Bengals train to nowhere

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Oct 30 2009, 03:56am hrs
Its usually heartrending to watch hijack and hostage situations being played out on live TV but what appalled most of Bengaland the nationwas how efficiently a little-known pro-Maoist organisation held a Rajdhani Express, no less, to ransom in Bengal for a few hours. Making use of a bandhthe tool both CPM and Trinamool Congress have used with impunity to bring Bengal to a halt time and againa group of armed tribals owing allegiance to the Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities laid siege to the Bhubaneshwar-New Delhi train, seeking the release of jailed PCAPA leader Chhatradhar Mahato. Maoist leader Kishenji sent a message through TV, saying the Maoists supported the tribals and that railways minister Mamata Banerjee should intervene.

Just a week back, Bengal had watched Maoists attack a police station in Sankrail, also in West Midnapore district, take the OC hostage and release him only after the government had agreed to a swap. Of course, Tuesdays drama didnt end in a prisoner release. CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee firmly rejected the tribals demands at an afternoon press conference.

But the Rajdhani attack couldnt have come at a worse time for Banerjee. Here she was in Delhi, meeting home minister P Chidambaram with the families of two constables who have gone missing, and said to be in Maoist hands. Through the day, she also let out that she had sought Army action against Maoistsa climbdown from her earlier demand that talks are the only way out. Banerjee, who has sought and got help from Maoist-backed PCAPA during her anti-Left struggle and vice-versa, was thrown right in the thick of it with the audacious tribal moveand Kishenjis demand.

By attacking the railways, the Maoists and their allies were launching a direct attack on Banerjee, who has of late tried in more ways than one to shed her Maoist past. During both the Singur and Nandigram protests, Maoists shared the dais with her many times. When Lalgarh flared up after the landmine attack on the CMs convoy at Salboni in November 2008leading to widespread arrestsBanerjee and other Trinamool leaders openly lent support to PCAPA, which was set up during that time. She even shared the stage with Mahato, a former Trinamool party member, now in custody and the brain behind the Lalgarh attacks.

Political implications apart, the railways should be worried about how to ensure safety on this crucial route that links east to west, east to central and east to north. At least 20 pairs of express and passenger trains run daily on the route and Banstala, where the hijack happened, is merely 39 km from Kharagpur, seat of the oldest IIT and a growing industrial hub, and 170-odd km from Tatanagar where the worlds fifth largest steel company, Tata Steel, has its headquarters.

That industry captains are fretting about how the Maoist game will play out in West Bengal is an understatement. Bengal, which has already lost several big-ticket projects, including the Tata small car initiative, cannot afford to slip further. And yet, ever since the Nano disaster, major projects havent come up Bengals way. Theres no clarity on the land acquisition issuewith ministers often speaking in different voicesinfrastructure is creaking, even capital Kolkata badly needs a coat of paint and a complete overhaul of the traffic system to say the least. To add to that, theres an appalling law and order breakdown in the state that the government just doesnt seem to take stock of.

Even on the Maoiststhey operate freely on the fringe of the states mineral-rich industrial corridorthe government, inactive to the bone, has clearly let things come to this with its flip-flop on how to tackle them, though now it says its firmly with the Centre and the use of force. With forces concentrated on Lalgarh, Maoists are consolidating their presence in the surrounding areas, taking advantage of the Lefts complete disconnect with the people on the ground and thus its inability to gain any intelligence.

Banerjee, too, is only now beginning to realise the extent of the Maoists stranglehold over the impoverished Bengal districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore. On Tuesday, West Bengal chief secretary Asok Mohan Chakraborty was on a visit to the districts of East and West Midnapore, identifying areas for development even as Maoist leaders rallied against the lack of it. The state government also announced that it was spending Rs 8 crore to beef up police stations in the three Maoist-hit districts.

But the question is why was the administration twiddling its thumb for so long Politically, too, why werent adequate steps being taken to avert a Lalgarh and a Sankrail and a Banstala Why is there such a breakdown of communication between Left leaders in Kolkata and tribals in Midnapore These questions are uncomfortable for both the Left and CM-in-waiting Banerjee. For, till now, both have reacted to events, never taken pre-emptive action, prolonging Bengals anxiety.