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Bhole Baba: The godman who failed his devotees


It is July 3, the day after 121 people, most of them women, were killed during a stampede at a satsang (religious gathering) of a ‘godman’, Suraj Pal alias Narayan Sakar Hari, in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. At two grounds, which are equidistant from reserve police lines, contrasting scenes play out.

At the first ground, excited men and children gather to catch a glimpse of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. He has just flown down in a blue helicopter to inspect the administrative scramble following the stampede that drew both condolences and criticism from across the world.

At the second ground, the mood dramatically shifts. Grieving men and children congregate to bury Bhumi, 10, wrapped in a piece of blue cloth.

At both places, videos are shot. They will be uploaded later on social media.


Editorial | Avoidable tragedy: On the Hathras stampede 

As relatives start lowering Bhumi’s body into the grave, dug about 3 feet deep, Vinod Kumar uncovers her face and stares at his daughter for the last time. As the body underwent an autopsy, the chest has been stitched up. Bhumi had suffered injuries to her head in the stampede. Before she is laid to rest, Vinod removes an absorbent sheet from behind her neck, placed there the previous day to stop the bleeding.

Kitni chot aai hogi meri bitiya ko. Kitna dard hua hoga. Wo chillai bhi hogi. Koi bachane nahi aaya use (My daughter must have been injured badly. She must have been in so much pain. She must have even screamed. No one came to save her),” says Vinod.

His older brother, Rajveer, stands by his side impatiently. In Sokhna village, just 1 kilometre away, the brothers need to perform two cremations after the girl’s burial: one for Vinod’s wife, Rajkumari, and the other for their mother, Jaimanti. Rajveer asks his brother to hurry up.

Vinod being consoled after the burial of his mother, wife and daughter after the stampede incident at Hathras in Uttar Pradesh on July 3, 2024.

Vinod being consoled after the burial of his mother, wife and daughter after the stampede incident at Hathras in Uttar Pradesh on July 3, 2024.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

It was Jaimanti’s wish to attend the satsang. She had persuaded her daughter-in-law and granddaughter to come along to listen to Bhole Baba, a term of endearment for the guru; it was their first time at the satsang.

Kalicharan, Vinod’s brother-in-law, explains how the stampede took place. “The frenzied crowd rushed to collect charan raj (soil from under the feet of the ‘godman’), but Bhole Baba left them to die. Forget taking responsibility for the incident, he did not even return to apologise,” he says. “In this family alone, three women from three generations have died in the tragedy.”

The slippers of the victims who died in the stampede.

The slippers of the victims who died in the stampede.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

Horror at Hathras

The open field in Phulrai village, located parallel to a bypass in Hathras, is partially submerged in water after heavy rains. Workers remove the poles that were erected to place a gigantic tent for the satsang. A few boys throw stones at a giant poster of Pal, placed on a temporary entrance gate. Villagers and passers-by holding umbrellas explain to journalists the ghastly scenes they had witnessed on the afternoon of July 2.

“I left my grocery shop open as the news of the stampede broke. I cannot sleep peacefully for years after seeing what I did. The bodies of tens of saree-clad women, soaked in mud, were lying on top of the other on the roadside. Slippers and bags lay scattered everywhere. There were calls for help from all directions. I stood helpless for minutes just watching the horror,” says Ram Gopal, a resident of Phulrai village, pointing towards the field on the other side of the highway. It has been sealed by the forensic team which had come to collect evidence of the crime.

The bodies of victims lie in a bus in Hathras.

The bodies of victims lie in a bus in Hathras.
| Photo Credit:
PTI

Pushpendra Yadav, a resident who also saw the tragedy unfold, says no one will ever know the real death toll. “Buses and lorries carried away bodies. People also piled bodies into autos, placed them on bikes, and carried them on their shoulders,” he recalls. This is also why estimating the number of injured is difficult.

Soon after the incident, videos of bodies flooding hospitals emerged on social media. In them, relatives screamed about mismanagement and the unavailability of doctors and treatment.

“The police and ambulances came late. It would have been better if we had proper police arrangements in place considering the fact that the satsang organisers had already obtained permission for 80,000 people,” says Vinod.

The Inspector General of Police, Aligarh range, Shalabh Mathur, refutes these claims. “There was adequate police force at the site, including traffic police,” he contends.

Rekha Devi, 55, who got injured in the melee, was admitted in ward number 6 of the district hospital in Hathras. “I fell when someone pushed me,” she recalls. “People ran over my hands and chest, and I lost consciousness. I woke up in hospital. I will never visit a satsang again.”

Another woman, Pushpa, who also fell in the stampede but managed to escape unhurt, feels that Rekha’s decision is unjust and blaming Pal is unfair. She says Pal was dull that afternoon and finished preaching in 30 minutes.


Hathras stampede |No police action against godman

“He had already announced that the crowd was too big at the venue and had asked his volunteers to ensure that people leave smoothly. He also asked men and women to leave from different gates. As he got into his car, all of us ran out of the venue to get a closer glimpse of him. Many people knelt down and began collecting mud from the path on which he had walked. The volunteers tried to control the crowd and asked followers to go to the other side of the highway, which had a swamp and a pit dug ahead of it. When people ran, they fell into that pit one on top of the other and died.”

At a press conference, Chief Minister Adityanath announced a judicial probe and indicated that if it was a “conspiracy”, those behind it would be punished.

The police have arrested seven people so far, all volunteers of the ‘godman’. Pal is absconding. He has issued a letter claiming that he condoles the deaths but had no role to play in the incident.

The administration conducted the postmortem of all the bodies within 24 hours of the stampede, handed them over to the relatives, and removed slippers from the sides of the highway. There is no trace of a stampede having taken place. But several people remain missing.

