The horrific stampede in Hathras on July 2 was avoidable. The failures need to be examined in depth. But even preliminary reports indicated that the district administration has a lot of explaining to do for the tragedy, which claimed 121 lives, mostly of women and children.

It all started with an innocuous application seeking permission from the district authorities. Approximately 80,000 devotees were expected to attend a samagam (a congregation of devotees). The officials approved this as a routine procedure. It seems that they did not take into account how crowds in such assemblies are known to swell beyond the sanctioned numbers. But more than three times the number of sanctioned devotees of Bhole Baba gathered at the site of the event.

The Baba is a former constable of UP police, Suraj Pal Singh. He was accused of multiple cases of misdemeanor in his official position. He was placed under suspension, but on bail, he opted for voluntary retirement and reinvented himself as a godman. He worked on a business model, which it is alleged, mobilized people vulnerable to misinformation. The Baba’s supporters spread the message that his photographs have curative qualities.

White-clothed volunteers, the Sivam Sevaksorganize the Baba’s satsangs. They also take pains to ensure that photography and the use of mobiles are kept to a minimum. At the site of the Hathras incident, too, the volunteers reportedly bullied people not to use their mobile phones to photograph the event. Bhole Baba is also known not to be keen on social media. But he has a fairly large following in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.

The police presence at the event was minimal. Normally, for such events, police deployment is chargeable from the party that demands arrangements. After all, they earn from their followers. It remains to be seen if this practice was followed in Hathras.

Festive offer

A crowd of 2,50,000 does not descend from the heavens. It would take about seven to eight hours for such a huge number of people to filter in. More so when the venue is next to a national highway. It’s very likely that the news of the traffic jams caused by the influx of devotees would have been relayed to the city and district control room. A contingency plan was imperative but it is obvious there was none. CCTVs should have been in place and the site should have had proper exit and entry points per the district’s internal security scheme.

Duty cards should have been issued, and duties assigned. Was there any backup plan? Of course, the investigation ordered by the government will reveal answers to these questions. We hope that responsibility is fixed and those found wanting will be taken to task. There seems to have been a delay in giving medical aid to the injured. Any such negligence must also be probed.

The post-mortems indicated that most deaths were caused by broken rib cage, crushing, asphyxia and/or haemorrhage. A First Information Report has been lodged against the sevadar volunteers. However, the Baba has not yet been named in the FIR. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) has been constituted to investigate this sensitive case. It’s functioning should be transparent and the investigating team must give utmost urgency to submitting a report.

Can Godman like Bhole Baba be prosecuted under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954? That is for the law enforcement agencies to determine. Anyway, the ill-gotten wealth of these babas belongs to the nation. Notably, Section 14(1) of The Uttar Pradesh Gangsters And Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 1986 gives the law the authority to attach all such properties after due scrutiny.

More importantly, there are elaborate instructions on crowd management in gatherings such as the one in Hathras. There are also scholarly studies on earlier tragedies and there is always a best way of doing everything. Unfortunately, the worst possible way of implementing the rule book was obvious in this case.

The writer is former director general of police who served in Uttar Pradesh