| Local people stand by the wreckage near Gaya. (AFP)
New Delhi, Sept. 10: Was it an accident on an ageing bridge or sabotage by Marxist rebels' The government spoke in conflicting voices on how the Rajdhani Express was derailed.
While railway minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy Bandaru Dattatreya blamed sabotage, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, the man in charge of internal security, referred to it as an “accident”, much to the embarrassment of his Cabinet colleagues.
The clashing signals gave a shot in the arm to Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Yadav, who has been standing up for his state’s “good” law and order situation.
Nitish Kumar told reporters: “Prima facie, it appears to be a case of sabotage as at the time of the accident, the train was running at the permissible speed of 130 kmph on the stretch. Had there been any suspicion over the condition of the track, speed restrictions would have been immediately imposed.”
His deputy blamed it on the removal of fish plates by saboteurs, hinting these could be local extremists.
In sharp contrast and leaving many railway officials red-faced, Advani said: “From the information I have available at the moment, it seems more like an accident.” The deputy Prime Minister has under him intelligence and security cells dealing with the Naxalite menace that has been dogging the region where the accident took place.
Till Advani spoke out, Laloo was a lone voice arguing that Bihar had a good law and order situation and the rail derailment was not due to a terror attack.
The man who is to oversee a court of enquiry into the accident, civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain also made a telling comment. “Ministers should not be asked to resign for faults committed by others under them.”
All inquiries into railway accidents are carried out by an officer designated chief commissioner railway safety but posted in the ministry of civil aviation in the belief that this would ensure impartial investigations.
The problem for Kumar is that his fish-plate theory has few takers in the capital. Officials with the railway safety wing of the civil aviation ministry pointed out that Sealdah Express, which plies between Calcutta and Jammu, had passed over the same track 20 minutes ago. They said it was hardly possible for any group to tamper with the plates so quickly.
The officials pointed out that if fish plates were tampered with, more bogies than just one would have managed to cross over smoothly before the derailment actually took place. “The momentum would have carried forward more bogies before the actual derailment,” an official said.
Kumar’s chief executive, Railway Board chairman I.I.S.M. Rana, however, stuck by his boss. Rana said: “Our men found at the site that fish plates and rails have been removed. That is the clear-cut information with us.”
A senior official said: “It cannot be denied that train tragedies have increased. But they are not due to sabotage alone. There are number of reasons like inability to improve the condition of bridges. For the last few years, only three new bridges have been built. What more can we comment upon'”
A former Railway Board chairman added: “Fish plates were found to be out of place. That does not necessarily mean that they were removed. A few of them were broken. They could have broken either by the impact or because they were too old and needed replacement. Only investigation can determine this.”
What makes things look even more bleak for Kumar’s fish-plate theory is that four months ago, on May 12, the New Delhi-bound Shramjeevi Express derailed near Juanpur, resulting in 12 deaths.
The railway had then jumped the gun and indicated that sabotage might have caused the tragedy. An inquiry later found that it was a case of human error.