While the rest of the country had just welcomed the new year, these were the scenes at the Mata Vaishno Devi Temple in Katra. Women, children, the young and the old, struggling, to save their lives, as the crowd started walking over each other. Early on Saturday morning, that’s just at the start of the very first day of the year, this tragedy struck the Mata Vaishno Devi temple that left 12 dead and 16 injured.
Among them was 30 year old Shweta Singh. She was one of the several people from Ghaziabad’s Varta-lok colony, who were visiting Vaishno Devi for a darshan on New Year’s Eve. But for Shweta’s family, this new year is far from happy, as Shweta will never come back home.
Shweta had left for Vaishno Devi from Ghaziabad on 27th December, with a few of her neighbours and a few others were to join on the way. On the New year’s eve, they decided to start their upward trek, towards the temple, so that they could do the darshan on the very first day of 2022.
Shweta was supposed to return home on Saturday itself, soon after the darshan, but at around 2.45 am, a call changed her family’s life, forever.
Shweta’s parents received a panic call from their other daughter, Sarita, saying that Shweta was nowhere to be found. Sarita was also badly injured,” as per their relative Sangeeta. She said they kept calling on Shweta’s phone but no one answered. At around 4 am, finally policeman picked up the phone and confirmed their worst fears and told them that Shweta had been found dead.
According to her family, Shweta and her sister were near the ill-fated Gate Number 3 of the temple, that was surrounded by hundreds of people. Within seconds, the crowd grew aggressive and there was a stampede-like situation. Imagine Sarita’s horror, as she literally lost her younger sister, infront of her very eyes. Till the very last minute, Shweta kept telling her sister, ‘don’t let go of my hand’, but it was impossible to keep balance,” as “Sarita was pushed off to a different place by the rush of people and Shweta was lost in the crowd. That was the last time she saw her alive.
Originally from Muzaffarpur, Shweta was married five years ago. She worked as an architect at a company in Delhi’s Connaught Place, but fer husband, Rustom Singh, is a Merchant Navy officer, and was in Indonesia when this tragic incident occured.
And Shweta was one among the many, who lost their lives because of a commotion at the site that could have been better controlled and managed. Among the other dead, who have been identified so far, are 26 year old Dheeraj Kumar, 24 year old Vinay Kumar, 24 year old Sonu Pandey, 38 year old Mamta, 35 year old Dharamveer Singh, 38 year old Vaneet Kumar and 30 year old Dr Arun Pratap Singh.
Shweta’s family believes the administration is to be blamed for the tragedy for issuing yatra tickets to so many people, where forget about social distancing, there wasn’t even any crowd management.
But what exactly led to the stampede in the first place?
While there are conflicting reports, coming in from various sources, one of the reasons that is being reported is an alteraction between 2 groups of young pilgrims that apparently led to a scuffle and eventually turned into a stampede. Of course, there was massive overcrowding that you can see in the visuals, on your screen, which have been shot by various eyewitnesses, who were present at site on that fateful night. The visuals also clearly show the utter lack of supervision by the authorities, especially, the temple board that is quick to blame it all on the scuffle.
Take a quick pause here and listen to this. As per a 2009, Times of India report titled ‘Money Spinning Mandirs’, the daily income of the Vaishno Devi temple, run and managed by the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board is 40 crore rupees. Located near Katra in Jammu district, this is the second most visited religious shrines after the Tirupati temple and one of the richest in the country. It’s located at an altitude of 5,200 feet, inside a cave on the Trikuta Bhagwati hill. This 2009 report quotes RK Goel, the then CEO of the Shrine saying, “The temple’s revenue has increased during the last five years, as the number of pilgrims has risen.”
You and I can only imagine its revenue today, more than 12 years after this report was published. Surely, the temple board can manage the swelling crowds, a lot better than what they did on the night of 31st January. Many are guessing if such an important and cash-rich shrine, would have high quality CCTV cameras at every nook and cranny that would make it so much easier to catch the culprits, and monitor the crowds, but so far there is no word on the all imporant CCTV footage.
Now, the J&K Leftanant General Manoj Sinha, who is also the chairperson of the shrine board, has announced an ex gratia of 10 lakh rupees each to the next of kin of those who died due to the stampede and Rs 2 lakhs to those injured. And he has mentioned in a tweet that the Vaishno Devi Shrine board will bear the cost of treatment of the injured.
Minutes later, PM Modi also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each to the next of kin of those, who lost their lives in the stampede, and Rs 50,000 for the injured. The relief amount would be released from the PM Relief Fund.
Several reports also claimed how the police lathicharged the crowd and was trying to make way for the visit of a VVIP, as one of the possible reasons for the stampede, but these reports have not been backed by any authorities so far.
A police probe will go on along with the investigation of a high-powered committee, and action will be taken against those involved in the fight that led to the incident, as per the J&K DGP Dilbag Singh. He confirmed that the government has already set up a three-member committee to inquire into the incident, which he said was the result of the “irresponsible” behaviour of some people.
There is so much confusion around what exactly happened that night that the authorities are now asking the public to come forward with the information and furnish any facts, statements, or electronic evidence etc. regarding the stampede. You can see on your screen, the notice form the govt that has the email ID and the whatsapp and landline nos where you can share information about the incident, if you have any. Please do so.
The BJP has also now launched a helpline for Katra. The nos of which are on your screen.
But is it too little too late? Why does a cash-rich temple board that is very well aware of the sheer volume of crowds it gets, especially, on a new year’s eve, not have enough crowd management techniques in place. Where was the security, where was social distancing, why were so many people allowed in the first place and where is the CCTV footage? Who will answer these questions. What are they doing to avoid another such tragedy. Surely, it was the first one at the Vaishno Devi temple, but it has happened at many other pilgrim places before. Why do these boards not learn anything from those incidents and gear up to tackle such mishaps. Why wait till the time that it actually happens and why let it happen in the first place?
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Now, as the inquries continue and this news goes from the front pages to the back ones, in smaller columns and finally gets thrown out of the news cycle, one can only image the grief and the lifelong tragedy that those who have lost their loved ones, have to endure.
Friends, we have all been to Vaishno Devi and many other pilgrim places.When I was researching about this story, I could visualise everything from that night, and it felt so chillingly real,. because I could help, but think that it could just as well have been me or my family and friends, among those, who lost their life that night, for no reason.
For now, if you have any information about the incident or an experience you would like to share from your last visit to the Vaishno Devi Shrine, then please do so in the comments below. You can even connect with me on Insta, FB and Twitter – it’s either @reviewron or @ronakkotecha.
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