said.
Relatives also complained that organizers should have done a better job of controlling the crowds.
Mishra said police opened a criminal negligence case against the temple management.
Meanwhile, grieving families prepared to hold funerals for the victims.
In the village of Piranagar, a few miles (kilometers) from Kunda, the bodies of 8-year-old Vandana and her 12-year-old sister, Sanjana, were wrapped in white sheets and placed on slabs of ice in their small house until their father could return home later Friday from his job ironing clothes in the distant city of Mumbai.
Their mother, Bimla Devi, sat crying nearby among weeping relatives and neighbors.
The girls had gone to the temple along with their mother and their 15-year-old sister Khushboo.
“We knew that we would get an offering so we went,” Khushboo said. “Then we felt people starting to push us, and people started falling on top of us. In this madness, my two sisters died.”
The handouts in Kunda are an annual tradition arranged by local religious leader Kripalu Maharaj to mark the anniversary of his wife’s death, a common practice in India.
The event usually draws a few hundred people, but was announced more broadly this year and attracted several thousand villagers, said state lawmaker Raghuraj Pratap Singh, who represents Kunda, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) southeast of the state capital of Lucknow.
While most men in the farming region worked in their fields, women gathered with their children Thursday to receive the alms.
The compound appeared to have been undergoing renovations. Bamboo and iron rods used in construction were strewn about the grounds, possibly causing some people to trip.
The stampede was so intense it knocked down a gate at the compound surrounding the temple.
By Thursday evening, all the victims had been identified and police handed the bodies over to relatives to carry back to their villages, police official K.G. Khan said. As bodies were claimed, temple officials at the hospital gave donations of 10,000 rupees ($220) to families who lost relatives.
Deadly stampedes are relatively common at temples in India, where large crowds – sometimes hundreds of thousands of people – gather in tiny areas with no safety measures or crowd control. In 2008, more than 145 people died in a stampede at a remote Hindu temple at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Associated Press reporter Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this story.