As survivors of Sunday’s tragedy on a bridge recounted how desperate mothers threw their children into the water below, authorities came under fire over policing levels amid claims the panic was aggravated by baton-charging.
Medics were also battling to save the lives of 10 people classified as critically ill after the stampede in the town of Ratangarh in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
“The death toll has now gone up to 115 and more than 110 injured,” deputy police inspector general D. K. Arya told AFP.
“Ten of those are in a very critical state.”
In a sign of the anger towards the state government, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh was heckled as he made a tour of one of the hospitals where victims were being treated.
The tragedy cast a long shadow over celebrations marking the finale of the nine-day Navratri festival, dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga.
Police and witnesses said the panic had been sparked by rumours that the bridge was about to collapse.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple when the stampede took place, while there were around 20,000 people on the bridge, which spans the river Sindh.
The disaster comes only seven years after another stampede outside the same temple. Then, more than 50 people were crushed to death while crossing the river, after which authorities built the bridge.
“Cops learnt no lessons from 2006 stampede,” read a headline in The Hindustan Times, saying the tragedy “underlines the sheer ineptitude of the authorities responsible for the safety and security” of devotees.
Jagdish Prasad Goswami, a railway official whose wife was knocked unconscious in the crush, described a scene of utter panic.
“Someone at the front shouted the bridge was collapsing so everyone started to turn back and people fell down and died,” he said as he visited his wife in hospital.
Rashmi Pal, who was being visited in hospital by her husband and two-year-old son, described how she lost consciousness after being toppled from the bridge.
“My child was on my shoulders and I don’t know what happened – my child fell down and someone pushed me in the river” she told AFP, her face heavily bandaged. “I don’t remember anything after that.”
“People were jumping off the bridge to save themselves, but they could not swim against the tide. I also saw children being tossed from the bridge, only to be washed away,” he told the Times of India.
Several eyewitnesses said the situation was exacerbated when police charged into the crowds, wielding baton sticks known as lathis.
Arya, however, denied that the police employed such tactics.
“One would be stupid to use lathis on a crowd which was 25,000 strong,” he said.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a senior figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party, was facing calls to resign over the tragedy.
“Had there been adequate police, administration and health officials at the temple site, the loss of lives could have been averted,” said Kantilal Bhuria, the leader of the Congress party in the state.
Speaking on a visit to a hospital in the Datia district to meet some of the victims, Chouhan said a commission of inquiry would establish exactly what had happened and who was to blame.
“This is a great tragedy which has shaken me deeply,” he told reporters after being heckled at the hospital.
“By tomorrow a judicial commission will be set up and I will request it to complete its probe within two months.
“It should decide within 15 days of the completion of the probe what action is to be taken and assign responsibilities for this disaster.”
India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.
Some 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hilltop temple in Jodhpur.