Devotees surged towards preacher moments before lethal India crush, witnesses say

By Shivam Patel

HATHRAS, India (Reuters) - Thousands of devotees rushed to get a closer glimpse of a Hindu preacher, jostling and pushing on slippery ground, witnesses say, moments before a crush at an overcrowded venue in India killed 121 people and sparked a police hunt for the organisers.

The stampede occurred on Tuesday at Phulrai Mughal Garhi village in Hathras district in the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where preacher Suraj Pal Singh, also known as 'Bhole Baba', was holding a monthly congregation.

About 250,000 people had gathered in a canopied ground by a highway, although authorities had given permission for only 80,000, police said. At least 121 people were killed and 31 injured, with the dead including 112 women and seven children.

The trouble started after the hour-long afternoon congregation concluded and the preacher was leaving the venue in his car, witnesses told Reuters on Wednesday.

The entrance and exit of the venue was big enough for 10 or 20 people to move through at the same time "but thousands rushed when Baba’s car left, following his car on foot to get a closer look at him", said Sankalp Gautam, 22, who was with his aunt Kusum Devi, who was injured in the melee and is in hospital.

Devi fell and was crushed under people as she tried to help one of her two sisters who was struggling to get up. The sister was injured and died in hospital, Gautam said.

Farmer Lakhan Singh's house overlooks the venue and he said he was sitting on the terrace and watching the sea of people at the congregation.

"Baba talked about living well, caring for one another etc., and then started walking out and got into his car," Singh said, adding that vehicles of attendees had caused a traffic jam on the highway.

"People wanted to get close to him, they rushed towards his car, and his supporters pushed them away," he said, adding that many fell down a slope in a heap.


Rameshwar, another farmer who lives about a mile away from the venue, said he saw groups of women coming near the preacher's car and trying to bow down to him in reverence when pushing and jostling caused them to fall off the road.

"There was a pile-up on both sides of the road. We lifted some bodies and put them in whatever vehicle we could find," he said.

Authorities said the event was organised by a group of devotees, but did not identify anyone. Police and state officials have launched investigations into what went wrong and if there were any lapses by authorities.

Police are also trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the preacher. Reuters found mobile phones of the organisers had been switched off.

For Chedilal, 65, Tuesday's congregation was the third he was attending and this time he was accompanied by his daughter Ruby, 30, who had travelled over 300 km (185 miles) to join him.

"It was going well...I don’t know what suddenly happened when people started leaving," he said. "There was a big commotion in the women's exit area. Someone was also spraying water from a pipe and the ground became muddy. Moments later I heard terrifying screams from women."

Chedilal couldn't trace his daughter all night. Her body was found in the district hospital on Wednesday morning.

(Reporting by Shivam Patel in Hathras, India; Writing by YP Rajesh, Editing by William Maclean)