PUNJAB, India - In a shocking incident, a speeding commuter train in India's northern state of Punjab mowed down a crowd of people gathered to celebrate the Hindu festival of Dussehra on Friday.
The tragic incident, which occurred between Manawala and Ferozpur stations near Amritsar left at least 60 people dead and over 200 others injured.
Several disturbing videos emerged on social media and footage of the incident that was broadcast in the country's media showed scores of people marking the festival as the train runs into the crowd at high speed, instantly killing several people.
According to local officials, at around 7 pm, as over 700 people were watching the effigy of the demon king Ravana go up in flames - an important part of Dussehra festivities - the intercity train rammed into the crowd.
Speaking to reporters later, Amritsar Police Commissioner S.S. Srivastava said that 59 people had been killed and 72 others were rushed to nearby hospitals after the incident.
The top cop noted that the Jalandhar-Amritsar DMU passenger train was traveling from Hoshiarpur towards Amritsar when it ploughed down the people who had poured onto the railway tracks at Joda Phatak near Dhobi Ghat.
Authorities have warned that the death toll could rise further.
According to eyewitnesses quoted in the local media, the train mowed down and killed several people in a matter of 10-15 seconds and left a heap of crushed and dismembered bodies as it left.
Further, witnesses also told reporters that no warning signal or whistle was heard from the approaching train.
According to officials, the train passed by just as the effigy was lit and the firecrackers within it began exploding.
A New Delhi-based railway official argued that people continued to spill onto the train tracks in violation of railway rules even though the drop gates at the spot were down.
However, eyewitnesses insisted that there were no barricading near the railway tracks.
The 'Ravana dehan' ceremony was taking place 200 feet away away from the railway track.
Meanwhile, soon after the incident, some people in the crowd turned their anger towards local government ministers and many blamed local MLA Navjot Kaur Sidhu.
Navjot Kaur, who is married to the Local Bodies Minister and former Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, was the chief guest at the celebrations.
Kaur, who was initially blamed for arriving late at the ceremony, causing it to be delayed, was later criticized for disappearing from the ceremony after the tragic incident.
Several people shouted slogans against the MLA, accusing her of "running away" from the event after the tragic incident.
Former minister Anil Joshi told reporters, "The Dussehra celebrations were organized without the local administration permission. She (Navjot Kaur) disappeared midway during the ceremony when she was apprised about the disaster."
However, Kaur told reporters that she rushed to the local hospital immediately after being informed about the incident.
Meanwhile, a local resident identified as Nirmal Jit Sindhu told reporters that the administration refused to grant permission for the use of this venue for Dussehra celebrations last year due to its proximity to the tracks.
He alleged that celebrations this year were organized by forcing the local administration to grant permission near the railway tracks despite the risk.
Another local resident claimed, "We have requested authorities and local leaders several times to discuss the issue of speeding trains near the Phatak during Dussehra celebrations with railway authorities. However, no one did anything about the issue."
Witnesses also pointed out that several children were killed in the tragedy.
Rescue efforts and reactions
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said that he was headed to the spot to "personally supervise rescue and relief operations."
Singh said, "We will do everything possible to assist the injured. [I] have directed the district administration to leave no stone unturned to ensure the best possible treatment for them."
He later tweeted, "District authorities have been mobilized on war footing."
Singh also announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh ($6800) each to the kin of the deceased and said that all those that suffered injuries in the accident would be treated for free.
The government of Punjab declared a state mourning on Saturday and a government spokesperson said that all offices and educational institutions will remain closed in view of the tragedy.
The spokesperson added that a probe had been ordered into the incident.
Meanwhile, officials also confirmed that several senior railway officials were flown to Amritsar by the Indian Air Force to help oversee the relief and rescue effort.
Amongst those that reached the incident spot were Manoj Sinha, Minister of State for Railways; Ashwani Lohani, Chairman of the Railway Board and Vishwesh Chaube, General Manager of Northern Railway.
Indian Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, who is in the U.S., said he had cancelled all his engagements and was immediately returning to India.
Goyal tweeted, "I pray for the injured to recover quickly. Railways is conducting immediate relief and rescue operations."
The Indian President and Prime Minister too expressed their condolences over the tragedy.
The country's Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "Extremely saddened by the accident in Amritsar. The tragedy is heart-wrenching... I pray that the injured recover quickly. My deepest condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and I pray that the injured recover quickly. Have asked officials to provide immediate assistance that is required."
Modi also announced Rs 2 lakh ($2700) compensation to the families of the dead and Rs 50,000 ($680) to those that were injured.
Meanwhile, the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said, "Shocked to hear about the tragedy on rail tracks in Amritsar, Punjab. Understand Indian Railways and local authorities are taking steps to help affected people."
Speaking to reporters later, the Indian Finance minister Arun Jaitley said that the "tragedy could have been avoided."
Calling the accident "shocking and terrible," Jaitley said, “An unfortunate tragedy has taken place. My heart goes out to all those who have lost their lives and injured in this incident which from the initial reports appears to be a tragedy that could have been avoided.”
What happens at the Ramlila?
One of the three major Hindu festivals in India - Dussehra is celebrated across the country to mark the victory of Lord Rama - considered to be the seventh avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, over the demon king Ravana.
For ten successive days and nights, a dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Lord Rama, called the 'Ramlila' is staged across the country to mark the festival.
Stories from the life of the divine prince Rama are enacted based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana (Earliest text-7th to 4th centuries BCE) and lead up to his eventual victory over the ten-headed demon king Ravana.
The Ramlila, which was described by the UNESCO as a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity," culminates with the death of Ravana, at the end of his ten day battle against Lord Rama.
Marking the victory of good over evil, Hindu devotees burn effigies of Ravana, made up of firecrackers.
The traditional celebrations with Ramlila and the burning of the effigy are common in the northern and central regions of India, but the celebrations are also staged outside the Indian subcontinent, in countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Fiji, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa, Guyana, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.K. and the U.S.