Indian preacher at centre of stampede deaths breaks his silence: ‘Deeply saddened’

Indian preacher at centre of stampede deaths breaks his silence: ‘Deeply saddened’

An Indian preacher at the centre of 121 crowd crush deaths at a religious event in northern India has broken his silence as the main organiser of his prayer meeting surrendered to the police.

Surajpal Singh, a self-proclaimed godman known as “Bhola Baba” among his followers, said he was “deeply saddened” by the stampede incident.

“Please keep faith in the government and the administration. I have faith that anyone who created the chaos would not be spared,” he told ANI news agency.

On Tuesday, the preacher organised a satsang – a musical gathering where devotional songs are sung – in the Hathras city of northern Uttar Pradesh state, about 200km southeast of New Delhi.

By the evening, chaos broke out when his followers started chasing the vehicle the preacher was leaving in, leading to a stampede that killed 121 people. Most of those who died or were injured were women. A preliminary investigation found that thousands more than expected turned up at the event and as it got over, hundreds attempted to collect the soil the religious preacher had walked on before he left the venue.

Police said the number of people present at the venue was three times the permitted limit.

Authorities had permitted for 80,000 people to gather but around 250,000 people attended the event, according to the first information report (FIR) lodged by the police.

Relatives and villagers in Daukeli village mourn those who died in a stampede during a cremation ceremony in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh (Getty Images)
Relatives and villagers in Daukeli village mourn those who died in a stampede during a cremation ceremony in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh (Getty Images)

A case was registered against the event’s organisers but the police were unable to locate the preacher when they raided his Ram Kutir Charitable Trust in Mainpuri district.

“We did not find baba (spiritual guide) inside the campus,” police official Sunil Kumar told ANI.

Earlier, in a statement issued through his lawyer, AP Singh, the preacher blamed “some anti-social elements” for the crush.

Mr Singh claimed there was a “criminal conspiracy” against his client. He also denied reports that Mr Pal’s security guards sparked panic by pushing away people who tried to get his blessings.

India Stampede (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
India Stampede (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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

One organiser associated with the event had surrendered to the police. Devprakash Madhukar was named a key suspect in an initial report registered by police.

Mr Singh said Madhukar was the main organiser of the Hindu religious event. “He has surrendered from Delhi. We are not seeking an anticipatory bail,” Mr Singh told reporters. He denied any wrongdoing by the event’s organisers and said Mr Madhukar was getting medical treatment in a hospital after the stampede.

The tragedy has sparked outrage in India, and raised questions about lapses in safety measures in public gatherings.

Devastating images of stampede emerged in the aftermath of the incident, with dead bodies lined up and injured being rushed to hospital in trucks.

Mr Pal, 58, was born in a Dalit family in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj village. According to reports his followers are mainly from the formerly untouchable community.