Tragedy struck the already miserable life of the poverty stricken, illiterate and unemployed population of Uttar Pradesh (UP) when about 150 lives were lost in a stampede at a religious gathering held in the Phulrai village of Hathras last Tuesday.

More than two lakh devotees from all over UP, and from neighbouring states had assembled to listen to godman Bhole Baba. However the large crowd ended up crushing each other to death as people competed to collect dust from the feet of Bhole Baba.

As chaos reigned and devotees dropped dead, the VIP’s had sneaked out of the open fields through a back exit leaving the devotees to trip over stones, pot holes and open drains. Before those sitting on the uneven ground could get up and run, the uncontrollable crowd had surged in to crush all those who came in their way.

Many women and children have perished in the stampede.

It is said that devotees of Bhole Baba liked to collect the dust from the feet of the godman, and they took water from the many hand pipes that line Ram Kutir, the Baba’s ashram in west UP’s Mainpuri district to cure the self of disease and of unfriendly spirits.

Who is Bhole Baba?

Bhole Baba is Suraj Pal, a Dalit in real life who was once a head constable in the police department. After working for about 17 years, he left the police to practice spirituality since 2000.

Most of his devotees are poor village folk in search of solace and miracles that will allow them a little more joy in life. Bhole Baba promised health and happiness in all his sermons but brought only death and destruction upon his devotees this time. Women were most passionate about Bhole Baba. His female followers liked to collect the dust from his feet to rub it on the forehead in hope of warding off the evil eye, and bad luck. Media reports have surfaced that claim Bhole Baba had bathed in milk which was used to make a kheer (sweetmeat), and distributed amongst the devotees at religious gatherings hosted regularly, and mostly on Tuesdays.

Born in Bahadur Nagari village in UP's Etah district to a farmer, Bhole Baba had spent a year in jail on charges of sexual assault while he was with the UP police. Since then Bhole Baba has come a long way.

Bhole Baba has been giving sermons for more than two decades, always seated before a sea of devotees on a throne-like chair and dressed in a snazzy pair of sunglasses, a snow white suit offset by a colourful tie. Members of different political parties often share the stage with Bhole Baba, using the opportunity to address the large crowd present and to request for votes.

It is Bhole Baba’s close proximity to those in power that is shielding him today and encouraging him not to take any responsibility for the stampede that occurred in the absence of mismanagement. For the same reason UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath took a dig at Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav whose old photograph with Bhole Baba has gone viral on the internet after the stampede at Hathras.

Considering the large number of devotees collected there was no ambulance, no arrangements for first aid and no water booths in the vicinity to ward off humidity and the extreme heat. The site was overcrowded and too small a space to accommodate a crowd of 2.5 lakh devotees. The number of policemen on duty was only about 70, and who were overwhelmed once the stampede started.

Bhole Baba is known to flaunt rules. During the pandemic Bhole Baba had courted controversy when he had asked permission for a religious meet in Farrukhabad district in 2022 for 50 people. However, a congregation of 50,000 had turned up, making the local administration sweat.

If Bhole Baba had been booked for the wrong doing in 2022 perhaps the tragedy in Hathras could have been avoided. The FIR filed by the UP police after the Hathras incident has named the organisers for the tragedy but Bhole Baba is not mentioned as one of the accused. According to the FIR, the organisers had requested permission for allowing a gathering of 80,000 people but the crowd that turned numbered more than 2.5 lakhs.

The truth of the matter is that the administration was not prepared to handle a crowd of even 80,000.

How Strict Is the CM?

In the Bhole Baba case, all eyes are on the CM who prides himself on maintaining strict law and order in UP. He claims not to suffer any wrong doing. The question is if the CM will insist on a just investigation into the Hathras tragedy that has affected mostly the poorest of the poor in UP and punish the guilty?

These days the CM is seen to refuse all interference in the affairs of UP by Delhi. He put his foot down and appointed a trusted bureaucrat as his Chief Secretary. Manoj Kumar Singh is the CM’s choice while Durga Shankar Mishra was denied extension in the same office for the fourth time.

It is reported that all those ministers appointed to his cabinet by the Gujarat Lobby in Delhi in the past may also be dismissed soon and replaced by ministers close to the CM.

The MP from Nagina

In the din and fury of the address of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Leader of Opposition Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, many a meaningful speech of other Members of Parliament (MP) have been overlooked.

First time MP and Azad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram) chief Chandrashekhar Azad insisted on a caste census to ensure social justice to the people of deprived classes. Azad, a Dalit won from the Nagina constituency with a handsome margin and has emerged as a popular role model of the youth.

Participating in a debate on the Motion of thanks on the President’s address in the Lok Sabha, Azad said that social justice will have meaning once a caste census is done, and reservation for all the deprived classes is increased based on numbers.

He demanded that the short-term army recruitment scheme, Agniveer, be scrapped. He wondered why the President did not say anything about reservation to the Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribes and members of the Other Backward Castes in the private sector?

He called for the restoration of the old pension scheme and demanded that continuing atrocities against Dalits, backwards, tribals, Muslims and other religious minorities should be stopped.

A Terror Link

The anti-Terrorism Squad of UP arrested a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) youth leader Bikram Roy last Monday in connection with a suspected terror link.

General secretary, Bagda 2 Mandal Committee Yuva Morcha, Roy is 32 years old and he operates an e-rickshaw. Roy was arrested at West Bengal’s Asaru-Gangulia village for alleged human trafficking, and the forging of documents to facilitate illegal border crossings from Bangladesh into India, making the Trinamool Congress say that it is the BJP that shelters terrorists and anti-national elements.