By Ajit Kumar Singh
At least 148 persons were killed and more than 145 injured, when the Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Express, a passenger train, was derailed and subsequently rammed by a goods train coming from the opposite direction, in the Sardiya area of the Jhargram region in the West Midnapore District of West Bengal in the early hours of May 28. West Midnapore District Magistrate N. S Nigam disclosed that a search was continuing for 25 missing passengers. The train was running between Khemasoli and Sardiya stations, and had 24 coaches. 13 of these, including 10 sleeper coaches, went off the tracks at around 1:30 am (IST). Five of the derailed sleeper coaches were hit by the freight train. An unreserved coach, the pantry car and luggage van also derailed.
The incident occurred during the “black week” [May 28-June 2] declared by the Maoists, suggesting that the Security Forces (SFs) should have been at a high alert. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, however, dismissed any allegations of neglect, arguing, “The Maoists observe such black and white days every alternate week. We had no idea that they would trigger such an accident.” Significantly, different central agencies, including the Union Home and Union Railway Ministry, are now at loggerheads over the cause of derailment and the identity of the group involved – though both agree that the incident is “an act of terror”.
Soon after reaching the incident site, Union Railway Minister Mamta Banerjee declared, “TNT and gelatine sticks were used and the strike was calculated. This area particularly is hit (sic). Earlier the Rajdhani Express was also hijacked there… A single light engine was run on the track a few hours before the accident, and about five trains had run on it thereafter, at intervals of 15 to 20 minutes. The Maoists are very particular about the timing. They are adjusting it according to patrol time.” Quickly realising her ‘mistake’ in missing a grand opportunity to nail her rival, the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), on the eve of municipal elections in the State, she later muddied the political waters further by calling the incident a “political conspiracy”. Sticking to her earlier claim that an explosion caused the derailment, she introduced a degree of ambiguity about who might have engineered it, hinting that the CPI-M might well have had a hand in the mischief, and demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe to reveal the ‘truth’.
Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai, however, suggested that, while there was still room for inquiry, “It’s likely to be them (the Maoists). There is no one else in the area. But we are still checking.” To the further embarrassment of the Railway Minister, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram indicated that there may, in fact, have been no explosion: “It appears to be a case of sabotage where a portion of the railway track was removed. Whether explosives were used is not yet clear.”
Further, West Bengal Director General of Police (DGP) Bhupinder Singh asserted the Maoists and some cadres of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) were behind the incident. “We have identified a number of persons all of whom are Maoist squad members and supporters of the Maoist-backed Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (also known as the PCPA). Raids are being conducted to nab them. We are also suspecting the role of a railway linesman but are still verifying whether he had connived with the Maoists or was forced into the job.” [Earlier Police claimed that posters from the PCPA had been found at the scene, claiming responsibility for the attack. The posters said that the rebels had demanded withdrawal of joint SFs from Lalgarh and adjacent areas and an end to CPI-M ‘atrocities’.] Significantly, the DGP claimed that investigations by the Crime Investigation Department’s (CID) forensic team did not find any sign of explosives or an explosion on the track. The CID has claimed to have “definite evidence” that Maoists were involved in derailing the Express, based on intercepts of conversations on several rebel leaders’ mobile phones.
Meanwhile, a high-level intelligence report submitted to Chief Minister late in the night of May 28, blamed the Manikpara Lodhasuli militia unit of PCPA, led by 40-year-old Umakanta Mahato and Bapi Mahato (aged 20), for the sabotage. Lodhasuli is on the Bengal-Orissa-Jharkhand tri-junction. Police said the Umakanta-Bapi gang could have forced railway gang men and linesmen to help saw the track and remove 120 feet of Pandrol Rail Clips. Over the last fortnight, the SFs had stepped up pressure in the area, and there had been several encounters. Even on the day of the accident, railway employees at Sardiya Station claim they heard gunfire at a location about eight kilometres from the incident site. Six persons had been picked up from nearby villages after the shootout.
The PCPA, however, denied that it was behind the incident. PCPA spokesman Asit Mahato, stated, “We were in no way involved. This is not our act. What can we do if somebody claims responsibility on our behalf?”
The Maoists, meanwhile, have gone into damage-control mode, trying to distance themselves from what is being projected as a ‘rogue unit’ of the PCPA militia. Maoist State committee member Akash issued a press statement saying that they “never target the common people”, and further, “The Government can resume train services on the section at night. No harm will be done from our side.” Significantly, on May 29, the Railways decided to suspend movement of passenger trains for seven hours at night-time in Maoist stronghold areas during the “black week” declared by the extremists. A Railway’s statement said that passenger trains would not run from 10pm to 5am on the Kharagpur-Tatanagar and Kharagpur-Adra sections of South Eastern Railways. The suspension of trains would remain in force till 5am on June 3.
