20 bomb blasts on tracks this calendar year
West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was not shooting blanks when he said that “they are coming from all sides” at a press conference, less than 12 hours after at least 70 people were killed and hundreds injured in a sabotage-triggered railway accident in the state's West Medinipur district.
By 'they', Bhattacharjee was referring to the Naxal insurgents, who have carved out an area of influence within his state and, in recent months, unleashed a wave of violence that has buffeted the powerful across the political spectrum.
On Friday, it was his arch rival and Union Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's turn to contend a threat that she has repeatedly denied.
Naxal rebels are being held responsible for the derailment of the Mumbai-bound Jnaneswari Express, which was subsequently rammed by a goods train, leading to significant fatalities.
According to Railway ministry sources, there have been 32 Naxal attacks on the Railways this calendar year, of which 20 incidents have been instances of the rebels blowing up tracks.
In the whole of last year, 58 Naxal attacks were registered including 19 cases of bomb-blasts on tracks, while in 2008, the total number of attacks stood at 30.
Though investigations into the Jnaneswari accident are yet to be completed, the possibility of explosives being used for the derailment have not been ruled out.
“The driver of the train heard an explosion, so we are looking into that. We are aware that the Naxals have access to sophisticated bombs and improvised explosive devices,” a ministry official said.
Last month, Banerjee had claimed that this escalation of Naxal violence on Railway property was having a tangible bearing upon business.
“We have lost Rs 500 crore because of Naxal bandhs and obstructions. There has been adverse impact on operations, freight loading and passenger traffic on a localised basis during bandh calls and other threats in vulnerable areas,” she had said.
But the minister, who also heads West Bengal's principle Opposition party, the Trinamool Congress, has been steadfast in her opposition to joint security operations in the Naxal-affected areas of the state, and has gone as far as claiming that the incumbent CPI(M) government and the rebels are in cahoots.
Banerjee has refused to take full onus for the Jnaneswari incident, instead saying that “law and order is a state subject. (The) state government and home ministry should look into it.”
What is clear, though, is that the Naxal insurgence is growing in stature as a nemesis for the Indian Railways.