Home News They came for spiritual renewal, but ended up in a deadly panic

They came for spiritual renewal, but ended up in a deadly panic

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At one point, under a giant tent in northern India, a crowd of tens of thousands, almost all of them women, were singing and dancing on stage, paying reverent respect to a revered saint before them.

But as the master left, people began to push and shove, trying to escape the cramped space and stifling heat under the pavilion. Some began to fall, onto the muddy ground below or into the ditch beside. People panicked and screamed. Bodies piled up everywhere.

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For the families, the search for their loved ones’ bodies took them to several hospitals and lasted until after midnight.

The bodies of 34 victims lay on melting ice along the corridors of the Bagra Joint District Hospital. Their faces bore the marks of the afternoon’s brutal stampede – puddles of mud on their hair, dried blood on their skin. The green carpets of the corridors were smeared with mud and slush from the shoes and slippers of grief-stricken relatives.

Dozens of ice blocks were piled on the balcony outside. Ambulances kept bringing in the dead. A policeman, accompanied by relatives, examined the bodies one by one and wrote down the details in a red diary.

A husband crouched on the wet ground beside his wife’s body, banging his head against the hallway wall. A grandfather clutched the tiny finger of his only grandson. A son bent over, trying to find his mother’s body.

The eerie silence in the hospital was often broken by cries of grief as victims were identified.

The saint – Narayan Sarkar Hari, or Bole Baba as he is known – was a former government employee who turned self-styled Hindu guru and began drawing huge crowds. Villagers say he has become an idol for women from the Dalit community, who are at the bottom of India’s strict caste system and have historically been considered “untouchables” and banned from temples.

Crowds arrived at Tuesday’s rally by bus, train and taxi, then swarmed into tents set up in farmland near the highway. They came from all over the state, some on foot from neighboring areas. Some came alone, others with neighbors, friends, children or grandchildren. It was a gathering they didn’t want to miss.

Hans Kumari, 40, arrived in a taxi with 10 other women. She began following Bole Baba in the hope of curing her chronic health problems: knee pain and difficulty sleeping. Some women in the village told her that the saint could help her, so she began attending his meetings regularly.

“We got here early yesterday to get a good seat,” she said.

Ms. Kumari said there was a commotion after Bole Baba finished his sermon, left the stage and left in a car.

“People started running like crazy. Most of them were women,” she said. “I slipped into a ditch and waded through a pile of bodies. I saw two dead women and a child at my feet. Bodies were stacked on top of bodies.”

Ms Kumari said she “kept her head down, her hands out, and kept cutting” and eventually escaped despite having bruises on her skull and all over her body.

Others were not so lucky.

“The bus carrying devotees returned to the village. My mother was not on board,” said Bunty Kumar, 29, dishevelled and in tears after arriving at the government hospital. “We finally found photos online of her lying on an ice slab. That’s when we realised she was dead.”

Farmer Sadan Singh, 62, sat quietly beside the body of his only grandson, 2-year-old Rehanshu, who lay on a block of ice, his short hair flying in all directions. A small part of his yellow T-shirt peeked out from under the white bed sheet. His father was too distraught to come and identify his body.

Mr Singh said Rehanshu had come here by bus with his mother, a devout believer who often attended spiritual revivals. He lost both of them.

“He came with his mother on the bus,” Mr. Singh said. “She had heard many of his sermons before. I had heard some too. He taught us about brotherhood, humanity, peace and love.”

His sadness was palpable as he described his love for the mischievous child. “My grandson calls me ‘Dad,'” he said. “He asks me for candy, bananas and cookies.”

Mujib Mashar Reporting contributed by New Delhi.

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