It’s perfectly shocking that a Rajdhani Express can be ‘hijacked’ in broad daylight. But our sense of shock owes something to that term — ‘hijacked’. It’s a posh train, aircon from end to end, free mineral water and no beggars on board. So when it’s held up by mugs of a Maoist front demanding the release of a fellow mug, it looks shockingly like a ‘hijacking’.
But in West Bengal, it’s called a rail roko, an event as routine as eating a rosogolla. As a local, what I found disturbing was not the hold-up but the firefight on the sidelines between Maoists and the police. It brought back memories of the early 70s, when the Naxalites were a force to reckon with. But otherwise, the Banstala incident was just a rail roko. It was not exactly Kandahar.
Every other day, we Bengalis hold up trains to press any old demand, sometimes with tragic consequences. The day of the Rajdhani drama, the Guwahati-Chennai Express was also held up for four hours by a rail passengers’ association demanding a change in commuter train timings. On board was a young man travelling to Chennai to seek treatment for a respiratory illness. He did not survive the rail roko. This Assamese man died because of an obscure local issue in a district of West Bengal. To my mind, this sort of thing is truly shocking, because it’s been going on for decades.
The Bengalis are a resilient lot and have adapted to rail rokos. Adaptation consists of lying back and enjoying the ride. I was once ‘hijacked’ for several hours at Gurap. Gurap? That’s right, I said Gurap. A station as nondescript as Banstala, as the name suggests. No one knew who had ‘hijacked’ us. No one cared about the identity of the rail roko activists squatting on the tracks in front of the engine, waving placards and raising slogans. It was agreed that this had to be the Gurap Underwear Manufacturers’ Association, or some similarly contemptible organisation, and no one paid them any attention.
The train was coming down from the north, so the passengers were prepared for a siege. Bottles of Sikkimese and Bhutanese liquor were produced and put through their paces. A foraging party liberated fried fish in industrial quantities from the fair town of Gurap. Another returned with news that the state Minister for Jails was among the ‘hostages’ on the immobilised train. Triumphant passengers surged out on the platform, shouting ironical demands for the immediate release of the Jail Minister, drowning out the ‘hijackers’ who were raising slogans about a far less exciting issue. Something about development, I think. The party lasted for hours until the ‘hijackers’ gave up and the train got under way again to the sound of lusty, drunken cheering.
But without Sikkimese lubrication, I don’t think any of the passengers on that deliriously happy train would want to repeat the experience. Rail rokos typically cause aggravation, incalculable financial losses and even death. Now that the Maoists have brought the problem to the attention of the Home Minister, I hope he will at least address the most shocking feature of the Banstala drama — when the train was stopped, there wasn’t a single policeman on board.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal