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An eerie silence descended on the pilgrim town of Varanasi with the bridge over the Ganga linking it to Chandauli bearing tell-tale signs of a major stampede this morning.
Heaps of footwear and other belongings lay scattered as people ran berserk on rumours that the bridge was about to collapse under the weight of devotees crossing it to participate in a religious event.
What was billed as a weekend congregation of followers of Jai Guru sect, turned out into a big tragedy as people in large numbers mourned the death of their near and dear ones.
The stampede broke out when thousands of devotees tried to cross the bridge at once.
Followers of Jai Gurudev, leader of a local sect, were moving in a procession and far too many were on the narrow roads to the Rajghat bridge than sanctioned, say officials.
Gurudev, who died in 2012, is among several charismatic self-styled godmen who enjoy cult-like following among thousands of followers.
His was the name used by Tulsidas Maharaj, a religious leader in northern India. He was imprisoned for 20 months during a period of political unrest in 1975 and led the Doordarshi political party in the 1980s and 1990s, unsuccessfully campaigning for election to the Indian national parliament. He died in 2012 at an unconfirmed age of 116.
One man died of suffocation because of the surging crowds, which led to a commotion.
Rumours that the bridge had collapsed fueled more chaos, Uttar Pradesh DGP Javeed Ahmed said.
"They (organisers) had sought permission for 5,000 people but many more people reached and joined the procession. We are investigating crowd management and will take action against those responsible," he said.
"There was a lot of chaos, all of us were pushed and shoved. Many people have died including my mother," said an eyewitness.
Ambulances with hooting sirens and red and blue lights flashing were seen making repeated trips to state-run district hospitals in Varanasi and Chandauli to ferry those seriously injured even as some gasping for breath, anxiously waiting for their turn to be evacuated.
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"The administration was caught napping as authorities should have made adequate arrangements to tackle the crowd," said an onlooker.
"They should have known before hand the size of the gathering and taken measures to match the situation," he said.
Local authorities, however, said the incident was triggered by a death due to suffocation.
"No one had anticipated that hell will break loose and things will go out of control in a jiffy," said an official, busy arranging to shift the injured to nearby hospitals.
Stampedes in religious gatherings in different parts of the country, which have left hundreds of people dead and injured over the years, have mainly been attributed to poor crowd management by organisers and even police.
Deadly stampedes are fairly common during religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with few safety or crowd control measures. In October 2013, a stampede in Madhya Pradesh state in central India killed more than 110 people, mostly women and children.
However, government intervention, better infrastructure and crowd-control techniques at places of annual gatherings have brought down the frequencies of such mishaps.
Police said most of the deaths occurred between Padav and Rajghat bridges when thousands of followers of Baba Jai Gurudev were taking out a procession to promote vegetarianism and morality at Domari village.
The procession was part of a two-day long confluence of followers of the seer.
Spokesman of Jai Gurudev Sansthan Raj Bahadur said the devotees were proceeding towards the camp, but police started sending them back though they kept on thronging the bridge.
This led to rumours that the bridge ahead has collapsed which led to the stampede, he said, alleging that there was a serious lapse on the part of the administration.
The sect made headlines earlier this year when 24 people including two police officers were killed in violence at a park in Mathura where devotees had been squatting for two years.
With Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh barely a few months away, political parties reacted on expected lines with opposition blaming the Samajwadi Party government of failing to gauge the situation in time, and the ruling party on the other hand saying it was not time to point accusing fingers but to concentrate on relief and rescue.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in the Lok Sabha, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and Congress President Sonia Gandhi expressed profound grief over the incident and condoled the death of people.