The Maoist movement may have earned a label that has eluded it during its 43-year history — mass murderer of innocent civilians.At least 78 people were killed and 250 were injured when a goods train rammed four coaches of the 2102 Up Howrah-Lokmanya Tilak Gyansehwari Express that derailed at 1:25 am on Friday after fish plates were removed and portions of the tracks cut out near Jhargram, about 150 km south west of Kolkata.
The area is deep inside the Maoist-dominated district of West Midnapore in West Bengal.
The number of dead is likely to go up as rescue workers hadn’t even started cutting their way into the two worst-hit coaches till late evening.
All circumstantial evidence pointed to the Maoists, who have carried out at least five blockades and attacks on railway tracks in the same area over the past seven months.
This attack comes 11 days after Maoists blew up a public bus in Chhattisgarh, killing 12 security personnel and 23 civilians, and will make it that much more difficult for Maoist sympathisers among artistes and intellectuals to defend them.
It also indicates the Maoist leadership, which has fought shy of killing innocent citizens in the past, may be losing control of their cadres.
The scene of the accident resembled a war zone. Four mangled coaches lay grotesquely dovetailed into each other. Rescue workers, who arrived three-and-a-half hours after the mishap, could not reach inside in the absence of gas cutters, which arrived only at 1 pm.
Thirteen other coaches lay scattered over an approximately 500 sq m area, as if they had been flung aside by some giant force. Many injured passengers were taken to nearby hospitals. The others were taken to Kolkata in air force helicopters, cars and ambulances.
Even as rescue operations were on, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee obliquely blamed the West Bengal government for the tragedy. “Law and order is a state subject,” she said.
In Kolkata, Chief Minister Bhuddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: “Maoists are behind this sabotage. This will strengthen our resolve to fight them.”
State DGP Bhupinder Singh blamed the Maoists claiming the clips, which fix the rail tracks to the sleepers “had been removed and a foot and a half of tracks is also missing”.
But AP Mishra, general manager, South Eastern Railway, said: “Preliminary investigations point to a blast. If someone had merely removed some clips or fishplates, the engine would have derailed first. But it passed over safely. The driver of the train claimed that he heard a deafening sound.”
What is clear, however, is that the saboteurs had a 42-minute window to plant a bomb or remove the fish plates and clips — at 12:43 am, the Ranchi-Hatia express moved safely through those tracks. At 1:25 am Gyaneshwari met with disaster.
The police also claimed to have recovered two posters of the Maoist-backed People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) from the spot, but PCAPA spokesperson Asit Mahato rejected all suggestions that his organisation had any role in the mishap.
“Killing civilians is not our style. CPI-M goons may be behind this and they are now maligning us,” Mahato told HT.
The Maoists too issued a statement in the evening, denying any links with the tragedy and demanded a “neutral probe”.
Railway authorities said the accident assumed its tragic scale because a goods train that came from the opposite direction on a parallel track rammed into the derailed passenger express.
“Otherwise, it would have just been a derailment and most passengers would have escaped unhurt or with minor injuries only,” said Railway Board Member Vivek Sahai.