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Fighting sleep and fear of looters

The green light has flickered to life and Samresh Jha is busy battening down the hatches for the night.

“Let us keep awake by rotation, you till Gaya,” the contractor from Madhubani tells a man sitting by his side. “Mr Gupta, you between Gaya and Dehri and I the rest of the stretch till Daltonganj.”

The “nightmare express” is ready to roll from Patna with bleary-eyed passengers taking turns to protect life and property on what has become dacoits’ most-wanted train in Bihar.

On Palamau Express, nobody is safe, anytime, anyday. Even on Diwali night, the train — the only one that connects central Bihar with Jharkhand’s Palamau — was looted by a gang — the sixth heist in four months and the fourteenth in a year.

“We call this train nightmare express. Nothing is safe here, neither money nor life,” Jha said as two RPF jawans picked their way through the compartment.

With the early winter breeze in full play, Jha and his fellow passengers could not keep the vigil for long and soon lost the battle with sleep. But on Coach S4, Gayatri Sinha kept praying for the safety of her family, which included children.

Tuesday night passed off peacefully — unlike on Diwali.

On Monday night, when the train came to a halt near Dehri-on-Sone in Sasaram, seven armed men strode in and began looting the passengers. When four young men mustered courage to resist the gang, they were stabbed. By the time the gang was through, the passengers had lost money and goods worth Rs 2 lakh.

The looting zones on the train’s routes have been identified as Gaya, Jehanabad, Dehri-on-Sone, Gerwal, Daltonganj. During the 14 dacoities, two passengers lost their lives while resisting the dacoits.

Till now, law enforcers have been blaming two notorious dacoits for the chain robberies.

But one of them, identified as Kuddas Ansari, was arrested and is in jail. Kuddas hails from Daltonganj and is said to have strung together a well-oiled network in Gaya and Jehanabad before he was caught.

The other alleged dacoit, Sardar alias Ranjit Singh, too, has been arrested, said Subodh Kumar Singh, DIG, railways. The officer said the new round of robberies might have been committed by Sardar’s gang members.

“We have launched a fresh probe to find out who is responsible for the latest spurt,” Singh said.

The police claimed that the dacoits do not use sophisticated weapons. “Fear of the passengers is their key,” said an officer but he could not explain why the police could not restore their confidence.

The spurt in train dacoities has set off a blame game between the state government and the railway ministry which has been under fire after a series of accidents in Bihar, including yesterday’s freak collision.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar, who was in Patna last weekend, alleged that the state police were not cooperating with the administration in tackling the dacoities.

S.C. Gupta, general manager of the newly-created East-Central Railway, also complained of lack of coordination.

He said 240 incidents of crime had taken place in the region alone between April 2002 and September 2002. As many as 40 of these were train dacoities.

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