By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In the night of December 19, 2017, at around 11 pm, an armed squad of about 15 Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres, including some women, carried out an attack at the Masudan Railway Station in the Jamalpur area of Monghyr District, Bihar. The Maoists set ablaze station property, including the signaling panel, hampering rail services, and abducted two railway employees present at the station – Assistant Station Master [ASM] Mukesh Paswan and porter Narendra Mandal. Though the movement of trains was restored after the fire was doused at around 5:30am, it had to be suspended again at 6:40am following a phone call, reportedly from the Maoists, threatening to kill the captives if traffic was not stopped. An unnamed railway official stated, “Assistant station master Mukesh Paswan and porter Narendra Mandal at Masudan were held captive and taken away to some undisclosed location at about 11:30pm. The panic-stricken ASM called the Malda [West Bengal] DRM [Divisional Regional Manger] to inform that the Maoists had threatened to kill them if the movement of trains continued [on Masudan track].” After the State Police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) launched a joint search operation, the Maoists released the two men in a hilly area at Jamalpur. Train services were restored thereafter. Interestingly, there was no force deployment at the station, which falls within a Maoist-affected region, even when the Maoists had called for a 24-hour Bihar and Jharkhand bandh (shut down) on December 20, 2017, protesting police action against their (Maoist) cadres.
Around 100 Maoists abducted a railway employee and ‘hijacked’ the Danapur-Durg Express in the Bhimbandh area of Lakhisarai District, Bihar, in the intervening night of August 2-3, 2017. A statement by the CRPF noted, “Train no-13288 Danapur Durg Express train was hijacked near the Bhalui station [in Bhimbandh area of Lakhisarai] around 2:30am (on August 3). The cabin man who was on duty was also abducted.” The siege ended after an exchange of fire took place between personnel of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) and the ‘hijackers’. However, no casualty was reported from either side. The railway employee was subsequently released. Interestingly, intelligence inputs, almost a month prior to the incident, had warned about the assembly of several Maoist leaders in the Bheembandh area and combing operation were ongoing. An unnamed CRPF official claimed, “We along with Seema Sashastra Bal and Bihar Police forces were already combing the area.” The attack coincided with the “martyr’s week” observed by Maoists between July 28 and August 3 each year, to commemorate their men killed in encounters.
On May 29, 2017, CPI-Maoist cadres blew up railway tracks between Chiyanki and Karmabad Railway Stations in Palamu and Doghar Districts in Jharkhand. The traffic on the route was disrupted for nearly 10 hours till a railway team reached the incident site and reinstalled the broken lines. The incident took place during the 24-hour State-wide bandh called by the Maoists in Jharkhand to protest the alleged ‘anti-poor policy’ of the State Government.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), the Maoists have targeted Indian Railways on at least five occasions in the current year (data till December 25, 2017). However, no casualty was reported in any of these incidents. 100 such incidents have been reported since 2004, including those in the current year. These incidents have resulted in at least 162 fatalities and 210 persons injured. In the worst ever attack on the railways by the Maoists, at least 148 persons were killed and more than 145 injured, when the Maoists attacked Howrah-Kurla Gyaneshwari Express, a passenger train, in the Sardiya area of the Jhargram region in the West Midnapore District of West Bengal in the early hours of May 28, 2010. The incident occurred during the “black week” [May 28-June 2, 2010] declared by the Maoists. The most recent attack on the railways by the Maoists, which resulted in fatalities, took place on November 30, 2013, in which three Policemen were killed and two were injured, as about 20 CPI-Maoist cadres attacked a Police team escorting the Patna-bound Sahebganj-Danapur Intercity Express near Jamalpur city in Munger District. Police disclosed that the attackers were travelling on the train and attacked the Police party when the train was passing through a tunnel one km from Jamalpur railway station. After shooting the Policemen, the Maoists collected the four rifles of the Policemen, cut the vacuum brake hosepipe and got off the train.
Actual incidence of rail sabotage by the Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists (LWES)] during this period may be much higher. Indeed, on April 23, 2010, the then Union Minister in the Ministry of Railways, Mamata Banerjee, had informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament), “Railways has become a target of Naxals. Incidents of attacks by Naxals nearly doubled to 58 in 2009 from 30 in the previous year. 56 incidents were reported in 2007.” The Government has not provided such data for earlier or later periods.
These attacks have resulted in massive losses to railways’ property. In her April 23, 2013, statement, Mamata Banerjee had disclosed in the Rajya Sabha, “We have lost Rs. 500 crore [period not specified] 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.” Most recently, Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Railways Rajen Gohain informed the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) on December 14, 2016, that the railways lost INR 702,92,441 in LWE attacks in 2015 alone. He further stated that the maximum damage to railway property by Naxalites was caused in the year 2014, though he did not provide the figure. The Government has not provided such data for earlier or later periods.
Meanwhile, the Government continues with its rhetoric within and outside Parliament that “safety is accorded the highest priority by Indian Railways and all possible steps are undertaken on a continual basis including upgradation of technology to aid safe running of trains”. These claims are not backed by the record, either of vulnerabilities to Maoist attacks and other crimes, or of the sheer quantum and frequency of Rail accidents across the country.
Indeed, according to the 12th report of Standing Committee on Railways (2016-17) on Safety and Security in Railways presented to the Lok Sabha on December 14, 2016, the Railway Protection Force (RPF), in place of its meager sanctioned strength of about 76,000 personnel, had only about 69,000 personnel in position. The report noted, further, that the Government admitted, “given the magnitude of train operations in the country that the present [sanctioned] strength of the RPF is not adequate”. The Indian Railways carry over 22 million passengers and over three million tons of freight per day across a network spanning 119,630 kilometres.
The system of providing security on the Indian Railways at present includes a three-tier security system of District Police, Government Railway Police (GRP) and RPF. There is a well-defined separation of duties and powers of the three agencies. However, according to the Safety and Security in Railways report, the Government itself has “opined that the three tier security system of RPF, GRP and District Police is not fully effective to deal with security related aspects. Multiplicity of law enforcement agencies over Railways may sometime leads to confusion among public and grey areas among these agencies.”
Earlier, in February 2015, a Ministry of Railways White Paper released with the “objective to show the challenges that the organization is facing today”, had noted, “Investments in safety have also been insufficient.”
The Indian Railways have often been described as the “lifeline of the nation”, and their disruption, particularly by the LWEs is a matter of very serious concern. Despite the long history of Naxalite attacks on the Rail networks, the responses remain lackadaisical, with little done in terms of measurable indices to tackle the problem. As the Maoists come under pressure across the country, and particularly in their regions of erstwhile dominance, the temptation to escalate attacks on soft targets such as the railways will increase. There is little evidence of any urgency in the Government’s response to this potential threat.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management