Haridwar: In a tragic incident, sixteen devotees were crushed to death at the Gayatri Shakti Peeth Ashram on Tuesday during a ceremony to mark the birth centenary celebrations of Gayatri Parivar’s founder Acharya Pandit Shriram Sharma.
Most of the dead were reported to be aged. Fourteen of the deceased are men and two are women.
The stampede broke at around 10.30 am, when a large number of followers tried to enter the `yajnashala` (place of sacred fire ceremony) at Chandidweep Ghat to take part in a `yagya` as part of the celebrations.
At least 32 people were also injured in the stampede. The condition of at least 10 persons was stated to be critical.
A few people tripped while those behind continued to push forward, an eyewitness said. Some of the devotees were climbing stairs to cross a mini bridge ahead of the venue for the religious ceremony, another witness said.
As the stampede broke out, the devotees ran helter-skelter with women and children falling to the ground.
Some reports say when a sea of humanity tried to gatecrash into the `yajnasthal` to offer `aahuti`, volunteers of the ashram allegedly resorted to lathicharge that created panic in the area. As the lathicharge began, people ran for safety, falling on each other creating a stampede, police sources and eye witnesses said.
Chaos reigned supreme in the area in the absence of police force. The function was being managed by the volunteers of Shantikunj only and services of police were not utilised.
Police officials blamed the Shantikunj Ashram authorities for not involving the police and district administration in the management.
The incident is the second within 19 months at Haridwar. In the last stampede on April 14 last year, seven people were killed during the Mahakumbh.
Nearly two lakh devotees from home and abroad gathered near the famous `Har Ki Pauri` ghat on the banks of the river Ganges for the ceremony, which is considered to be biggest after the Kumbh Mela. An estimated 50 lakh people were expected to attend the ceremony spread over five days which started on Sunday.
District Magistrate Senthil Pandian ordered a magisterial probe into the incident.
Visiting the mishap site Uttrakhand Chief Minister BC Khanduri expressed grief at the tragedy. Khanduri said the deaths occurred due to suffocation.
The Chief Minister announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakhs to the kith and kin of each of the victims. “An enquiry would be conducted to ascertain what went wrong,” Khanduri said.
Governor Margaret Alva also expressed grief over the incident.
Opposition Congress demanded a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to each victim and said Union Minister Harish Rawat will hold inquiry into the incident and submit a report to the party high command.
BJP President Nitin Gadkari expressed profound grief over the unfortunate incident and conveyed his heartfelt sympathies to the families of the deceased. Gadkari visited Haridwar hospitals where the injured were undergoing treatment.
Shantikunj Ashram head Pranav Pandaya took the moral responsibility for the incident and announced a separate compensation of Rs 2 lakh per family of the victims.
District authorities ordered the organisers of the celebrations to call off the five-day event which was due to end on Thursday. The organisers agreed to end the celebrations tomorrow after a prayer meeting.
Acharya Pandit Shriram Sharma, a Saint-Scholar-Philosopher, was the founder of Shantikunj Ashram and also the Founder Father of `Akhil Vishwa Gayatri Pariwar` which has a huge following.