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AP PHOTOS: Families of stampede victims in India ponder future without loved ones

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RAMNAGAR, India (AP) — The orange rising from flames shone a light on the twilight scene. Savitri Devi, 50, had just been cremated.

Devi was among more than 120 people who died in a stampede last week at a religious festival in northern India, as the faithful surged toward the preacher and chaos ensued among the attendees.

The event had been permitted to accommodate only 80,000 people. It’s not clear how many made it inside the giant tent set up in a muddy field in a village in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh state but they were reported to be about three times the permitted number.

“It was a matter of fate. What does Baba have to do with it?” Vir Pal Singh said about his wife Devi’s passing. Singh was a volunteer at the religious gathering. The couple had been a follower of the Hindu guru, known locally as Bhole Baba, for more than 10 years.

It was not clear what sparked the stampede. The state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, told reporters that a crowd rushed toward the preacher to touch him as he was descending from the stage, and volunteers struggled to intervene.

An initial report from police suggested that thousands of people then thronged the exits and many slipped on the muddy ground, causing them to fall and be crushed. Most of the dead were women.

The chaos appeared to continue outside the tent when people ran toward the preacher as he left in a vehicle. His security guards pushed the crowd back, causing more people to fall, according to officials.

Devi’s daughters Bharti and Sonam were inconsolable. “We’re orphans now. Mother has left us. Who will take care of us?” they wailed. Village women held them and mourned together.

“My parents believed that Babaji (the preacher) would lift all our burdens,” Ajay Kumar said. Kumar, who is a graduate, said he also went to religious gatherings of the Baba because it became a family tradition.

Deadly stampedes are relatively common at Indian religious festivals, where large crowds gather in small areas with shoddy infrastructure and few safety measures.

The family will immerse the ashes in the River Ganges, a Hindu belief that the deceased will attain salvation with this act.

When asked whether he would volunteer at the Baba’s religious events in the future, Singh said “I will decide when the time comes.”

By RAJESH KUMAR SINGH
Associated Press

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