Rescuers scoured the wreckage of a passenger express train Friday that derailed and collided with a cargo train in eastern India, killing at least 100 people and at least 145 were injured, many critically. The government accused Maoist rebels of sabotaging the tracks.
As night fell, railway workers and paramilitary soldiers were using two cranes to lift and pry apart train cars in search of survivors from the Jnaneswari Express, which was heading from Calcutta to suburban Mumbai when it derailed about 1:30 a.m. Friday. A railway spokesman said 78 bodies had been recovered, but that more than 30 remained trapped in the three carriages that were crushed by the freight train. Railway officials said they expected the death toll to rise because bodies were still trapped between the engines of the two trains, which collided along a rural stretch of track near the small town of Sardiha, about 90 miles (150 kilometres) west of Calcutta in West Bengal state. Railway spokesman Soumitra Majumdar said five coaches of the passenger train, the Gyaneshwar Express, had been derailed due to missing “fish plates” – which join the rails together. (BBC) These coaches then fell on the neighbouring track where they were rammed by the goods train, he said. There were 13 carriages – including 10 sleeper coaches and a coach with unreserved seating – on the passenger train, the Times of India reported.
Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said in a statement that “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.” (CNN)
In Sardiha, officials said the train tracks had been sabotaged but disagreed about what exactly happened, with some saying it was caused by an explosion but others blaming cut rail lines. Bhupinder Singh, the top police official in West Bengal, said posters from the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, a group local officials believe is closely tied to the Maoists, had been found at the scene taking responsibility for the attack. Signh said a 46 cm (1.5 ft) portion of the train track was missing.
At first, a spokesman for the group, Asit Mahato, denied any role, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. Another spokesman for the rebels called the BBC to deny any involvement. He said the government “put the blame on us and put us on the defensive.” (BBC) As time progressed, however, the Maoists did claim responsibility for the attack. (Reuters)
Survivors described a night of screaming and chaos after the derailment, and said it took rescuers more than three hours to reach the scene, where the blue passenger train and red cargo train were knotted together in mangled metal.
Sher Ali, a 25-year-old Mumbai factory worker, was traveling with his wife, two children and his brother’s family when they were jerked awake by a loud thud. A moment later, their car was tossed from the track, he said. “My sister-in-law was crushed when the coach overturned. We saw her dying, but we couldn’t do anything to help her,” said Ali, who had cuts on his head and arms. (Associated Press) The rest of the family survived, though a 10-year-old nephew was badly injured and hospitalized. Ali was unable to go to the hospital, though, because all his money was in his luggage inside the wreckage and he was afraid it would be stolen unless he kept watch.
The area is a stronghold of India’s Maoist rebels, known as Naxalites, who had called for a four-day general strike in the area starting Friday. The Nexalites have launched repeated and often-audacious attacks in recent months – despite government claims that it was launching its own crackdown.
Railway Minister Marnata Banerjee said the Saridha area had been the scene of earlier Naxalite attacks, and that trains were under orders to travel slowly through the region – in part so drivers can keep watch for sabotaged tracks or bombs, and in part os the effects of a crash are lessened if a train does derail. Banerjee noted the train network had become a “soft target” for attackers. (CBC)
Maoist rebels have in recent months stepped up attacks in response to a government security push to flush them out of their jungle bases. Just 11 days ago, the rebels ambushed a bus in central India, killing 31 police officers and civilians. A few weeks before that, 76 soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush – the deadliest attack by the rebels against government forces in the 43-year insurgency. There have also been dozens of smaller attacks. In February, more than 900 people, including almost 600 civilians, were killed in Maoist-related incidents in 2009. About 200 suspected rebels were also slain as forces moved into areas under insurgent control.
