Six organisers arrested after crush at religious event in India kills 121

Relatives mourn victims of the Hathras stampede during a cremation ceremony at Daukeli village  in Hathras, India (Getty)
Relatives mourn victims of the Hathras stampede during a cremation ceremony at Daukeli village in Hathras, India (Getty)

Police in India have arrested six people after 121 people died in a stampede at a religious function in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

A crush occurred when followers of a Hindu preacher known as Bhole Baba scrambled to take dirt from his feet after a prayer meeting in Hathras, about 200km southeast of the capital New Delhi, on Tuesday afternoon.

A preliminary investigation found over 250,000 people had gathered for the event, held in a tent pitched in a muddy field, even though the organisers had permission to host only about 80,000. It is not clear how many people were inside the tent when the stampede began.

The Uttar Pradesh police on Thursday arrested six aides of the preacher, four men and two women, who were involved in organising the event.

"All six persons who have been arrested worked as volunteers at the satsang," inspector general Shalabh Mathur said, referring to the prayer meeting.

The police also issued a warrant and a reward of Rs 100,000 (£938) for the arrest of a key suspect named Devprakash Madhukar.

"When the stampede situation happened, all these people who organised the event fled from the spot," Mr Mathur added.

The preacher, whose real name is Suraj Pal, too fled the scene and has been untraceable since.

His lawyer, AP Singh, told the BBC on Thursday that the crush was caused by "some anti-social elements" and alleged a "criminal conspiracy" against the preacher.

The lawyer denied reports that Mr Pal's security sparked panic by pushing away the devotees who rushed to touch his feet.

“Totally false allegation,” he said. “Security staff always provide help to the followers.”

Mr Singh said he would represent the arrested men and women.

"Police are doing their job but the people they have arrested are those whose family members are victims of the stampede," he said. "Those who actually caused the stampede have run away."

The police said they would question the preacher based on the findings of their ongoing investigation. Mr Pal has not been named in the first information report filed after the crush.

"We will question the baba if necessary, it’s too early to say or comment whether he has a role," Mr Mathur said, adding that permission for the event was obtained by the organiser rather than the preacher himself.

The dead, including 112 women and seven children, have all been identified and their bodies handed over to their families, state officials said.