Bhopal, Oct. 15: A rumour-sparked temple stampede that claimed 115 lives on Sunday has become a thorny issue ahead of polls in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.
Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia — the Congress’s campaign chief who is seen as a chief ministerial candidate — today visited the site, the Ratangarh Mata temple in Datia district, and contested the official casualty count.
“The toll of 115 which the state government is giving is totally fake. I have been to Ratangarh and found that between 300 and 400 people have died,” Scindia said.
He repeated the claim at an election rally — the polls are slated for November 25 — in adjoining Neemuch district but did not disclose the source of his information.
The comments drew a retort from chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who asked Scindia not to “politicise” the issue. “Politics on any tragedy is unwanted. The focus should be on attending to the injured & take steps to avoid any such incidents in the future,” Chouhan tweeted.
The chief minister, who faced angry mobs yesterday at the Datia district hospital where many of the victims had been taken, also denied allegations that police had dumped some bodies in a river near the temple.
A senior officer, Chambal DIG D.K. Arya, echoed the denial. “Police personnel also happen to be sons, brothers and fathers. There might have been some lapses but police personnel can never indulge in such inhuman and despicable acts of throwing bodies into a river.”
The tragedy unfolded on Sunday morning following rumours that a bridge on the Sindh river leading to the temple was collapsing. Several pilgrims jumped off the bridge or died in the stampede, officials said. The heavy rush — officials put the number of devotees at over a lakh — was attributed to Durga Navami, the last day of the Navratra festival.
Eyewitnesses also alleged that the police had allowed tractors and trolleys for bribes of Rs 200 each on the 500-metre-concrete bridge despite it being a “no entry” zone. The vehicles made it tough for devotees to escape when some police personnel allegedly wielded batons to disperse the crowd during the rumour-fuelled panic.
The Chouhan government has announced an inquiry commission that will investigate, among other things, the source of the rumours.
Madhya Pradesh is no stranger to temple tragedies, including one at the Ratangarh shrine in October 2006 when at least 48 devotees were swept away after a sudden release of water into the Sindh river from a nearby dam. That incident, too, had occurred on Durga Navami.
Most of the incidents were blamed on lax crowd management and a callous administration. The allegations resurfaced on Sunday. One charge was that Datia district collector Sanket Bhondve had gone on leave without handing charge to his deputy. He has now been suspended.
Chouhan’s office claimed at least 250 personnel had been deployed at the site but eyewitnesses said they didn’t see more than a dozen.
Congress leader Scindia dubbed the inquiry a “fašade”. “I am sure nothing will come out from the commission.”