‘No woman left in my family now’: India’s Hathras mourns stampede victims

Crush at religious event kills at least 121 people, most of them women, whose relatives now seek justice as they consider a future without them.

Vinod Kumar mourns during the cremation of his wife, mother, and daughter who died in the stampede in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh
Vinod Kumar reacts during the cremation of his wife, mother and daughter who died in the stampede in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Hathras, India – Vinod Kumar was away from home for work when he received a call informing him that his 70-year-old mother’s photo was circulating on social media, and that she was among dozens killed in a stampede at a religious event she was attending last week.

“I rushed home and as soon as I reached, I asked for my wife’s whereabouts and no one knew. I asked for my daughter. She is nine or 10 years old,” Kumar, who sells leather and rexine bags for a living, told Al Jazeera, wiping tears from his face. “She was nowhere to be found, either.”

All three were confirmed dead, their bodies found at different hospitals in Hathras, a small town in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh, about 200km (125 miles) southeast of the national capital, New Delhi, and the neighbouring Agra district.

“I am devastated. I lost my mother, wife and daughter. No woman is left in my family now. I am now left with my three sons,” he said.

Kumar’s family members were among at least 121 people who died in the stampede as the devotees, most of them women, surged towards a Hindu preacher who was addressing a crowd of nearly 250,000 people under a giant tent in Hathras district’s Phulrai Mughal Garhi village.

More than 100 were wounded. Clothes and footwear of the dead and injured devotees lay strewn in rainwater on the ground where the event was held.

Belongings of people are seen at the site where devotees had gathered for a Hindu religious congregation, following which a stampede occurred, in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh
Belongings of people are seen at the site where devotees had gathered for the religious congregation in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Authorities said the preacher, Suraj Pal Singh, a former police constable known in the region as Bhole Baba, only had permission for 80,000 people.

The key organiser, Devprakash Madhukar, surrendered to the police last week and has been charged with attempted culpable homicide, Singh’s lawyer told reporters. Madhukar has been sent to 14 days in judicial custody.

Nipun Agrawal, Superintendent of Police in Hathras, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday 11 arrests have been made in the case so far, including two women.

Police, however, said the preacher Singh was not named in the case they had registered. Local media reports say his whereabouts remain unknown.

Singh released a video statement after the incident, which was broadcast on Indian TV channels last week. In the video, Singh said he had faith that those responsible for the stampede would be punished.

“May God give us the strength to bear this pain,” he said.

While the cause of the stampede is being investigated, officials said a crowd rushed to touch the preacher’s feet as he left after finishing his sermon. But the devotees were allegedly stopped by Singh’s aides, leading to commotion, and causing many to fall on the ground and be trampled.

Among them was Lal Ram Singh’s 22-year-old wife, Kamlesh Devi, and their seven-month-old daughter Chanchal. As they left for the “satsang”, as the event is locally called, little did Lal Ram know it would be the last time he would see them alive.

“After the event got over, I came to the point where we had decided I will pick them up. They didn’t come for two hours. I started looking for them and witnessed a huge crowd at the site. Dozens of dead bodies were lying around,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I looked for them everywhere … but to no avail,” he recollected. “From there I rushed to the hospital [in Sikandra Rao town, Hathras], which was filled with more dead bodies. There I identified [the bodies of] my wife and child.”

Lal Ram Singh is cremating his wife Kamlesh Devi, 22, and daughter Chanchal, 7 months old, who died in a stampede in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh
Lal Ram Singh cremating his wife Kamlesh Devi and daughter Chanchal in Hathras [Md Meharban/Al Jazeera]

Several witnesses said the stampede was caused after people rushed towards the preacher to collect the soil around his feet for blessings.

Hans Kumari was among the attendees at the religious gathering. She described the chaos once the preacher ended his sermon.

“People at one point started pushing each other, leading to a stampede-like situation,” she said. “I fell into a pit in the fields and got stuck there. I was gasping for air and felt suffocated. There must have been 50-100 people over me,” Kumari recalled.

“Two women lying under me died on the spot,” she said. “Only my neck and head was out. I fainted and was later rescued when they removed the bodies one by one.”

While deadly crowd crushes are common at India’s religious events, the incident has caused outrage, with growing calls for accountability and questions raised over the precautions taken by the authorities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief over the crush and his office announced a compensation of 200,000 rupees ($2,396) for the next of kin of each person deceased, and 50,000 rupees ($599) for each wounded.

The Uttar Pradesh government has formed a three-member panel to probe the reasons for the stampede and make those responsible accountable.

But for Kumar, whose life has come to a standstill following the crush, there is only desperation ahead.

“What should I do now: go to work or look after them [three sons]? I don’t understand how I will manage my kids now,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera