At least 24 persons, including 14 women, were crushed to death and 60 injured in a stampede during a religious procession here on Saturday, police said. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav ordered a magisterial probe into the incident even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed grief over the incident.
The stampede occurred at around 1.30 p.m. at the Rajghat bridge in the Ramnagar area, as thousands of people, who had turned up at a religious congregation organised by disciples of the late spiritual leader Jai Gurudev, took out a procession.
Ramanagar police station incharge Anil Kumar Singh told IANS that 24 people were killed in the stampede and over 60 injured. However, state Director General of Police Javeed Ahmed said the death toll was 20.
The toll may rise as the condition of several of the injured is said to be critical. The identities of the deceased is yet to be ascertained.
District authorities said the number of seriously injured was 21 while over 80 people were discharged after primary treatment.
Prime Minister Modi, whose parliamentary constituency is Varanasi, expressed grief over the incident and announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each to the seriously injured.
The Akhilesh Yadav government announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of the deceased, while top police and government officials reached the site with state minister Surendra Singh Patel supervising the rescue operations.
Police attributed the stampede to the "impatience" among the participants due to the prevailing heat and humidity, and also noted that while the organisers had sought permission for the presence of around 3,000 people, nearly 80,000 had turned up.
Varanasi Senior Superintendent of Police, Akash Kulhari said: "The participants were feeling uncomfortable in the heat due to which the stampede might have occurred."
He said that as the incident spot was on the district boundary with Chandauli, police from both areas had reached the spot for rescue and relief operations.
An officer at the spot said that they were focussing on relief and rescue operations and "a probe will be ordered later to ascertain the exact cause of the tragedy".
Chandauli District Magistrate Kumar Prashant told IANS that an awareness camp for Baba Jai Gurudev was going on in Domri village, on the banks of the Ganga, in the district, and a large number of devotees from Varanasi's Pili Kothi area were on their way there when the stampede occurred.
He said that the injured had been admitted to hospitals where the condition of five was said to be critical. The deceased have not been identified yet, he added.
Modi, who is in Goa for the BRICS Summit, took to Twitter to express his grief.
"Deeply saddened by the loss of lives in the stampede in Varanasi. I have spoken to officials and asked them to ensure all possible help to those affected due to the stampede," he tweeted.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi also expressed shock and grief over the deaths.
Hoping that the authorities concerned were providing adequate medical relief and compensation to the victims, Sonia Gandhi also instructed party workers to provide all possible assistance to the people, a Congress statement said.
Rahul Gandhi, in a statement, said: "Shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the stampede in Varanasi. My heartfelt condolences to families of the victims of this tragic incident."
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that he inquired about the incident from Varanasi Divisional Commissioner and directed him to provide all possible help to those affected.
Akhilesh Yadav, who initially had announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for the kin of the dead, said, in a tweet, that it has been increased to Rs. 5 lakh. He also said that the Varanasi Divisional Commissioner has been asked to order a magisterial probe into the incident.