Attacks by the Maoists on the Rail network are not new. On March 22, 2010, the Maoists had blown up railway tracks and derailed the Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani Express in Bihar’s Gaya District, leaving pamphlets at the blast site claiming responsibility and threatening more such attacks. The Railways then asked train drivers to slow down in Maoist-affected areas. According to the advisory, Rajdhanis have to move at 75 kilometres per hour instead of their normal speed of 110 kilometres to 130 kilometres per hour. According to Railway Ministry figures, there were 58 Maoist attacks targeting trains and railways property in 2009. The South Eastern Railways alone registered 30 incidents under its jurisdiction. East Central Railways, with its headquarters in Hajipur (Bihar), experienced 18 attacks; while the East Coast Railway registered eight such incidents in 2009, mostly in the Koraput-Rayagada belt where the Red ultras have a strong presence. Maoists have also taken over trains in a show of strength, holding them for hours, on several occasions over the past years. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there have already been 26 attacks on the Railways in 2010, though none of these had resulted in a fatality this year, before the Sardiya incident.
On April 23, 2010, Mamata Banerjee informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament): “Railways has become a target of Naxals. We have lost Rs. 500 crore because of Naxal bandhs [shut downs] and obstructions. We have lost about 40 per cent of our business due to Maoist violence and agitations like bandhs. These have hit our operations to a great extent. Incidents of attacks by Naxals nearly doubled to 58 in 2009 from 30 in the previous year. 56 incidents were reported in 2007.” Earlier, on March 24, an unnamed Railways official had said, “Though we do not have a definite data about the exact length of rail route directly affected by Maoist violence, about 11,000-km rail route in Maoist-affected states have become vulnerable to such attacks.” Home Ministry sources now say that Maoists have the resources to actually bring the entire rail network to a standstill by simply blowing up major sections of the track. Another report indicates that almost 202 Railway Stations face a direct Maoist threat.
The responsibility for safeguarding the Railways lies with the Railway Protection Force (RPF), the Government Railway Police (GRP) and State Police. Over 2,200 important trains are escorted by the GRP and about 1,275 trains by the RPF on daily basis. A total of just 36,600 GRP personnel are responsible for the prevention and detection of crime on the rail network and stations. The protection of goods-sheds, goods-wagons at stations and parcel offices is the duty of the RPF, which has a total total strength of around 69,000 personnel. The Government has approved the recruitment of some 5,000 personnel to the RPF and the Railway Protection Special Force (RPSF) in various ranks, and the recruitment process is expected to be completed in the current year. The RPF also takes personnel from the Home Guards on deputation, wherever necessary. RPF personnel currently engaged in non-core activities are now being pulled back for basic Police duties in view of the increasing responsibilities of the force. The RPF, meanwhile, is sending its men for training with various institutions in order to upgrade their capabilities, including bomb detection and commando operations. The Army is also providing training to the RPF’s canine force. Given the sheer length of the Railways and the movement of passengers and goods across the country, the available numbers are a fraction of what is actually needed.
Worse, an estimated 90,883 post are currently vacant, out of which an estimated 40 per cent, are safety-related posts. Vacant positions include those of gangmen, safety inspectors and supervisors responsible for maintaining over 111,600 kilometres of tracks.
The Government has initiated a number of steps to improve security, including the Integrated Security Scheme consisting of CCTV Surveillance Systems, access control systems, personnel and baggage screening system, and bomb detection and disposal systems have been finalized for 202 important stations, and the schemes are currently being executed. Other security-related initiatives include:
Commando Training to selected RPF staff to deal with insurgent attacks
Augmentation of numbers of Sniffer Dog Squads in Divisions and Zones
Upgradation and procurement of security technologies and weaponry.
Improvements in co-ordination and sharing of intelligence between GRP and the Civil Police at District and State levels.
Three additional Railway Protection Special Force Battalions have been sanctioned under the works programme for 2010-11.
A commando training centre has been sanctioned to ensure in-house commando training of Railway Protection Force/Railway Protection Special Force personnel.
Most of these capacity augmentations are at preliminary stages. Moreover, given the cumulative deficits of the past years, their impact on Railway security, even when completed, will, at best be marginal. Given the rampaging expansion of Maoist activities and disruptive capabilities, it is clear that India’s security establishment will not be able to establish dominance and a sufficient preventive capability on the sprawling Railways network, against the Maoists, for some time to come.
Ajit Kumar Singh, Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management