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WORDS OF COMFORT: Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi with families of victims of the Chamunda Devi temple stampede in Jodhpur on Wednesday. At right, the former Vice-President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and BJP leader Jaswant Singh offer their condolences.
JODHPUR: There is a raging debate on in this town about the arrangements – rather the lack of it – at the Chamunda Devi temple to regulate devotees. Tuesday’s deaths obviously have led to a huge public outcry against the ruling BJP government in the State and the Mehrangarh Musuem Trust, which administers the temple. The local BJP MP, Jaswant Singh Vishnoi, and a local MLA Surya Kant Vyas had to face the ire of mobs on the day of the incident and most of the local leaders are keeping a low profile.
“We have been alerting the administration from time to time every year prior to the festivals on the likelihood of heavy rush to the temple,” said Mahendra Singh, chief executive officer, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, talking to this correspondent in his fort office.
“On Tuesday, there were 110 policemen on duty. We asked the people to follow a queue. But there was a group of 50-odd youngsters in the crowd, from a particular locality perhaps, pushing and jostling in order to get ahead. The trouble started there,” Mr. Singh said. “The youths behaved as if they were on an outing,” he observed.
He refuted reports that there was no proper arrangement for first aid or medical help at the fort. “There is a control room for monitoring pilgrims and there is a doctor equipped with basic medicines. But then, of course, we were not ready for such a massive eventuality,” he said. The temple has no history of any stampede.
In fact, it was for the first time that this particular route was opened only for men to walk on. “This year we opened the entry gate from northern ramparts for women and children, otherwise used only by the members of the Jodhpur royal family,” Mr. Singh said. The common man in Jodhpur is not convinced. “The police did nothing. The administration failed. There were no arrangements for crowd control,” said Prithviraj of Kalal Colony, one of the localities which had as many as 10 casualties.
The policemen posted at the temple gave the impression that if they had acted more sternly, the deaths could have been averted. “If we had wielded lathis on time it would have only led to some blood letting and no deaths,” said Gangaram. However, this was countered. “Any police action itself would have created a stampede here,” retorted Mr. Mahendra Singh.All is quiet in Chamunda temple
It was all quiet on the ramparts of the Mehrangarh Fort and the Chamunda Devi temple on Wednesday. After a day’s closure, the temple was open for devotees during the important day of the navaratra but the mighty fort, built by the Rathore rulers of Jodhpur in the 15th century, perhaps for the first time looked vulnerable.
There wasn’t a steady stream of visitors to the fort, standing aloft at 400 feet above sea level. The duty-bound musicians were present in their finery at the towering gates of the fort but the “shehanis” did not play; neither the nagadas (traditional drums) were sounded to welcome the visitors. The sullen premises of the fort and the Sun City of Jodhpur joined the State to mourn the previous day’s dead.
But there was a long line of political figures visiting the temple, which started with early visitors, Jaswant Singh, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and his son and MP from the neighbouring Barmer, Manavendra Singh. The former Vice-President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi followed them later.
The Fort authoritiesgot the barricades repaired. The 200-metre-long walkway to the temple, stonewalled from both the sides, worked as a virtual death trap. The decline is so steep and steady that if one places a football at the start, it will roll down through the path and fall into the city down below on its own.
“There was nothing unusual about the Tuesday’s crowd but for the fact that some of them were pushing from behind and jostling for an early darshan. After the darshan, they wanted to go back to their homes and do the navaratra stapana,” said Ghanshyam Tiwari, the temple priest.
A sullen-faced Tiwari, priest here for the past 25 years, said: “I was not aware of what was happening for some time. The female devotees were making a steady progress from the other side. Then someone shouted to me saying people had got crushed under the crowds.”
“In 15 minutes it was all over,” he said.
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