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Funerals Begin for India Stampede Victims

August 28, 2003

NASIK, India (AP) _ Ancient mantras echoed Thursday at the cremations of the first of 39 Hindus killed when crowds of pilgrims stampeded on the banks of a holy river.

Grieving relatives of other victims complained that police were stopping them from claiming the bodies of their loved ones who died Wednesday when a crowd surged on the banks of the Godavari River near Nasik, about 110 miles northeast of Bombay.

Many of the bereaved said they were turned away at morgues by officers demanding documented proof that they were truly family members and not conmen seeking personal effects or wanting to fraudulently claim insurance money.

``They are insisting on paperwork. They keep sending us back when we ask for the body. We don’t know where to go,″ Mukesh Saidas Sharma, 28, said as he wept in Nasik’s government hospital seeking the body of his dead aunt.

Similar charges of bureaucratic insensitivity were made after two car bombs exploded, killing at least 51 people in Bombay, the state capital, also known as Mumbai. Authorities have blamed Muslim militants.

About 125 people were injured when thousands of pilgrims waiting to bathe in the holy river surged over a flimsy bamboo fence, triggering a stampede that killed at least 39 people and injured 125. Most of those trampled were women.

Dozens of mourners watched silently as Hindu priests prayed for the victims at the Panchwati cremation ground near the Godavari River in at least four funerals. The bodies were dressed in new clothes and wrapped in saffron scarves and flowers as they were placed on funeral pyres.

Vikram Marathe, Nasik’s deputy police commissioner, defended the policy of making sure bodies were collected only by close relatives.

``We will not give the bodies to anyone else. We are willing to wait for five or six days,″ Marathe told The Associated Press. ``People might take advantage of the deaths.″

Worshippers believe they can bathe away their sins in the Godavari River, which is considered holy to many Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the muddy brown water.

Stampedes are not uncommon at major Hindu religious festivals, which can attract millions of worshippers. In 1954, about 800 pilgrims died during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

Police in Nasik estimated that nearly 1.6 million people attended the festival Wednesday. About 60 million people are likely to participate at various times during the festival, which started July 30 and ends Monday.

Witnesses said the stampede happened when impatient pilgrims pushed past barricades.

Police tried to hold them back by beating some with canes, said Ram Phool Maina, a farmer from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh whose arm was fractured in the melee.

``They tried to stop the people. No one stopped. I fell down and people were walking over me. I lunged to save my mother. Then I heard my arm bone crack into two,″ Maina said. ``Other people from my village dragged me to the side or I would have been dead.″

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