It was the year 1954. Independent India was about to turn seven. A newly free nation full of dreams and aspirations was marching ahead under the democratically-elected Congress government led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In Uttar Pradesh, which was even then the country’s most populous state, the Congress government was led by the state’s first Chief Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant.
The year was significant for both the state, the Hindu population of the country, and the politicians for one particular reason – Kumbh Mela. It was after all the first Kumbh in independent India, held in PM Nehru’s home city of Allahabad.
But what happened on 3 February 1954 has since gone down as one of the most horrific chapters in independent India’s history. On that day, lakhs of devotees had arrived at Sangam to take a holy dip on the auspicious occasion of Mauni Amavasya (or New Moon day). But by the end of the day, around 1000 people lay dead on the ghats and around 2000 others injured due to a stampede.
The horror of that stampede was captured on camera by a photographer from Amrit Bazar Patrika – NN Mukherjee. Aged 41 at the time, Mukherjee was at the Sangam to take pictures of the event. In his memoir published by Hindi magazine ‘Chayakriti’ in 1989, Mukherjee described the stampede, the horrors he witnessed, Nehru’s presence at Kumbh on that day and what made Pant call him a ‘h******a’ (b*****d).
The day of Mouni Amavasya in Kumbh in 1954 was a day of tragedy for me besides, of course, a day of achievement as a press photographer. I was the only one who could take pictures of a stampede that killed over a thousand people, who were crushed at the Kumbh Mela. I get goosebumps even today recalling how I took photographs by crisscrossing over the bodies of dying or dead men, women and children, who had fallen on the ground after a collision between two groups. My clothes were torn to pieces in the rush. A dying old woman had grabbed my pant with who knows what hope. I tried in vain to free my pant from her grip; and when the grip loosened, it had torn off a part of the cloth.
Two days before the bathing day of Mauni Amawasya, the cholera vaccination had been stopped. As a result, a large number of people started entering the Sangam area from the morning on that day.
The then Prime Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru) and President Rajendra Prasad were to come for a bath at Sangam on the same day. Thus all the police and administrative officers were busy making arrangements for their arrival.
I stood on a tower near a barrier at the Sangam Chowki. At around 10.20 am, Nehru-ji and Rajendra Babu’s car came in from the Triveni Road, went past the barrier and headed for the Kila Ghat. A large number of onlookers, who had been stopped on both sides of the barrier, began breaking past the barriers down towards the ghat. A procession of sadhus was moving on the other side of the barrier. The procession went awry due to the influx of the mammoth crowd. When the mob came crashing at the slope of the barricade, it appeared like waves made by standing crops when a storm strikes just before they tumble. Those who fell could not rise again. The cries of “save me, save me” rented the air in all directions as people ran helter-skelter trampling others under their feet.
Many fell in a huge well nearby, and no one could come out. I saw with my own two eyes, someone crushing a three- or four-year-old child. There was someone trying to escape by swinging on the wires of an electricity pole. In a bid to take his photograph, I had to go over fallen people.
It is also surprising that even though more than a thousand people trampled to death, the administrative officials were ignorant of it because till these officials were enjoying tea and snacks at the Government House (today’s Medical College) till four o’clock.
My colleagues at Amrit Bazar Patrika were afraid that I, too, must have become a victim of the stampede. But when I reached the office at around 1 pm, the newspaper’s owner, Tarun Kanti Ghosh, gleefully lifted me up and cried, ‘Neepu has come back alive’. I said that I had also brought the photographs of the accident.
Government officials rejected the reports of over a thousand people dying in the stampede. They issued a press note stating that only some beggars had been crushed to death. We presented before the officials the photos showing women wearing costly ornaments among the deceased, indicating that they came from well-off families.
On the second day of the accident, the administration made mounds of bodies and set them on fire. No photographer was allowed near the site. To take photos, I dressed like a villager, carried a small camera in an umbrella and pretended that I was there to see the body of my grandmother one last time. I fell on the feet of a constable…one official allowed me on the condition that I return quickly after seeing my ‘grandmother’.
I ran towards the bodies and fell on the body of an old woman crying. Then I quickly took a photo of the burning pile of bodies. When the picture was published the next day, then Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant let out a curse, ‘Where is the H******a photographer?’ It was a big compliment for me.
In the aftermath of the incident, Nehru suggested that politicians and VIPs should refrain from visiting the Mela. The tragedy forced subsequent governments to ensure better crowd management at such gatherings. Though the 1954 Kumbh Mela tragedy was one of the worst in the history of independent India, stampedes have haunted the mega religious gathering frequently. Over 30 people were killed in a stampede at Kumbh as late as in 2013.
(The text attributed to NN Mukherjee originally appeared in Hindi in Scroll.in on 4 February 2019. Text translated by Manas Sen Gupta.)