Urmila Devi’s 16-year-old granddaughter, Khubshoo, is one of them. “She has been missing since the satsang. I have already searched for her in Aligarh (about 30 km away), at the Sikandararau community health centres (about 30 km away), and even in Kasganj (more than 60 km away), but to no avail,” says Urmila, 70, holding an orange bag in her hand with a set of clothes and some money. She cannot call people at home in Etah, more than 65 km away, as Khubshoo had her phone. She refuses to go back until she finds her granddaughter.

Pappu Singh of Bharatpur shows a picture of his mother, who is missing after the stampede.

Pappu Singh of Bharatpur shows a picture of his mother, who is missing after the stampede.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

Vinod found the bodies of the three women of his family in the mortuaries of three different districts. Bhumi’s body was in Aligarh, Rajkumari’s was in Hathras, and Jaimanti’s was in Agra.

From policeman to ‘godman’

Pal, 65, the son of a farmer, hails from the Jatav community, one of the largest Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh, and is a resident of Bahadur Nagar village in Kasganj district. He spent several years of his life as a policeman. After opting for voluntary retirement in the late 1990s, Pal returned to his village to rebrand himself as a religious preacher. He claimed that he had a personal encounter with god and was ‘anointed’ with supernatural powers. Unlike other ‘godmen’, Pal wore pants or shorts instead of robes. He took his wife, Premvati, to his satsangs where he spoke about the importance of shunning the practice of untouchability; maintaining love, unity, and harmony in society; helping the poor; and following the laws of the land.


Hathras stampede |Bodies of victims lay on floor, loud wails pierce the air

Within his first decade as ‘Baba’, Pal managed to build assets worth millions. He has swanky ashrams spread across acres of land in several cities of the State, including Mainpuri, Kasganj, and Kanpur. Luxury cars are part of his convoy. The ‘Baba’ loves branded goggles.

Pal’s followers, who are mostly from the so-called lower castes and poor socio-economic backgrounds and face various kinds of discrimination, claim that they have seen the sudarshan chakra (a divine discus worn by the Hindu god Vishnu) in Pal’s hands. They also say that he has a halo around his head, “just like gods”.


Hathras stampede |Amid the dead, search on for the living

Many people blame not just the police and organisers, but also the followers for the stampede. They wonder why the followers gathered in such large numbers just to hear a ‘godman’ preach about issues that are already known to them.

“When Dalits and others face all kinds of discrimination in society, such ‘Babas’ shower them with love. So, people automatically become their followers,” explains Sanjay Nirmal from Naglaheera locality in Hathras. Nirmal used to visit Pal’s satsangs after some persuasion from his wife. He says he gave up drinking after that.

A life of struggle with no solace

There is an unbearable stench in Sokhna as the drains are overflowing. Some of the homes in this village have small rooms that have space for nothing more than a cot. A few toilets are covered with curtains and have no taps. Residents say the water supply is irregular. They say the men are unlettered and work as labourers, masons, painters, and hawkers. Most families speak of their struggles to make ends meet. It is the middle of the week, but children are not at school. Residents say most of the women who flocked to Pal’s satsangs have alcoholic and violent husbands.

The conditions in the Nabipur Kalan area of Hathras, which is 5 km from Sokhna, is no different. Two people from Nabipur died in the stampede: Asha Devi, 62, and Munni Devi, 58.

Photographs of the ‘godman’ Suraj Pal at a victim’s house.

Photographs of the ‘godman’ Suraj Pal at a victim’s house.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

“Asha’s elder son, Harikant, used to treat her badly. Her younger son was not able to get a job. She started following Bhole Baba when she heard that he could solve all her problems,” says Pushpa Devi, Asha’s sister. Asha had a small poster of Pal in her room.

Harikant merely says he is expecting guests.

“This is the importance that women are given in our homes. Even when they die, the family gets over the grief so quickly,” says Anjali, Asha Devi’s neighbour. “We are all poor people. The men here find solace in alcohol, while women search for peace at these satsangs,” she adds.

Harikant shows a picture of his mother, Asha Devi.

Harikant shows a picture of his mother, Asha Devi.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

Munni Devi used to visit Pal so that her younger son, Jugnu, would quit drinking, say residents. Jugnu continues to drink after her death.

At Sokhna, Savita Jatav, who lives 300 metres from Vinod’s house, feels “blessed” that she refused to visit the satsang even though many women in her village tried to persuade her. But Savita has her own problems. “My husband drinks regularly and beats me up. We have been married for 14 years; we have no children,” she says.

One day, she met a ‘sister’, who asked her to go to Church. Savita followed her advice. Since then, her husband’s behaviour has changed remarkably, she claims. “Is Baba se acche to humare church wale hain. Waha bhagdad to nahi machti,” (“Our church people are better than this Baba. There is no stampede there),” says Savita, who has a a portrait of Jesus Christ on the main door of her house. In this village, most homes have portraits of Hindu gods at the entrance.

A poster inviting people for a religious congregation in Hathras.

A poster inviting people for a religious congregation in Hathras.
| Photo Credit:
R.V. Moorthy

There are also big blue posters everywhere. These have been put up by small organisations which claim to preach Buddhism and the ideas of B.R. Ambedkar. The posters say the groups will conduct marriages and take care of naming ceremonies for those who follow them.

As Vinod prepares to cremate his wife and mother, who lie on a a wooden stretcher, relatives and neighbours start gathering around the bodies. Each of them begins a ritual which involves offering a piece of cloth to the dead.

Watch: Several killed in stampede in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh

Jaimanti’s neighbour, Vineeta Devi, makes an offering, too. Within minutes, Jaimanti’s body is covered with more than 25 sarees. Vineeta Devi observes this with regret: “In life, she had only two or three sarees.”



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