“I am confident that the state governments concerned will gradually gain the upper hand and re-establish the authority of the civil administration,” Chidambaram told an internal security conference on February 7. (CNN) Last fall, Mr. Chidambaram rolled out a multi-state police and parliamentary campaign known as Operation Green Hunt, which was intended to reverse the spread of Maoists and restore government services. Maoists have been in India for decades but have spread extensively in recent years, claiming large tracts of isolated terrain where they operate shadow courts and governments, and draw members from local villages. The strategy behind the operation was for police and parliamentary officers to push the Maoists out of their newer territories and confine them into their historic strongholds, such as the Dantewada region in the state of Chhattisgarh. But doing this has stirred a violent, if predictable, response from the Maoists, who stage brazen attacks on security officers almost every week. “Whoever said that in six months the problems would be solved?” said Mr. Chidambaram, in an interview in his office this week. “The problem has been festering for 10 years or more. There will be setbacks and casualties, but we must have the nerve and the staying power.” (New York Times)
On Friday, the government vowed once again to crush the Naxalites. “The Maoists have done this work,” West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters in Calcutta. “All-out efforts will be made to free the state and the country from this danger.” (Associated Press) But analysts say the government is hobbled by vacillating policies, poorly trained and ill-armed security forces and vast tracts of India where the government has little influence and where poverty has brought considerable support to the Naxalites, who claim to be fighting on behalf of the rural poor.
The rebels, who have tapped into the poor’s anger at being left out of the country’s economic gains, are now present in 20 of the country’s 28 states and have an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 fighters, according to the Home Ministry. The rebels had called for observance of a “black week” of protests from Friday to Wednesday in five states – including West Bengal – where they wield considerable influence.
“There is an absence of government, there is an absence of competence in government, there is an absence of coherence in response,” said Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based analyst with close ties to India’s security establishment. “The purpose of the Maoists is not to resolve grievances but to harvest them, and there are numerous grievances in the country to harvest.” (Associated Press)
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the insurgency as India’s biggest internal security challenge. Mr. Singh conceded last year that the nation’s fight with the Maoists had fallen short of objectives.
The setbacks have focused attention on issues of competence and whether the government is failing to adequately execute what amounts to a sweeping counterinsurgency effort. “The country has witnessed a huge increase in the extent of the Maoist insurgency,” the opposition leader Arun Jaitley said in a statement this week, criticizing the government for losing the willingness to fight. “It is essential to contain violence and anarchy.” (New York Times)
One fundamental question has been about coordination. Under India’s Constitution, individual states are given priority on law enforcement, which means federal parliamentary operations are expected to play a supporting role. But the quality of policing varies from state to state, which Maoists have exploited. West Bengal, the site of Friday’s train attack, is considered to have one of the least effective police forces in the country. “Wherever state policing is weak, Maoists are strong,” said Kunwar Pal Singh Gill, the former police chief who crushed a rebellion in the state of Punjab in the early 1990s. “They find the weakness and strike in those places.” (New York Times)
Analysts note that casualties are inevitable as police slowly penetrate regions controlled for years by Maoists and that it is no surprise the movement thrives in states with weak, inefficient governments. Political calculations also play a role, given that the “political economy” differs in every state.
In Jharkhand, rich in mining wealth and plagued by deeply corrupt politics, Maoists are thought to extort huge sums as protection money. In West Bengal, the Maoists are exploiting a power struggle between the two leftist political parties. Even so, Mr. Gill believes the Home Ministry is making too many decisions and that state police leaders, who better understand the local terrain, should take the lead. He said far more officers were needed and that strategic changes were needed on the ground. He noted that Maoists are frequently using roadside bombs, which has forced police patrols to abandon vehicles and walk through isolated forests – an ineffective response.
Mr. Chidambaram said that state agencies are taking the lead role in the campaign and that several areas have seen successes, particularly in a part of Maharashtra State where officers have driven out Maoists and reopened government schools and police stations. He said it is critical to restore services and create conditions for development in order to win the hearts and minds of the impoverished rural populations often sympathetic with the Maoists. He said the cabinet would soon review the past six months and determine whether strategic changes should be made. Some officials have called for using the Indian air force to do surveillance, but military leaders are reluctant to get involved in a fight against people in their own country. “We said the problem has grown over the last 10 years,” Mr. Chidambaram said. “From Day 1, I said it would take us two to three years to contain the spread of Naxalism.” (New York Times)