At Least 12 Die in Stampede at a Hindu Shrine in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — At least 12 people were killed and more than a dozen were injured in a stampede early Saturday near the city of Jammu in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, as thousands of devotees were paying obeisance at a famous Hindu shrine to mark the beginning of the new year.

Hundreds of people were packed inside a corridor of the shrine, Mata Vaishno Devi, in the hilly town of Katra, when at about 2:30 a.m. a clash broke out outside, leading to the stampede, police officials said.

Dilbag Singh, the top police officer of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which contains Katra, said that officers had been quick to respond to emergency calls but that the “damage was already done.”

One of the devotees at the shrine, Bunty Singh, said he, like thousands of others, had arrived to offer prayers just after midnight, an auspicious time for many Hindus to start the first day of a year. But Mr. Singh, 45, a businessman from neighboring Punjab State, said that the roads leading to the shrine were packed and that there was hardly any space to walk.

“A sudden commotion broke out,” he said. “Before the stampede, there was a noise for some time, as if people were fighting with each other.”

Deadly stampedes during religious pilgrimages and festivals are common in India, where public safety measures are often flouted by temple authorities. The stampedes are often brought on by overcrowding in small areas with few exit-control measures in place. In recent years, officials across the country have been trying to improve public safety at temples and shrines, which are visited by hundreds of thousands of people each day. According to local officials, the temple authorities in Katra said they had taken the required safety measures.

In October 2013, at least 115 people died when thousands of religious pilgrims panicked that a narrow bridge they were crossing might be collapsing. About half a million worshipers had flocked that month to a temple in the northern Madhya Pradesh State for a festival. In April 2016, a series of explosions caused by a fireworks display during a religious festival at a temple in the southern Kerala State left 106 dead and hundreds injured.

The shrine in November. Millions of Hindu pilgrims visit it each year.Credit…Vijay Mathur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used Twitter to express his condolences over the deaths and injuries in Katra, saying he was “extremely saddened by the loss of lives.”

Manoj Sinha, India’s top appointed official in the region, said he had directed officials to investigate the stampede and to look into how such episodes could be avoided in the future.

Videos from Mata Vaishno Devi — which is tucked in a mountain about 5,200 feet above sea level and is visited each year by millions of Hindu pilgrims — showed thousands of people jostling for space near the entrance to the shrine minutes before the stampede. Later videos show ambulances rushing toward the temple and thousands of people trying to leave.

Amit Chowdhary, a businessman from Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, said he was among about two dozen people who fell as they saw a huge crowd trying to leave through one of the shrine’s gates.

“When I fell, I thought the first day of this year was going to be the last day of my life,” Mr. Chowdhary said. “People were moving over the dead bodies. Somehow I managed to pull myself up and ran for my life.”

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