Bhopal (India) (AFP) - India has suspended police and government officials over a stampede near a temple that killed at least 115 people, police said Tuesday, as recriminations fly over the country's latest religious festival disaster.
Twenty-one people, including all 17 police from the local station, have been suspended after devotees were crushed to death or drowned on Sunday near the temple in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
Outrage has been mounting over the tragedy in Ratangarh town, site of another deadly stampede seven years ago, with authorities under fire over policing levels following claims the panic was aggravated by baton-charging.
"We have suspended the entire staff of the concerned police station which includes two sub-inspectors and 15 other officers for not doing their duty of regulating the crowd and preventing the stampede," deputy police inspector general D. K. Arya told AFP.
A commission of inquiry was expected to include the officers in its investigation into exactly what happened and who was to blame.
"It is going to be difficult for these men as a judicial commission will now probe the role of these officers who have been removed from their posts," Arya said.
The state government said it was also suspending four officials: the collector of Datia district, the sub-divisional magistrate and two senior police officers.
The government released a statement late Monday announcing all of the suspensions, after the chief minister was heckled during a tour of one of the hospitals where victims were being treated.
Medics were battling to save the lives of 10 people classified as critically ill following the tragedy, which took place on a bridge.
Survivors of the stampede recounted how desperate mothers threw their children into the water below.
Devotees trapped on the bridge threw saris over the edge to help them climb down, while others simply dropped to the ground, new video footage showed.
The tragedy cast a long shadow over celebrations marking the end of one of the holiest festivals in the Hindu calendar.
Police said the panic had been sparked by rumours that the bridge was about to collapse. Police denied claims from survivors that officers had charged into the crowds, wielding batons.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple when the stampede took place, while there were about 20,000 people on the bridge, which spans the river Sindh.
Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses, on the penultimate day of the nine-day Navaratri festival dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga.
The disaster comes seven years after another stampede outside the same temple when more than 50 people were crushed to death while crossing the river, after which authorities built the bridge.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a senior figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party, was facing calls to resign over the tragedy.
India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.