Faith, poverty and administrative lapses collide in Hathras stampede

Facing grinding poverty, marginalised people turn to spiritual leaders for answers society fails to provide. The tragedy reflects this desperation.

Published : Jul 05, 2024 21:45 IST - 8 MINS READ

The stampede at Hathras, UP has brought to light administrative failures, inadequate healthcare systems and widespread governmental neglect.

The stampede at Hathras, UP has brought to light administrative failures, inadequate healthcare systems and widespread governmental neglect. | Photo Credit: ANI

Outside Vinod Kumar’s humble home in Sokhna village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district, a crowd of women in a narrow lane mourned the untimely death of Kumar’s mother, wife, and their nine-year-old daughter. The three of them were among over 120 devotees, a vast majority of them women, who died in a deadly stampede at a prayer congregation, satsang, in the adjoining Phulrai village on July 2.

Some two lakh women, according to some estimates, participated in the satsang where Narayan Sakar Hari alias Bhole Baba delivered his sermons for almost half an hour, according to the chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), Rekha Sharma. “We don’t have evidence, as photography was prohibited by the organisers. The Baba had permission for a congregation of just 80,000 people,” she told reporters on July 3 at government district hospital, where she called on the survivors.

Baba doesn’t like media publicity, say local reporters. While media access to his satsangs remains restricted, even devotees are not allowed to record him on their phones. Eyewitnesses told Frontline that the site was littered with slippers, shoes, and dupattas of victims; those who fell during the stampede could not get up as the soil was wet and slippery due to rains earlier in the day. “Soon after the satsang ended, and Baba started leaving the venue, there was a competition among the devotees to collect the dust from Baba’s feet.”

Also Read | Were Ram Navami clashes in West Bengal orchestrated for political ends?

While the devotees were stuck in the stampede, the Baba’s carcade drove off within minutes, they added. Even an entire day after the incident, Baba was nowhere to be seen or heard. Ironically, most of his posters, billboards and monologues on YouTube, which garner millions of views, endorse humanity as the truest religion.

Undeterred devotion

Despite the enormous tragedy, the faith of Baba’s followers remains undiminished. As a sky-piercing wail emerged from Kumar’s home, Rajkumari, 50, and those surrounding her argued that Baba cannot be blamed for the stampede. “People have themselves to blame. As soon as Guru ji left the stage, everyone wanted to have a closer look,” Rajkumari told Frontline, asserting that Baba had mitigated their problems ranging from their physical and mental health to financial issues.

Interestingly, the men in the area said they were not devotees but attended his satsang at the insistence of their wives. At the site, where Vinod Kumar’s daughter, Bhoomi, was being buried, only men had gathered. Sanjay Nirmal, a resident of Sokhna, said: “The satsang gives women of our community a rare opportunity to take a break from the monotony of household chores and step outside their homes. It gives them a sense of empowerment.”

Most of the bereaved families Frontline spoke to belonged to the Scheduled Caste, Jatav community. Besides caste, they share a similar economic status. Their homes are dank and dark, located deep within a maze of lanes and by lanes, where a stench from clogged drains permeates the air. Due to their acute poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and social discrimination, they remain prisoners of perpetual misery.

According to the 2011 census, the Jatav community, identified by several names, constitutes over 54 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s total Scheduled Caste population. And Jatav voters are considered the core supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Sukhna village is dotted with banners of Bhim Mission Prachar Parishad, which propagates Buddhism and hoists BSP flags.

According to local residents, Baba, who is also a Dalit from the Jatav caste, has been holding congregations in the district for the past several years; each satsang attracts a larger crowd than the previous.

The son of one of the victims of the stampede. Despite the tragedy, the faith of Baba’s followers remains unchanged.

The son of one of the victims of the stampede. Despite the tragedy, the faith of Baba’s followers remains unchanged. | Photo Credit: R V MOORTHY/The Hindu

Post-Ambedkarite movements have shown a trajectory of social mobilisation and spiritual awakening through Buddhist culture, according to Suresh Babu, who teaches at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “The formation of political parties such as BSP, which resulted in the consolidation of Dalit identity in electoral politics, eventually led to their acquisition of State power in Uttar Pradesh. However, the disconnect between the political and spiritual realms, with politics overshadowing spiritual concerns, has significantly impacted the ability of ordinary Dalits to engage meaningfully in political commitments.” In the recent Parliamentary election, BSP saw a further decline in its influence. “It is in this vacuum that spiritual spaces have been flooded with Dalit devotees,” he added.

