HC gives one month tine to J&K govt to reply to PIL on death of 12 pilgrims in stampede at Vaishno Devi shrine

159

JAMMU, SEPTEMBER 22: The High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh Thursday gave a month’s time to the J&K administration Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board at Katra to file their responses to a public interest litigation seeking directions to make public the inquiry report by a three-member government committee on the stampede at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine that led to the death of 12 pilgrims on the intervening night of December 31, 2021 and January 1 this year.

A division bench comprising Chief Justice Pankaj Mithal and Justice Sindhu Sharma issued the directions to secretary-general (administration department), principal secretary to UT’s Lt Governor, financial commissioner (additional chief secretary) Home, and the additional Director General of Police, Jammu.

The others who were also asked to file their responses on a writ petition filed by advocate Sheikh Shakeel, included divisional commissioner, Jammu, Reasi senior superintendent of police (SSP), SDPO and Station House Officer (SHO) Bhawan.

After hearing the advocates for the petitioner in the PIL and the petitioner in person, the bench observed that Additional Advocate General (AAG) Raman Sharma, appearing for the UT Administration, prays that he may be allowed time to seek instructions on the matter. It further said that “in view of the above and as prayed for, a month’s time is allowed to him and if necessary, he may file a comprehensive reply”. 

Earlier, senior advocate A V Gupta with advocate H A Siddiqui submitted that the instant PIL highlights the public importance of the issue as 12 devotees lost their lives due to the negligence on the part of the officers/officials of the Shrine Board “who miserably failed to perform their lawful duties on the fateful night and unfortunately the accountability was not fixed in the matter for the reasons best known to the authorities at the helm of affairs”.

The Lieutenant Governor of J&K who is chairman of the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, Katra, constituted a three-member panel headed by then Principal Secretary (Home), J&K Government on January 1, 2022 to look into the tragedy, examine the cause of the incident and point out the lapses.

The senior counsel submitted that the panel, which was also entrusted with the task of suggesting appropriate SOPs and measures for preventing recurrence of such incidents, was directed to submit its report within a week to the J&K government. 

Gupta pointed out that the inquiry report is yet to see the light of the day even after nine months. He also drew attention of the division bench to the response to an RTI query wherein the general administration department (GAD) divulged that no such inquiry report has been received by the GAD.

The petitioner said that on the fateful night the senior officers of the Shrine Board reportedly stopped the pilgrims from having ‘darshan’ which resulted in crowding outside the Bhawan (sanctum sanctorum). The pilgrims were stopped to facilitate “the darshan of holy deity to a VVIP (reportedly a senior bureaucrat of the UT Administration) and because of this the unfortunate stampede took place on the eve of the New Year which resulted in the death of 12 innocent pilgrims”.

The petitioner submitted that despite persuading the authorities concerned and making a representation before the chairman of the Shrine Board to make public the inquiry report, nothing concrete has yet emerged.  

After considering the submissions by the lawyers appearing for the petitioner, as well as those by the AAG, the court allowed a month’s time to the UT Administration and Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board to file their response. It also granted time to the AAG to seek instructions in the matter.

The division bench directed the Registry to re-notify the instant PIL on October 28.