At least 12 pilgrims died and 16 others were injured after a storm at Jammu and Kashmir’s Mata Vaishno Devi shrine around 2.45am on Saturday, officials said.
This is the first such incident at the shrine and raises serious questions about what officials had said was a “foolproof system” for controlling pilgrims. At the time of the incident, about 50,000 people were gathered at the site in an increase in the new year, sources and eyewitnesses said Indian Express. Officials said only 35,000 people had been allowed to continue toward the sanctuary because of Covid curbs in place Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Officials attributed the incident to an altercation between two groups on a road leading to the sanctuary complex. “Police and Shrine Board officials were quick to respond and order was restored, but the damage had been done,” a senior official said.
Eyewitnesses said the situation worsened after a few police officers resorted to a mild lathic charge to control the crowd.
J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha ordered a high-level investigation into the incident by a three-man team led by the General Secretary (Home), and including the Divisional Commissioner and additional DGP in Jammu.
Officials said the onslaught took place in the area between Gate No. 3 and a crossing of paths from the Sanjichhat side and the Ardhkuwari side near the shrine. The 16 people injured, including at least seven seriously, were taken to Narayana Super Specialty Hospital in Katra. Nine of them were discharged after treatment.
All 12 deceased have been identified: Dheeraj Kumar (26), Shweta Singh (35), Vinay Kumar (24), Sonu Pandey (24), Mamta (38), Dharamveer Singh (35), Vineet Kumar (38), Dr . Arun Pratap Singh (30), Akash (28), Monu Sharma, Mohinder Singh and Narinder Kasyap. The age of Sharma, Mohinder Singh and Kasyap has not yet been determined.
Dheeraj Kumar is from Nowshera in J & K’s Rajouri district and the others from Delhi, Haryana and UP. Ten bodies have been sent to their hometowns and the other two will be sent Sunday morning, LG Sinha said after visiting the hospital.
Express condolences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “An ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from PMNRF would be given to the relatives of those who lost their lives due to the onslaught of Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. The wounded would be given Rs 50,000.”
Union Interior Minister Amit Shah said he has spoken to senior J&K officials and is monitoring the situation.
LG Governor Sinha, who is also the Chairman of the Board of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine, announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh each to the relatives of the deceased and Rs 2 lakh each to the wounded.
Minister of the Union and PMO, Dr. Jitendra Singh, visited Katra to take stock of the situation and met some of the wounded at the hospital. The senior officials who rushed to Katra after the incident included LG general secretary Niteshwar Kumar; Divisional Commissioner (Jammu), Dr. Raghav Langer; and ADGP (Jammu), Mukesh Singh.
Extremely saddened by the loss of human life due to a storm run by Mata Vaishno Devi Bhawan. Condolences to the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon. Talked to JK LG Shri @manojsinha_ Ji, Minister Shri @DrJitendraSingh From, @nityanandraibjp Ji and took stock of the situation.
– Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) January 1, 2022
Sources told The Indian Express that the storm was preceded by a minor incident about five hours earlier at the old bathing hat area, where “a group of 15-20 pilgrims suddenly created a circle that pushed other people and said they had lost their phones “. “Some people, especially children, were injured,” said Mukesh Singh, a pilgrim from UP’s Baghpat who was present at the gate.
Two of the deceased, Vinay Kumar and Sonu Pandey, had come from Delhi’s Badarpur and were among a group of 11 members who had reached Katra on Friday. “Five of us traveled to the sanctuary while the others remained in Katra,” said Triyansh, a member of the group.
Dheeraj Kumar of Nowshera had been married just a year ago and is survived by his wife, who is eight months pregnant, and his old parents, police say. He had come to the sanctuary to mark the new year, they said.
According to the Covid guidelines, the J&K administration had in October placed a daily ceiling of 25,000 pilgrims at the sanctuary, with valid RT-PCR / RAT tests taken no earlier than 72 hours after arrival in Katra.
Officials said the numbers are being monitored yatra notes allowing access to avoid overcrowding along the tracks and sanctuary area and to facilitate insurance coverage.
They said these notes should be checked at the entrance of the main Banganga and Tarakote routes from Katra city and “two or three places” along these tracks by the police and staff of the Shrine Board. Apart from this, the pilgrims are freshly shot and their luggage scanned by X-ray machines in the light of a persistent threat from terrorist clothing.
“Yesterday, apart from searching at police checkpoints, no one was checking the yatra notes or Covid certificates on the way to the shrine,” said Mukesh Singh from Baghpat. Praveen Kumar, another pilgrim from Baghpat, said: “There was such a large crowd that it was hard to stand there at all.”
Officials said that before the Covid eruption, the annual yatra used to draw over 10 million pilgrims, nearly 40,000-50,000 of them on December 31st alone. The Sanctuary Board also has SDM’s office to manage affairs at the complex. “Unlike before, it seems that the staff did not warn the board of directors of Katra about the huge crowd,” an official said.
Baldev Sharma, the former BJP The MLA from Reasi, where Katra is located, blamed the incident for “the total failure of the shrine board”, which “neither limited the number of pilgrims following the Covid protocol nor checked yatra notes from pilgrims continuing towards the shrine from Katra”.
Sharma demanded registration of a murder charge against the authorities in the Shrine Board, saying that “they have made the pilgrimage a commercial activity by driving it 24×7”.
Late Saturday, about five hours after the storm, yatra resumed with long queues of up to 2 km at Katra town of pilgrims waiting to get yatra notes from the sanctuary.