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65 DIE AS GURU'S FREEBIES TRIGGER STAMPEDE IN U. P.

The gate of a godman's ashram collapsed as over 15,000 poor disciples lined up outside. At least 65 people, mostly women & kids, died in the tragedy

MORE than 65 devotees died and 250 were injured when an iron gate at godman Kripalu Maharaj's ashram in Pratapgarh collapsed, triggering a stampede on Thursday. The deceased included 37 children and 26 women Over 15,000 devotees had assembled at the Ram Janaki temple of the renowned Bhakti Dham in Mangarh village of Pratapgarh district. The occasion was the first death anniversary of the 88-year-old spiritual leader's wife.

The congregation mainly comprised the poor who had gathered to receive prasad and kitchenware as gifts. Eyewitnesses alleged that the gate was suddenly opened for the surging crowd.

They said the 100-odd private security guards at the ashram were hitting them with batons to force them to stand in a queue. This fuelled the panic and worsened the situation. It was also alleged that only one gate out of the four at the ashram was in use. While the incident took place at 11.45 am, the bodies of victims were strewn all over the ashram -- spread over an area of three acres -- till 5 pm, sources said Later, the police took some of the injured to the Medical College Hospital in neighbouring Allahabad, and the Government Hospital in Pratapgarh. The bodies had not been handed over to their family members till late in the evening.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has asked Allahabad divisional commissioner Ajay Kumar Upadhyaya to conduct an inquiry into the incident. Kunda's sub-divisional magistrate, Shyam Charan, said: "It is a horrific incident, which shows how these ashrams function and how shabbily they treat their poor disciples.

They had closed all other gates of the ashram and opened just one of them without taking into account the number of people who were waiting outside." He added: "Clearly the passage was too narrow for the large crowd to enter the temple and receive their gifts, including steel glasses and plates. I wonder how private security guards are allowed to manage law and order."

ADDITIONAL director general of UP Police Brijlal, who rushed to the spot about 170 km from Lucknow, confirmed that the incident took place owing to mishandling of the crowd by the private security guards of the spiritual guru. "We have identified over 24 of the dead. But it will take several hours to ascertain the identity of all the victims and conduct their postmortem. The godman had organised a bhandara (feast) and also invited his devotees to attend the function. The latter were also to be given prasad and gifts. Only poor people had assembled expecting food and utensils," he said.

Brijlal said the ashram, located in the Kunda area of Pratapgarh, had not given any information about its programme for Thursday to the district administration or the police.

"Had they taken us into confi- dence, we would have deployed police personnel to check any untoward incident. The police will also inquire into how such a large number of people assembled at the site," he added.

FOR HIS part, Kripalu Maharaj appeared to be washing his hands of the incident. He said the tragedy took place outside the gate of his ashram and he was not responsible for it. "The stampede took place at the gate of my ashram. We had written to the district administration last week about our programme on Thursday between 12 noon and 5 pm. But they didn't take notice of it," he claimed. "I am an 88-year-old and cannot walk because I have fractured my leg. I have been organising public feasts for the past several years, but such a thing has never happened before. All my work is based on social service," he said.

The godman has, however, announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh for the family of those killed in the stampede and Rs 10,000 for those who have sustained injuries.

Sanjay Kumar, a 10-year-old boy from Kunda who sustained injuries on his neck, said: "I was standing at the gate with my mother when six securitymen opened it all of a sudden. A large number of people who were standing behind us tried to reach the bhandara site before us. We fell on the ground and they crushed us under their feet."

Congress legislature party leader and MLA from Rampur Khas Pramod Tiwari seemed to be in a hurry to give a clean chit to the godman.

He said: "The ashram is a wellmanaged place where a lot of charitable work is done. Swamiji is a simple saint who believes in social service. The stampede must be the handiwork of some outsiders who created chaos there."

Congress MP from Pratapgarh Ratna Singh said at least 70 people had died. "I will seek a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the kin of the dead and Rs 1 lakh for the injured from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh," she said. Ram Kripal Tripathi, popularly known as Swami Kripalu Maharaj, is a high-profile godman who has ashrams in India and abroad.

Born in 1922 in Mangarh village, where the incident took place, Tripathi is believed to often dress up like a woman and use lipstick as well as nail polish. Sources said he prefers to address himself as Radha Rani -- the consort of Lord Krishna. His disciples, including thousands of Westerners, wash his feet and drink the water, they added. The godman is also known to claim that Lord Shiva is his son.

But there appears to be another side to the seer. In 2007, a 22-year-old Guyanese woman had alleged that he tried to molest her at a house in San Fernando in the US, where she had gone to meet him. However, she couldn't prove the charges. Earlier, in 1991, a case was registered against Kripalu Maharaj in Nagpur for kidnapping two girls. The girls later confirmed consensual sexual relations with him. They argued that they were majors and had every right to do as they pleased.

Ten years ago, over 100 foreigner female devotees of the godman had left his Pratapgarh ashram in a day. It is understood that they had seen something which was not acceptable to them.

The ashram is involved in various welfare activities, which include a hospital in Mangarh and an intermediate college in Kunda. Kripaluji had given Rs 20 crore as emergency aid for the Bihar floods. He has also got ashrams constructed at various places in the US.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Mar 5, 2010
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