Indian preacher not hiding after stampede, lawyer says

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The self-styled Indian preacher whose latest sermon ended in a deadly stampede is not hiding from police, his lawyer told AFP on Thursday, without disclosing the guru’s whereabouts.

Bhole Baba’s prayer meeting near the northern city of Hathras saw the deaths of 121 people, the vast majority women, after a rush to the exits among the 250,000 devotees who came to watch him preach.

The former police officer-turned-spiritual leader has not been seen in public since but local media reports suggested he had retreated to his nearby monastery, the doors of which have been chained shut by supporters inside, to bar public access.

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Baba’s lawyer A.P. Singh told AFP that his client was not to blame for Tuesday’s disaster and was not on the run.

“There is no reason for him to hide. He has never hidden in his life,” Singh said. “He believes in the law. He is following police directions.”

The lawyer said that “anti-social elements” in the crowd were responsible for the stampede and that Baba would participate in a police investigation into the disaster.

“An investigation is going on. We will participate,” he said.

Singh declined to confirm Baba’s exact location to AFP beyond saying he remained in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to his monastery in the city of Mainpuri and the nearby site of the stampede.

A police charge sheet issued after the stampede named several organizers of the prayer meeting sought for arrest, but Baba’s name was not among them.

Around 20 police officers were on guard outside the monastery on Thursday but had not entered the sprawling premises, which are also ringed by a five-meter-high (15-foot-high) wall.

India is home to innumerable religious gurus or “godmen”, whose devotees beseech them for miracles and donate money and possessions as a token of loyalty.

Baba, whose current whereabouts are unknown, was barely known to the wider Indian public before Tuesday’s disaster.

But in his native state of Uttar Pradesh, he had cultivated a large audience of worshippers, the vast majority of whom were women from poor and marginalised backgrounds.

Authorities had only given permission for 80,000 people to attend the sermon, less than a third of the number that eventually turned up.

Officials initially blamed a dust storm for sparking panic, while police later said the stampede began when “followers started to collect earth” from the ground where the preacher had passed.

Read more:

How did a religious gathering in India turn into a deadly stampede?

Death toll of stampede at Hindu congregation in India rises to 121

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