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Madhya Pradesh Stampede and the Indian Police

A tragedy appears to have been made worse by the callous and inept actions of Indian police.

A stampede in the Datia district of Madhya Pradesh last week killed about 115 worshipers. Many were devotees visiting the temple on the eve of Dussehra, an important Hindu festival, caught up in the stampede that occurred on the bridge crossing the river Sindh. The tragedy, which left more than 100 pilgrims injured, occurred during the Navratri festivities near the Ratangarh Temple in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Dozens of people were crushed, injured or pushed into the river. Eyewitnesses report that the majority were women and children. Prakash Yadav – a local journalist reporting from the area – told The Diplomat: “The initial statements released by government officials to Indian media said the situation was under control, until the situation got so out of control that many more deaths and injuries consequently occurred.”

It is clear that the Indian police lost control of the situation. According to eyewitnesses, dozens of dead women and children were thrown into the river. Several accounts say it was the police throwing corpses into the river, with one person present telling me that it was an “endeavor to mask the death toll.”

I later spoke to some of the survivors, who painted a horrible picture of the way Indian police officers treated civilian worshipers in the chaos. One witness told me, “We were pushed and shoved to the ground, toppling onto each other, when I saw some police throwing people still alive off the bridge, as if they were wheat sacks being discarded into a dump. These people were alive, not dead. Many of them were children and mothers, wailing and injured. “

Another survivor, Vikram, still in disbelief, recalled, “When an officer in a wardi (uniform) and badge tried throwing my 12-year-old daughter into the river, I grabbed her arm and stopped him, but he kept at it. He tried to scare me and told me he will throw me and others in as well. We screamed at each other, while my daughter screamed in pain.” The police officer did finally throw both of them into the river, but unlike many others, Vikram knew how to swim and was able to save himself and his daughter.

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As the police continued to throw people off the bridge, angry devotees reportedly pelted them with stones. At least six police officers were reported injured.

Ginesh, a school teacher who was also there, told The Diplomat, “I would like to urge the media to call for an investigation into the body throwing to if there are any bodies left in the river.”

A report in the Times of India reveals that some policemen went beyond callousness into outright criminality. They “stole money and valuables from the bodies” before tossing them off the bridge. Another report quotes a survivor named Ashish, 15, who told media that policemen pushed him off the bridge when he went to claim the body of his 5-year-old brother.  “I fell on my knees and begged the cops to allow me to take my brother’s body home. But they pushed me off the bridge, saying that I too should die,” he is quoted as saying. “When I told them my brother had died, they said that ‘now your brother is dead, why should you live on?” he added.

Few media reports explain how the mismanagement that triggered this incident occurred in the first place. Yet this is not the first time India’s police have been accused of atrocities; they have a shoddy record when it comes to crowd control and have long been mistrusted by the public. This latest catastrophe has once again sparked debate.

In the days following the tragedy, 21 officials, including the district magistrate, were reportedly suspended due to their “negligence over Sunday's temple stampede at Datia district in Madhya Pradesh.” A judicial commission has been formed to investigate.

“I doubt this so-called judicial enquiry will lead to any change. In the past such judicial inquiries have eventually ensured no one ever gets punished. Delhi needs to invoke Article 356 to dismiss the state government and put the state under presidential rule until the constitutional machinery is restored,” Dr. Mohsin, a research analyst and activist based in Bhopal, told The Diplomat. “Meanwhile, stern actions need to be taken against the policemen on duty. They did not act as protectors of people.”

The Diplomat contacted the police seeking an explanation. A representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that the police were just trying to handle the situation. “The police was trying to protect people and children and some officers on the ground thought that the stampede was so dangerous that people may have a better chance in the water.” The officer noted that some people had already jumped to save themselves. Mohsin retorts that the people who jumped likely knew how to swim, whereas many of those were thrown off did not. “The police need to be trained,” he adds.

With elections approaching and more situations requiring crowd control likely to arise, police training would indeed seem to be a necessity. For now, however, seeking accountability for this latest tragedy should take priority.