Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Death and A Stampede in Mumbai

[Note: Normally this blog covers issues relating to foreign affairs, intelligence and security. This post is an exception. This post is based on reports appearing in the electronic and print media].
While there are numerous occasions when the police in India are to be blamed for inaction, lapses or incompetence, the Mumbai Police cannot be held responsible for the stampede which took place in the wee hours of 18th January 2014 following the death of the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

The stampede in the wee hours of Saturday, in which 18 people were killed and more than 50 injured, occurred when thousands of Dawoodi Bohras thronged Saifee Mahal, the Malabar Hill home of departed spiritual leader Dr. Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, who died on 17th January.

The circumstances leading to the tragedy 

The community leaders are alleged to have initially sent text messages to followers to refrain from coming to the residence of the spiritual leader. However, inexplicably a second SMS sent around 2150 hrs asked the followers to pay their last respects at Saifee Mahal. The second message is alleged to have been sent without informing or consulting the local police.

The residence of the Syedna is located at the end of 20-ft wide AG Bell Road. The followers were allowed to enter the house from the rear gate which opens into the Bhausaheb Hire Road and exit through the front gate at AG Bell Road after paying their respects to the departed leader whose body was kept on the ground floor. 

As crowds swelled, it was decided to allow entry from both ends. However, a little past midnight when the gates were shut, those already in the jam-packed AG Bell Road could not even move an inch, forget turn back and walk out.

The trouble started when the community leaders shut the mansion at half-past-midnight and the frenzied crowds outside were asked to return home. This message, however, was not conveyed through SMSes and people kept pouring in, not allowing the crowd in the narrow lane outside the house to turn back.

Explaining the circumstances that led to the incident, an IPS officer said, "Bohra community leaders yesterday informed us that no crowd would be allowed to gather at Syedna's residence.

"They said community members will pay their last respects during the funeral procession today and accordingly security arrangements were made."

"However, at about 9 PM yesterday, the leaders, without consulting us, began sending text messages informing the followers that they would be allowed to have a glimpse of Syedna at his residence. After this, people from the city and outskirts started pouring in," he said.

"We were informed about this change in plan after the messages had already been sent. We were told that about 4,000-5,000 people would turn up at his residence and security measures were made accordingly. But the figure swelled to over 60,000 in no time," the officer said.

As the gates of Saifee Mahal were opened and then shut abruptly, the mourners tried to force their way into the house, causing commotion and then a massive rush, he said.

"Before police could make further arrangements to manage the unexpected crowd, the tragedy had occurred," he said.

The so-called experts have ‘subsequent’ to the incident, said that the police could have done a lot more to thwart the tragedy, it must be pointed out that the police were given assurances by the community leaders that there would not be a large gathering outside Saifee Mahal.  

Primarily two factors were largely responsible for the tragedy, both of which cannot be attributable to the local police or any officer in particular:

One, the sending of the text messages asking the late Syedna’s followers to come to Saifee Mahal to pay their last respects without informing the police; and two the decision to allow entry to the followers from both the front and the rear gates of the residence and the abrupt shutting of the gates without any prior intimation.

Also, a posse of policemen led by a senior officer (Zonal Deputy Commissioner of Police) was deployed outside the residence to manage a reasonably small crowd, on the strength of the information given by community leaders. 

The onus of both the above-mentioned acts lies on the community leaders and consequently on the tragic stampede as well and not on the police. It is easy to be wise after the incident and easier still for former police officers to indict their colleagues.

 (At the time of writing this post, a probe into the stampede is being conducted by the Crime Branch of Mumbai Police).

1 comment:

Pete said...

Hi Kumar

A tragic situation.

The new medium of text messages can cause havoc here as well - with private suburban parties turning into drunken riots when too many people turn up.