In the wee hours of Saturday, 18 people, including two children, were killed and at least 65 injured in a stampede in the heart of Mumbai, exposing serious loopholes in the administration of the most thriving metropolis of India. The police from the Malabar Hill station, entrusted with crowd management, were unaware that such a huge throng of humanity, involving tens of thousands of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims mourners, would show up in the neighbourhood. Members of this close-knit community had gathered at the posh South Mumbai locality to pay their final respects to their deceased spiritual leader, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, who had died on Friday at the age of 102. The stampede occurred when private security personnel at Syedna’s home — where the body was kept — closed the entrance of the mansion, located in a blind lane, around 1.30am.
As the surging crowd pressed forward, those standing close to the gate were crushed. Some died of suffocation as well.
The police claim they didn’t expect such a mammoth turnout because they were not informed about certain last-minute changes in Syedna’s funeral ceremony. Even if that is true, an alert force should have realised that the death of the spiritual figure, who commanded tremendous respect and following among the 1.2 lakh Bohra Muslims in the city, would attract thousands of mourners.
Moreover, people from different parts of the country and the world had come to Mumbai to see their leader for the very last time. As the gathering swelled, it should have sent a clear message to the force to mobilise manpower and resources to deal with the emergency. By failing to take timely action, the police had not only shown themselves in poor light, but also exposed thousands to grave risk. A strong force at the venue could have ensured a smooth flow of mourners and prevented the confusion — following the closing of the gates — that led to loss of lives.
Stampedes are a regular affair in India, where chaotic religious gatherings are fairly common.
Last October, a Hindu festival in Madhya Pradesh witnessed the death of 110 people when devotees panicked to a rumour of an imminent bridge collapse. Earlier in 2008, more than 220 people were killed in a stampede at the Chamunda Devi Hindu temple inside a Jodhpur fort.
These incidents unfailingly point to the gross failures of state administrations, which not only lack foresight and resources, but also refuse to learn from past mistakes. That such a thing happened in Mumbai is also an overwhelming indication that even the financial hub of the country fares no better than the rest of India when it comes to ensuring the safety of people. Mumbai police should have promptly assessed the situation on the ground and taken swift, effective measures when they saw that the number of people had far exceeded their expectation. Taking refuge under ‘lack-of-information’ hardly absolves them of their incompetence, for which a bereaved community had to pay dearly.