Who Was Really Behind India's Terrorist Derailment?

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A railway crane lifts a mangled compartment of the derailed train in Sardiha, near the West Midnapore district in the state of West Bengal, about 95 miles (150 km) west of Kolkata, on Saturday, May 29, 2010

After several decisive attacks that have killed scores of police and other security forces in the past six months, the leadership of India's increasingly bold Maoist rebels has been caught off guard by what it says was an unauthorized act of terrorism by an allied group. Indian intelligence officials now believe that a tribal militia associated with the Maoists was behind the May 28 train derailment that killed 148 people. A spokesman for the insurgency, organized as the Communist Party of India (Maoist), told TIME it was "an act of terrible indiscretion."

The episode is one of the worst ever to strike the Indian railway system. The clips that fasten the railway track together were removed at a point about 150 km west of Kolkata, in the Jhargram area of West Midnapore, a Maoist stronghold in the state of West Bengal. As the Mumbai-bound Gyaneshwari Express moved over the sabotaged track, it derailed. Almost immediately afterward, a transport train passing on the parallel track crashed into the derailed passenger train, leaving 148 people dead.

Within hours, the state police chief blamed the attack on Maoist guerrillas who are waging an armed uprising against the Indian state in the name of the rural poor. The alleged act of sabotage fell on the first day of a "black week" called by the Maoists to condemn what they describe as "atrocities against villages" and to stop the government's armed offensive against them. West Midnapore has already been a theater of that conflict. Just a few kilometers away from the railway disaster, the Maoist guerrillas raided an Indian paramilitary camp in February, killing 24 policemen.

But now intelligence officials in both Kolkata and New Delhi tell TIME that, working closely with investigators, they are in possession of "substantial evidence, including tapped telephone conversations" linking the attack not to the central Maoist organization but to two leaders of the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCPA), a tribal militia formed in West Midnapore protesting against alleged police atrocities. The group has been locked in an intense and often violent political fight against the state government over the acquisition of farmland for new industrial projects. Intelligence officials say two leaders of the PCPA — Umakanto Mahato and Bapi Mahato — carried out the attack along with 15 to 20 other militia members.

This has put the Maoists on the defensive. The Maoists' organization is separate from the PCPA, but it has used the group's strong popular base among the tribal population to spread its influence in the region. Soon after the derailment, the Maoists issued a statement denying involvement. "It is not the Maoist policy to attack civilians," said a Maoist spokesperson who goes by the alias Akash, who spoke to TIME from an undisclosed location in eastern India. "Please read our party documents carefully. We are not behind the railway attack. And we will soon hold a public court to punish the guilty." Another Maoist spokesperson from the region, Sunil, told TIME they would "guard trains passing through the area" to prove their innocence.

Even a senior intelligence official in charge of anti-Maoist operations says it looks "very unlikely" that the Maoist leadership ordered the attack. Trains have been a frequent target of other acknowledged attacks by the Maoist insurgents. But in most of those cases, the Maoists have targeted nonpassenger trains or disrupted service by blowing up tracks well ahead of an oncoming train. "It's their policy not to cause any inconvenience to the masses," the intelligence official says. "The CPI-Maoist politburo will never accept this."

Asit Mahato, a spokesman for the PCPA, denies responsibility, countering that flip-flops by the police indicate that "they are trying to hide something. Something which might be harmful to the government. They have blamed Bapi Mahato, but he is not even a member of the PCPA. Please ask the police to provide proof that he is a PCPA member."

The denials by the Maoists, who usually take responsibility for their attacks, and the PCPA may be a sign of something more disturbing: a rift between the leaders and their supporters on the ground. Clearly, the Maoists cannot afford to lose support. The Maoists, also known as Naxalites (after the village of Naxal, where they trace their beginnings), have an estimated 20,000 armed guerrillas and have established pockets of resistance in forested and rural areas in at least 10 of the 28 Indian states. They are under increasing pressure, though, as more than 50,000 police and paramilitary troops have been deployed over the past year to fight them. In response, Maoist attacks have gotten more frequent and deadlier. If this episode is any indication, they could also get much more dangerous for the ordinary Indians the Maoists claim to represent.