Stampede deaths fail to dampen spirit of devotees (Lead)

August 4th, 2008 - 10:00 pm ICT by IANS  

By Vishal Gulati
Naina Devi (Himachal Pradesh), Aug 4 (IANS) The crowds of devotees were back Monday at the Naina Devi temple, undeterred by the deaths of 145 people in a stampede a day earlier. Meanwhile, the Himachal Pradesh government has decided to follow the pattern of the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and Kashmir under which worshippers are allowed to proceed in batches only after registering themselves. Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal said his government would examine the possibility of introducing the Vaishno Devi model in the major shrines in the state.

At the Naina Devi temple in the foothills of the Shivaliks in Bilaspur district, thousands of devotees chanting hymns had thronged the shrine in large groups from various towns in the northern India.

The 13-km narrow stretch from Anandpur Sahib in Punjab to Naina Devi was congested with traffic. Hundred of devotees were travelling in tractor-trailers, buses and trucks.

Devotees were also travelling on rooftops of buses. Temple officials, however, claimed that the arrival of devotees was less Monday due to the stampede.

Major Singh, a devotee from Barnala town in Punjab, said they had planned the pilgrimage well in advance.

“The news about the tragedy failed to weaken our devotion. So we reached here early in the morning,” he said.

He had come along with a group of 80 devotees, a majority of them women and children.

Ram Singh, a shopkeeper near the temple, said the stampede had failed to deter the spirit of the devotees. He said that a few hours after the tragedy, devotees started visiting the shrine.

“This is an annual affair and every day more than 25,000 people visit the shrine,” he said.

“To a Sikh or a Hindu this is one of the holiest places in this region and nobody wants to miss the 10-day-long Shravan Ashtami fair,” said Naresh Yadav, who had come from Panipat town in Haryana along with his family.

“This is our annual pilgrimage. Nothing can stop us, even a natural calamity,” said Charu Singh, another devotee from Patiala town in Punjab.

Most of the devotees who were killed in the stampede were from Patiala.

Mandi’s divisional commissioner Ashwani Kapoor, who was present at the temple to review the arrangements by the administration, said: “We can’t stop the devotees from coming to the temple. It is their devotion that is bringing them here.”

On Sunday the number of devotees was high due to it being a holiday, he said.

The authorities have strengthened the security in and around the temple.

State Forest Minister J.P. Nadda, Ashwani Kapoor, and Inspector General of Police (law and order) S.R. Mardi, besides other officials, reviewed the security arrangements.

Nadda told IANS that 700 police and home guard personnel and 300 volunteers had been deployed along the one-km route to the temple to manage the flow of devotees.

“We are trying to investigate how the rumour spread that boulders had started rolling down from the hill. The stampede might have occurred due to the rumour,” he added.

He, however, refused to concede that there was any security lapse that led to the stampede.

He said divisional commissioner Ashwani Kapoor and inspector general of police S.R. Mardi would be stationed at Naina Devi till the Shravan Navratra fair is over.

Chief Minister Dhumal said Ashwani Kapoor would conduct the probe into the stampede. He, however, rejected the demand of the opposition Congress for a judicial inquiry.

Opposition leader Vidya Stokes, who visited the civil hospital at Anandpur Sahib town in Punjab where most of the injured were hospitalized, blamed the administration for failing to manage the huge rush on Sunday.

The 145 dead included 40 women and 19 children.

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