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India: Police arrest 6 following deadly stampede

July 4, 2024

Police in northern India have arrested six people over a deadly stampede at a religious event. A lawyer for the preacher who staged the event says his client is not in hiding and is not to blame.

The personal belongings of victims who died in a stampede are seen scattered at the venue in Hathras, India.
The stampede occurred as the event concluded and attendees were trying to exitImage: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

Six people have been arrested in connection with a stampede at a Hindu religious event in northern India earlier this week at which 121 people were killed.

Police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh said on Thursday that the four men and two women in custody are aides to the preacher Suraj Pal Singh, also known as "Bhole Baba."

Officers said the six detainees were involved in the organization of the gathering in the village of Phulrai Mughal Garhi in Hathras district on Tuesday.

"They were mainly working as volunteers," Uttar Pradesh police Inspector-General Shalabh Mathur told reporters on Thursday. "They were engaged in crowd management and collecting funds."

Authorities gave permission for 80,000 people to attend, but in the end 250,000 people turned up and, when a stampede broke out, the six aides fled, according to police.

The bodies of the dead, which included 112 women and seven children, have been handed over to their families, officials added.

India: Stampede at Hindu event kills mostly women and kids

Guru 'Bhole Baba' holed up in a monastery

As for Baba himself, the self-styled guru has not been seen since delivering his closing sermon on Tuesday which led to the stampede. Local media reports suggest he has retreated to his nearby monastery, the gates of which have been chained shut from the inside by supporters.

Around 20 police officers were on guard outside the monastery on Thursday but had not entered the sprawling estate, which is also ringed by a five-meter-high (15-foot-high) wall.

"If there is a need, we will question [him]," said Inspector-General Mathur, adding: "It is too early to say whether he had a role."

Baba's lawyer has insisted that his client – himself a former police officer – was not to blame for the disaster, that he is not in hiding and that he will cooperate with the police.

"There is no reason for him to hide; he has never hidden in his life," Singh told the AFP news agency. "He believes in the law and is following police directions. An investigation is going on and we will participate."

Singh also refuted local media reports that claimed that the stampede was prompted by a call from Baba for followers to touch his feet or to pick up the dust touched by his feet.

Lawyer shifts responsibility

The lawyer, who said he would also represent the six people arrested so far, shifted responsibility for the stampede to "anti-social elements" in the crowd who he said had fled the scene.

"The police are doing their job but the people they have arrested are people whose family members are victims of the stampede," he said. "Those who actually caused the stampede have run away."

Relatives of victims who died in the stampede gather outside a hospital
Relatives of victims who died in the stampede gathered outside a hospital in HathrasImage: Getty Images

Self-proclaimed religious preachers, gurus or "godmen" are commonplace across India.

Baba was largely unknown to the wider Indian public before Tuesday's stampede but he has cultivated a large following in his native state of Uttar Pradesh – most of whom are female, poor and marginalized.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India's main opposition Congress party, is planning to visit Hathras soon "and speak to the people who are affected," according to party officials.

mf/ab (AFP, Reuters)