Dumka, Sept. 24: Nine devotees, including eight women, were killed in an early morning stampede at a Deoghar ashram today, revealing a shocking lack of preparation on the part of the authorities who relied on volunteers rather than police to manage a turnout that was expected to be huge.
More than 50 people were also injured in the melee at the Satsang Ashram, 70km away from Dumka, where nearly a lakh devotees had gathered to observe the 125th birth anniversary of ashram founder Sri Sri Anukul Chandra Thakur.
Eyewitnesses said the stampede took place around 5am when restless devotees waiting outside the ashram tried to push their way in as soon as the main gate opened, in a bid to secure a vantage point from where to observe the daylong proceedings.
Some elderly devotees tripped and fell in the rush, and others fell on them, suffocating the victims in the process.
Seven of the dead were identified as Pratima Kumari (31) of Manihari, Pinki (35) of Samastipur, Badami Devi of Supaul (Bihar), Parvati of Cuttack (Odisha), Uma Majumdar of North 24 Pargana and Bishnupriya Mallick of Hooghly (Bengal) and Yamuna Devi of Phusro, Bokaro (Jharkhand) — the last five senior citizens.
Two other victims, both elderly, are yet to be identified.
The 50 injured were admitted to the on-campus hospital run by the ashram management. While 30 people were released after first-aid, the rest remained hospitalised, though they were stated to be out of danger.
The incident triggered a backlash against the ashram management, who many felt had failed to make foolproof crowd control arrangements.
“The Satsang Ashram depends on its own volunteers to manage affairs during religious events and did not seek deployment of police forces this time as well,” Deoghar deputy commissioner Rahul Purwar told The Telegraph.
He added that the 200-odd volunteers and private security guards deputed by the ashram were grossly inadequate to control the lakh-strong crowd when the ashram premises can hold up to 80,000 people at a time.
Though no one from the ashram was willing to come on record, sources said police help was sought to manage traffic outside the premises during festivals, but the ashram insisted upon managing with volunteers on campus.
The deputy commissioner has directed subdivisional officer (civil) Uma Shankar Singh to investigate the incident and submit a report within 24 hours.
The fact that the ashram authorities only reported the stampede to the district and police administration nearly three hours after it took place also raised questions.
“We were informed about the incident around 8am,” Deoghar superintendent of police Subodh Prasad said.
Minister of state for railways K.H. Muniyappa, who was in Deoghar today to flag off the Dumka-Ranchi Intercity and announce the extension of the Chittaranjan-Howrah passenger till Deoghar, visited the ashram later in the day.
He met Acharyadev Sri Sri Ashok Chakravarty, the grandson of Anukul Chandra Thakur, but sources said the minister was kept in the dark about the incident during his half hour stay.
Chief minister Arjun Munda, a disciple of the Satsang Ashram, expressed grief over the incident and announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased.