What really happened?
On 19th October 2018, as the country celebrated Dussehra, burning effigies of the demon king Ravana, a massive train accident in Amritsar shook the country.
Over 70 people, including children, were killed after an express train – 74943 DMU – coming from Pathankot, ploughed into a crowd bursting crackers near the train tracks. The victims were given no warning that a train was headed their way. They couldn’t hear the train or its whistle because of the sound of fireworks being set off. It took just about 10-15 seconds for the train to pass, and leave behind a heap of crushed and dismembered bodies.
Eyewitnesses described how people searched for their loved ones on and around the railway tracks and in the bushes nearby with the help of mobile lights.
The survivors of the incident claim that they had acquired permission from the railway authorities to host celebrations at the tracks. And since the latter was aware of such an event, trains on those tracks should’ve either been cancelled or should have come slowly. It should have been stopped or the driver should have honked multiple times for people to leave the tracks.
Moreover, such celebrations have been held every year for the past two decades, with politicians and VIPs attending the events. Local police and railway authorities are usually aware of such an event and that even in the absence of permits, no train has ever crossed these tracks on Dussehra before. Then what changed this time?
They have also been protesting against Punjab MLA Navjot Singh Siddhu, claiming that his wife was present at the time of accident, and left immediately thereafter. They were upset with the reaction they received from her as a Chief Guest and expected her to take substantial action in the moment of the incident.
Deputy Police Commissioner Kamaldeep Singh Sangha told the media that the organisers had written to local police to inform them about the event. And even though the police had given them permissions from their side, they were still asked to acquire separate permits from the fire department, and the health and safety department.
Officials from all both these departments claimed that the organisers did not seek their permission. In fact they were absolutely unaware of any such event.
Meanwhile, Railway officials have been quoted by local media as saying that it was dark and smoky making it hard for the train’s driver to spot them and react in time to avoid a collision.
The Police are currently focused on helping the injured and dispensing compensation but say they will soon begin investigating to ascertain who was responsible for the tragedy. Meanwhile they have registered a complain against “unnamed persons” as it is still unclear who is responsible for the accident.
Politicians quickly flocked to hospitals to visit the victims and provide condolences.
Punjab’s Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, has ordered an inquiry into the accident and announced that the families of those who died will receive Rs. 5,00,000 ($6,800; £5,200) in compensation. PM Modi announced Rs 200,000 compensation for the family of the dead and Rs 50,000 for the injured.
Meanwhile, MLA Navjot Singh Siddhu, when questioned about his wife’s presence at the incident site, announced his intention to adopt all children orphaned after the incident.
Shiv Sena, in its mouth-piece Saamna, compared the incident to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, implying that the authorities purposely massacred the people.
The train driver
Local and railway police on Saturday questioned the driver of the train that crashed at least 60 people.
Punjab Police officials said the DMU (diesel multiple unit) driver had been detained at the Ludhiana railway station and was being questioned regarding the incident that took place on Friday night at the Jora Phatak near Dhobi Ghat within Amritsar city.
Sources said that the driver claimed that he was given green signal and all clear and had no idea that hundreds of people were standing on the tracks when the train crossed the area.
Police sources said that the organisers of the event had gone underground.
Railway officials were also gathering information from the railway linemen posted along the tracks near the Jora Phatak area who failed to inform the DMU driver regarding the presence of over 700 people on the railway tracks who were watching the burning of the Ravan and other effigies during Dussehra celebrations.
Has something like this happened before?
Unfortunately, disasters resulting from a lack of preparation or poor management of crowds are not uncommon in India. And the deadliest accidents have occurred during religious festivals or gatherings, which often draw thousands of people.
In 2015, 27 pilgrims died in a stampede on the banks of a holy river in southern India. It was attributed to poor planning as people rushed to take a dip in the river at a time they believed was auspicious.
In 2013, some 91 pilgrims, mostly women and children, were killed in a stampede on a bridge at a Hindu festival in central India. Most were crushed after panic broke out amid a rumour that the bridge was collapsing and others drowned when they jumped from the bridge into the river below.
But India is also home to some of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, involving millions of people, and many of these events are praised for their organisation.