SRINAGAR: The New Year began on a gloomy note as, at least, twelve pilgrims died and fourteen others were injured in a stampede that occurred at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine at around 2.45 am on Saturday, sending shock waves across the country and beyond.
A report, not confirmed by officials, put the number of the injured at 20. The authorities said that the injured were being treated at Mata Vaishno Devi Narayana Hospital at Katra, the basecamp of the revered place of Hindu worship tucked away in Trikuta hills at a height of 11,750 feet above the sea level and 52-km north of Jammu and Kashmir’s winter capital Jammu.
A medical official and neurologist at the Narayana hospital Dr Gopal Dutt said, “Fatal casualties are from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and one from J&K”. He added that four of the injured pilgrims are “very critical” and are on ventilators whereas the condition of the others is “stable” and three to four of them have already been sent home.
Initial reports said that the stampede occurred at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan following an argument broke out over some issue resulting in the people pushing each other. However, another report said that the incident occurred when a huge
crowd of devotees, who had come to pay their obeisance to mark the beginning of the New Year, entered the Vaishno Devi Bhawan.
J&K’s director general of police, Dilbag Singh, said that the rescue operations started immediately and all the injured were quickly taken to the nearby health facility. He too said that a minor altercation among some young boys led to the stampede.
However, some of the pilgrims who escaped unhurt in the stampede blamed the incident on “mismanagement” by the concerned authorities who, they asserted, were apparently oblivious about the possible rush of pilgrims and allowed them to move towards the Bhawan “unhindered.” The Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board SMVDSB) denied the charge, saying all necessary arrangements were made in view of the expected rush on the eve of the New Year.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi “personally monitored and kept track” of the situation, J&K lieutenant governor, Manoj Sinha, ordered a high-level inquiry and announced ex-gratia relief of `10 lakh for the kin of each deceased person and `200,000 for the injured. He also said that the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (MVDSB) will bear the cost of treatment of the injured.
The Prime Minister’s Office also announced an amount of Rs 2 lakh each to the families of those who lost their lives in the stampede and Rs 50,000 for the injured from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.
“Extremely saddened by the loss of lives due to a stampede at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan,” said the Prime Minister, sending his “condolences to the bereaved families.”
Mr Sinha tweeted, “Spoke to Hon'ble home minister Shri Amit Shah Ji. Briefed him about the incident. A high-level inquiry has been ordered into today’s stampede.” Later, he also spoke to the Prime Minister to brief him on the incident and the steps taken by the government to deal with the situation arising out of the tragic incident, the sources said.
President Ramnath Kovind, defence minister Rajnath Singh, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and a host of other leaders and government functionaries also expressed their shock over the tragic incident and condoled with the bereaved.
The President tweeted, “Very distressed to know that an unfortunate stampede claimed lives of devotees at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. My heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. I wish speedy recovery to those injured.”
Later during the day, the Vaishno Devi Yatra resumed after remaining suspended for some time in the aftermath of the stampede. The registration of pilgrims at Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan at Katra also resumed hours after the tragic incident, the SMVDSB officials said. However, many devotees said that they had to return from Katra without having darshan inside the cave-shrine following the stampede.