By B. Raman
At least 76 railway passengers are reported to have been killed in an incident attributed to the Maoists in the West Midnapore District of West Bengal on the morning of May 28,2010. The incident took place at around 1-30 AM at a place about 150 KMs from Kolkata.
The incident occurred when 13 coaches of a Super Deluxe Express train going from Howrah in Kolkata to Mumbai derailed. A goods train coming at the same time from the opposite direction hit five of the 13 derailed coaches.
It is clear the derailment was a criminal act, but the cause of the derailment, which led to the tragedy, is under investigation. The Railway Minister, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, blamed it on a “bomb blast” on the rail track while the West Bengal Police said it was an act of sabotage since fish plates were found removed from the railway track. The Union Home Minister, Shri P Chidamabaram said in New Delhi that the disaster appeared to be an act of sabotage, but it was not yet clear whether explosives were used to cause the derailment.
Ms.Mamta Banerjee has been quoted by sections of the media as saying that a patrol engine had passed through the disaster spot half an hour earlier. If so, it is not clear how it missed the explosive device if it had been planted on the track. If the claim that a patrol engine had passed over the track about 30 minutes before the derailment is correct, it would weaken the possibility of sabotage. Thirty minutes after the patrol engine had passed would have been insufficient for the perpetrators to remove the fish-plates from the track. The picture is not clear. It is important to keep an open mind while investigating the responsibility for the criminal act.
The present suspicion is that the Maoists must be responsible for the criminal act—–whether it was caused by an act of terrorism or an act of sabotage. The criminal act was committed in an area, where the Maoists have been active. The Maoists of the State have been observing a Black Week to protest against alleged atrocities by the security forces against them. Inspector-General of Police (Law and Order) Shri S. Karpurakayastha of the West Bengal Police was reported to have told the Press Trust of India (PTI) that the Maoist-backed People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) had left two posters near the rail track “clearly owning responsibility” for the derailment. However, a PCPA spokesman Shri Asit Mahato has denied the group’s involvement.
The history of terrorism and insurgency in India has seen many attacks directed against railway transport—- against inter-city long-distance trains as well as against urban trains. The first anniversary in 1993 of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by a Hindu mob saw a number of explosions in railway trains allegedly caused by members of the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Over the years there has been a number of attacks against railway transport in the rural areas allegedly carried out by the Maoists. The mass casualty attacks against some urban trains in Mumbai in July 2006, were allegedly the work of members of the Indian Mujahideen and/ or the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).
Generally, while the Maoists’ preferred modus operandi has been to cause deaths by tampering with the railway track either by planting an explosive device or by removing the fish-plates, that of the jihadis—-indigenous as well as Pakistan-sponsored— has been to plant timed explosive devices inside railway coaches. The jihadis have more sanctuaries and sleeper cells in urban than in rural areas. The reverse is true in the case of the Maoists. Hence, the Maoists’ tendency to attack rural than urban transport. Both the MO are followed by the insurgents and terrorists of the North-East.
The tragedy of May 28,2010, underlines weaknesses in our capability for protecting the railway infrastructure. The Mumbai July 2006 attacks were followed by measures to strengthen physical security in urban railway networks. Weaknesses in physical security in rural railway networks have been exploited by the perpetrators on May 28.
Protecting the rural inter-city railway traffic is a much more complex and difficult job than protecting urban traffic. How to strengthen the physical security for rural inter-city trains is a question which needs urgent attention. Anti-explosive checks inside trains, frequent foot patrolling and patrol car patrolling of the railway tracks are the normal security precautions already followed by the Railways and our security agencies. Can they be further strengthened and supplemented by other measures?
If the investigation establishes that the Maoists were responsible for the criminal act, it proves once again that they have become indifferent to the impact of their actions on the general public. Fears of public aversion to their acts are no longer a restraining factor on their activities. When the jihadis developed a similar indifference to public aversion some years ago, we were faced with an increase in their attacks on soft targets. We could face a similar increase in Maoist attacks on soft targets in rural areas and small towns.
The increasing attacks on soft targets in the rural areas and small towns would call for a new strategy aimed at the identification and targeted neutralization of the Maoist leadership. There is no other way of countering attacks on soft targets. Physical security, however strong, cannot guarantee total protection against attacks on soft targets.
The need for a two-pronged approach—- suitable political handling to address the grievances and anger of the tribals and other poor people who flock to the Maoist groups and a strong security response to the Maoist organizations and their leadership in order to make them give up violence or face neutralization— remains valid even after what happened on May 28. But our sympathy for the grievances of the tribals and other poor people should not be allowed to come in the way of strong action against the Maoist organizations and their leadership. The initiative for evolving and implementing a suitable strategy has to come from the Government of India, with the co-operation of the affected States.