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How did a religious gathering in India turn into a deadly stampede?

LUCKNOW, India (news agencies) — More than 120 people died in a stampede after a religious gathering in northern India, making it one of the deadliest such accidents in recent years.

Authorities are investigating what led to the huge stampede, which is believed to have erupted as the event, led by a Hindu guru known locally as Bhole Baba, drew to a close on Tuesday.

It was not immediately clear what sparked the panic, but authorities believe massive overcrowding, insufficient exits, bad weather and other factors may have contributed to the high death toll.

The event was held in a large tent in a village in Hathras district, located in Uttar Pradesh state, amid sweltering heat and high humidity.

“Initial reports suggest that the closed enclosure of the tent led to suffocation, causing discomfort and panic among attendees,” said senior police officer Shalabh Mathur.

Poor planning was another key issue: some 250,000 people turned up for the event, which was permitted for 80,000 and held in a tent in a muddy field. It’s not clear how many were inside the tent.

As the preacher descended from the stage, officials said, devotees inside the tent surged forward to touch him, causing chaos as volunteers struggled to intervene.

An initial report from police suggests that thousands of people then thronged toward the exit. Many also slipped on the muddy ground, causing them to fall and be crushed by the crowds. Witnesses described a scene of utter chaos as a number of devotees also ran after the preacher as he departed from the venue in his car. Most of the dead were women.

Hundreds of thousands of Bhol’s devotees from across the state and nearby turned up to attend his sermon.

The preacher’s Sri Jagar Guru Baba organization had spent more than two weeks preparing for the event.

The Hindu guru’s name is Suraj Pal, but he goes by the alias Bhole Baba.

Bhole is a Dalit, a group that’s at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid, and many of his followers are also from lower castes, female and poor.

He was a policeman until the late 1990s, when he quit his job to become a preacher. While not a household name nationally, he enjoys a large following in Uttar Pradesh state as well as nearby states. Now in his 60s, he’s known for dressing in all white, often sporting blue mirrored aviator sunglasses.

Bhole runs two ashrams in the state and holds weekly religious gatherings, known as satsangs, where he often talks about leading a simple and virtuous life.

Following the stampede, police launched a search for Bhole and other organizers of the event.

In May 2022, Bhole held a gathering that drew over 50,000 people, but no casualties were reported.

Deadly crowd surges are fairly common in India, especially during religious festivals where huge gatherings, sometimes in the millions, are held often in cramped areas with shoddy infrastructure and few safety measures.

There have been a number of stampedes in India over the past two decades, as many religious events are organized without adequate preparations, crowd control measures or even prior permission, said Sanjay Srivastava, a disaster management expert.

“Often such functions are held so regularly that sometimes police don’t check whether guidelines are being followed,” he said.

The event on Tuesday violated general safety norms, Srivastava added.

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