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What Happened in 1954 Kumbh Stampede & Why Was Nehru Criticised?

Nearly 800 were trampled to death or drowned in the river when thousands of devotees thronged the 1954 Kumbh Mela. 

Published
India
3 min read
A sea of people at the Kumbh Mela on the day of the tragedy. 
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The Kumbh Mela of 1954, the first ever Kumbh held after Independence, was a landmark event for India, but it is also remembered as a tragedy.

On 3 February 1954, a stampede broke out when scores of devotees thronged the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) to take a holy dip on the auspicious occasion of Mauni Amavasya (new moon). Nearly 800 people were trampled to death or drowned in the river.

As per the initial reports, nearly 500 people were reported dead.
As per the initial reports, nearly 500 people were reported dead.
(Source: Amrita Bazar Patrika/Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)
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On that day, some pilgrims sat down on the bank of river Ganga to watch a procession even as more arrived. According to news reports from 1954, people started tripping when the crowd swelled, and with nowhere else to go, they tried to join a procession of Naga Sadhus, who reportedly turned their trishuls (trident) towards devotees.

This information has been recorded by Kama Maclean, Associate Professor of South Asian and World History in Sydney’s UNSW, in her book titled Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad from 1776-1954.

What Happened in 1954 Kumbh Stampede & Why Was Nehru Criticised?
(Source: Amrita Bazar Patrika/Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

Was Nehru At Kumbh Mela? Why Was He Criticised For The Tragedy?

Since it was the first Kumbh after Independence, several politicians had visited the mela (gathering) in 1954, including the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and former President Rajendra Prasad.

Nehru meets pilgrims when he visited the Kumbh in 1954.
Nehru meets pilgrims when he visited the Kumbh in 1954.
(Source: Amrita Bazar Patrika/Nehru Memorial Museum & Library)

While Prasad was among the five million pilgrims to have taken a holy dip at the Sangam (a confluence of rivers considered to be sacred), Nehru is said to have been at the Kumbh to monitor the preparations.

According to a Amrita Bazar Patrika report published on 4 February 1954, when Nehru was asked about taking a dip at Sangam, he said, “I had not a holy dip but other dips (sic).” Though the then PM did not take a holy dip at Sangam, he was present at Kumbh when the tragedy occurred.

Nehru reportedly spoke to the media after the incident and said that he was surveying the crowd from the balcony of a fort at around 9:45 am-10:15 am. The incident is said to have occurred at 9:00 am. However, due to the crowd, Nehru couldn’t fathom that something was amiss when the tragedy occurred.

The Nehru-led government was criticised for inadequate safety measures at the mela, and instead, diverting the attention of police officials towards VIPs and prominent personalities.

Parliament records from 1954 quote Nehru as saying in Rajya Sabha:

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“I can never forget that tremendous concourse of humanity, consisting of probably 40 lakhs of people, on either side of the river. I have never seen anything like it in my life before, either at the Kumbh Mela or in any other function in this country or any where else.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, Former Prime Minister

After the stampede, Nehru also suggested that VIPs and politicians should refrain from visiting the mela.

Moreover, a committee headed by Justice Kamala Kant Varma was set up to initiate a probe into the matter and ensure better management in future melas.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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