Jammu: “Massive gathering of devotees in an unregulated manner triggered a stampede during midnight at Vaishno Devi shrine claiming 12 lives and rendering 15 others injured.”
Eyewitnesses to the tragedy made this claims which were, however, stoutly refuted by the authorities.
According to eyewitnesses, in the beginning, the pilgrims heading towards the shrine and returning to the base camp at Katra were in queues and the pilgrimage was running smoothly.
However, the unruly scenes were witnessed when the movement of pilgrims was stopped all of a sudden, due to massive rush from both sides near the Cloak room and police post at Bhawan.
A resident of Pathankot (Punjab) Sumit was among the 15 injured pilgrims undergoing treatment at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board Narayana Hospital.
“We were standing in a queue. There was a massive rush of pilgrims. No one was able to move, neither forward nor backward,” he recalled while interacting with the journalists in the hospital.
“Of five friends, two already had ‘Darshan’ and three others had yet to pay obeisance at the shrine. Policemen were also there. However, all of a sudden, there was chaos among the pilgrims and we were not able to assess what had happened. Three to four people had fallen upon me as I fell down and fainted,” he said.
He said, “I thought that I would not survive the stampede but with the blessings of the Mata Vaishno Devi, I am alive.”
Sumit was accompanied by Ravi, Aman, Sonu and Bablu during the pilgrimage. He further said, “We were planning to go to Bhairon Ghati after paying obeisance to the shrine. I have no information about my other friends,” he said. He was disappointed that he was not able to pay obeisance at the shrine. Rakesh Tiwari and his brother Vikas Tiwari, belonging to Uttar Pradesh, were also admitted in the Narayana Hospital.
“We were returning from the shrine and there was a massive rush of pilgrims on the way. We noted that some pilgrims allegedly entered into an argument as the movement was stopped from both sides. It triggered panic among the pilgrims,” they said.
Another pilgrim recalled, “The pilgrims were stuck at one place and were not able to move. Hence, pilgrims on the one side tried to push those on the other side in a bid to make their way. This resulted into arguments around 2.45 am.”
The injured pilgrims termed the situation as very scary. “There was complete chaos. There was no control over the pilgrims. Amid the chaos, many pilgrims fainted and they were trampled by those running for safety,” one of the pilgrims recalled.
The pilgrims alleged, “There was a sudden rush of pilgrims after 11 pm (last night) at Katra and even COVID19 vaccination certificates were not checked.” “We were permitted to proceed towards the shrine without undergoing any checking. Had they stopped the people from proceeding towards the shrine, this situation could have been avoided. People moved ahead without any monitoring,” they alleged.
Some of the eyewitnesses said that policemen deployed there tried their best to control the situation, but the massive rush of the people went out of control after they entered into arguments and in this process, the stampede happened.
Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board also denied the charges, saying all necessary arrangements were made in view of the expected rush.
Refuting the allegations of the eyewitnesses, a senior official from civil administration in Katra told Greater Kashmir that there was no casual approach by the authorities in handling the pilgrimage. “The situation occurred because of the arguments between the pilgrims who had gathered there and it is being investigated. It would be premature to say anything further,” he said.