People cross a bridge after a stampede near Ratangarh temple in Datia district in Madhya Pradesh yesterday.
BHOPAL: A stampede on a bridge outside a Hindu temple killed more than 90 people in India yesterday, with many of the victims leaping to their deaths in the water below.
Police warned that the number could rise further as medics struggled to make their way through hordes of pilgrims to reach the scene of the tragedy -- the latest in a string of disasters at religious festivals.
While officials said the panic appeared to have been sparked by a false rumour, witnesses said that the situation escalated when police weighed in with batons.
“The death toll has risen to 91 and 10 others are in a critical condition,” Deputy Police Inspector D K Arya said after the tragedy in the Datia district of central Madhya Pradesh state.
Arya, who had earlier put the number of dead at 60, said that those in the most critical condition were being treated in Datia’s Government Hospital.
Police and state government officials said the stampede at the Ratangarh temple was triggered by rumours the bridge might collapse after being struck by a heavy vehicle around lunchtime.
“There were rumours that the bridge could collapse after the tractor hit it,” said Arya. “Many people are feared to have fallen into the river.”
Other police sources said that some 20,000 people were on the bridge over the River Sindh when the stampede broke out.
Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses, as Hindus celebrate the end of the Navaratri festival.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple in Datia district, which is about 350km north of the state capital Bhopal, when the stampede took place.
Witnesses said the situation was exacerbated by police charging at the crowds with heavy wooden sticks known as lathis.
“Police lathi-charge during the panic run worsened the situation, forcing many to jump off the bridge,” 28-year-old Manoj Sharma, who lives in the nearby village of Bhander, told The Times of India’s website.
However Arya insisted “there was no baton-charge” by the police.
Uma Shankar Gupta, the state’s home minister, said authorities had not yet determined why the stampede had broken out, but downplayed suggestions that security to deal with the crowds was inadequate.
“There were safety measures in place, this is an annual event,” he told reporters. “We don’t yet have information on how this happened, as our focus is on the rescue effort.”
Ashok Argal, a federal lawmaker from the region, placed the blame on crowds trying to rush across the bridge.
“It is wrong to say there were any administrative lapses. The administration had taken steps and made fool-proof arrangements to avoid any untoward incident,” he said.
“Sometimes there is little cooperation from people and people are always in a hurry, because of which this unfortunate incident occurred.”