July 13, 2024

India preacher denies blame for crush deaths

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The preacher who led an overcrowded gathering in India where more than 120 people were crushed to death on Tuesday has denied blame, and pledged to co-operate with the police investigation.

A lawyer for the self-styled guru known as Bhole Baba told our correspondent the crush occurred “due to some anti-social elements”, and blamed a “criminal conspiracy hatched against” his client.

Bhole Baba – whose real name is Narayan Sakar Vishwa Hari – will fully cooperate with the investigation, his lawyer AP Singh said.

Nearly all those killed were women and children, who were attending the satsang – a Hindu religious festival – in Hathras district.

It has sparked outrage in India and questions about a lack of security measures.

Mr Singh also denied reports that security guards at the festival triggered panic by pushing away people who tried to get Bhole Baba’s blessing.

“Totally false allegation,” Mr Singh told the BBC. “Security staff always provide help to the followers.”

This is one of the worst crushes to happen in India for years.

Shocking images from the aftermath of the disaster have circulated online, of people driving the wounded to hospital in pick-up trucks, tuk tuks and even on motorbikes.

The crush took place in Pulrai village, where Bhole Baba was holding a religious gathering.

An initial police report said that officials had given permission for 80,000 people to gather, but some 250,000 people turned up to the event.

The report says the chaos began as the preacher drove off. Eyewitnesses said people lost their footing and started falling on top of each other as hundreds rushed towards the preacher as he was leaving the venue.

As people ran after his vehicle, survivors said a number of those sitting and squatting on the ground got crushed.

One of the first on the scene, local resident Yogesh Yadav, told the BBC that hundreds of women ran after Bhole Baba’s car as he was leaving.

“Some crossed the highway to get a better glimpse of his car. In the melee, many women fell in the drain adjacent to the highway. People started falling on top of each other,” Mr Yadav said.

The police document added that some people tried to cross the road to a patch of mud-soaked fields, but were forcibly stopped by the organisers and were crushed.

Bhole Baba was originally named Suraj Pal, but he reportedly re-christened himself as Narayan Sakar Vishwa Hari.

One senior police officer in Uttar Pradesh told BBC Hindi that the preacher had been a police constable, but was suspended from service after a criminal case was lodged against him.

He was reinstated in the force after a court cleared him but left his job in 2002, the senior officer said.

The preacher has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in Hathras and neighbouring districts.

Bhole Baba is known to have an ashram in Mainpuri, about 100km (62 miles) from Pulrai village.

His lawyer told us his client is now at his ashram. The preacher has not been named in the initial police complaint.

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