On June 6, media persons and local residents, among others, travelled to the highway near the satsang site amidst agricultural fields.

Administrative failures

“The administration didn’t bother to ensure crowd management as the gathering comprised ‘low-quality’ people,” a local resident remarked. “The death toll is much higher than the official figures suggest. Many people arranged for vehicles and took home bodies of their relatives. For several hours there was complete chaos here,” said Pushpinder Yadav, 38, who helped survivors and the local administration to transport bodies to hospitals.

Meanwhile, the clamour for legal action against Baba is growing. “Although the police have lodged an FIR, Bhole Baba has not been named in it,” said All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in a statement. While Baba has blamed “anti-social elements” many of his followers have alleged that local people from the dominant caste were responsible for the stampede; the police have arrested six organisers of the prayer meeting.

Baba is said to have established a vast network of political connections across party lines. But that’s not unusual. Political leaders of all hues are known to visit religious gurus and their deras and ashrams, ahead of election to consolidate their votes. Several prominent politicians, including prime ministers, are known to have associations with controversial “godmen”.

Baba’s journey

A cop-turned-spiritual leader, Baba, 60, was posted as a constable in Agra in the 1990s when he took VRS to become a preacher. Today, he has an ashram in Bahadurnagar, spread across 30 acres, some 65 km from the site of the stampede. Mostly dressed in pristine kurta-pajamas or white suits and ties, and sporting black sunglasses, he addresses his followers at satsangs from his ornate throne. Several devotees and his employees address him as parmeshwar (god). He draws his followers from Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes in places as far as Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh besides rural Uttar Pradesh.

At least three women from Nabipur Kalan, another village in Hathras, had participated in Baba’s congregation at Phulrai village. Two of them, Asha Devi and Munni Devi, were brought dead to their homes hours after their family members frantically travelled from one hospital to another, desperately trying to locate them. Pushpa Devi, 53, the survivor, told Frontline: “The bodies were scattered outside the hospitals. There were no arrangements. Even the fans were not functioning. The hospital didn’t even have electricity supply at that time.”

The local hospitals were indeed not prepared to deal with the scale of the tragedy. The incident took place at around 2:15 pm. The injured were taken to the local government-run community health centre (CHC). According to local reporters, the bodies were lying in the courtyard of the CHC’s trauma centre even at 4:30 pm. Due to a space constraint inside the CHC, the administration had to transport the bodies as well as the injured to other hospitals in neighbouring districts such as Etah, Kasganj, Agra, and Aligarh. As a result of this, many bereaved families had a tough time locating the victims.

Citing a lack of adequate medical infrastructure and emergency response mechanisms that led to several deaths after the incident, AIDWA said: “Delayed medical attention and inadequate healthcare facilities is an outright indictment of the State’s apathy towards healthcare.”

At noon on July 6, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited Hathras district hospital to see the injured. Except for three unclaimed bodies, the hospital had handed over others to their families for last rites before dawn.

Smelling a “conspiracy,” Adityanath has ordered a judicial inquiry besides declaring that the families of the deceased would receive Rs.2 lakh each in compensation.

Also Read | Escalating attacks against Christian Adivasis in Chhattisgarh

At Vinod Kumar’s house in Sokhna village, Shakuntala, 55, who wears a locket around her neck that contains a picture of Baba, spoke about his “miracle” that saved her husband, Rakesh Kumar’s life. “With his blessings, he cured my husband’s throat cancer. Subsequently, he got the job of a sanitation worker.”

The majority of women devotees of Baba at Sokhna and Nabipur Kalan villages complained that the men in their families were alcoholics and drug addicts. At least within two families, some men were seen drunk even at the time of the cremations. “My son quit alcohol and our domestic troubles disappeared after I became Baba ji’s follower,” said Pushpa Devi. “In this life Baba ji has blessed us immensely. Surely, he will bless us in the afterlife as well.”

Distressed people visiting “godmen” and faith healers in hordes is a manifestation of hopelessness, noted economist Arun Kumar told Frontline. “Seeking solace from ‘godmen’ or faith signifies a coping mechanism. What these people are basically looking for are straws to clutch onto. If the government had done more in terms of better education, healthcare, employment opportunities, people will be able to cope with life rationally.”

+ SEE all Stories
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment