| A train leaves Latehar station on Tuesday. Picture by Ashok Karan
Latehar, March 15: Engaging armed Maoists at night would have been foolhardy, Jharkhand police said today, seeking to justify their inaction on Monday night when a passenger train was held hostage for 10 long hours.
The policemen actually appeared triumphant and would not stop grinning yesterday morning. As a special train brought the passengers back from the spot, cries of Bharat Mata ki Jai reverberated at the sleepy Latehar station.
The rebels, who seized the train on Monday evening, had abandoned it at the break of dawn. When the policemen finally reached the spot at 6.35 am, they were met only by traumatised passengers.
The country’s first hijacking of a train, Latehar SP Subodh Kumar said, was designed to lure policemen to a trap.
The spot they chose to stop the Mughalsarai-Barkakana passenger train, 8 km from Kaumundi and 20 km from Latehar, is inaccessible by road, he pointed out. Policemen would have been sitting ducks in the dense forest if they had ventured out in the darkness, he said.
The only violence attempted by the rebels was to set the engine on fire, failing which they sprayed it with bullets. They made no attempt to harm even the engine driver or the guard, let alone the passengers. There was no landmine either, as anticipated by the police.
Not everybody in the government is convinced by the argument offered by the police.
Every railway station in Palamau, officials said, had been provided with forces in view of the 24-hour bandh call given by Maoists to protest an alleged fake encounter by the police. Paramilitary forces were deployed barely 5 km from where the train was stranded. Yet, security forces did not move at night.
No attempt was made to cut off the escape-route of the rebels. Nor did the police try to make use of goods trains that passed the stranded passenger train without any resistance from the rebels.
Curiously, at least three other passenger trains passed through the spot around the same time. Ranchi-New Delhi Swarnajayanti Express, Tata-Amritsar Express and Barkakana-Patna ‘Palamau’ Express had all crossed Latehar station between 5 and 7 pm. But it was the Mughalsarai-Barkakana passenger train which was stopped by the rebels after pulling the chain.
Asked why the rebels chose this train, Latehar station manager Nand Kishore Rai said it was because this train was not being escorted by armed policemen unlike the other trains. Asked the reason, the station manager retorted: “Ask the police.”
Passengers recalled hearing gunshots soon after the train pulled out of Hehegarha. “Initially, we thought it to be a train dacoity and tried to hide our belongings and the little cash we had,” recalled Lalmuni, who was travelling with her three-year-old daughter. The lights went out as soon as the train stopped in the middle of the forest.
Another passenger, Pankaj, said the rebels had their faces covered. Apart from telling the passengers that they meant no harm, the rebels did not interact with them. In fact, they were even courteous to a group of thirsty passengers who, in desperation, got off the train, directing to a hand-pump.
Passengers seemed to have no clue about the exact number of rebels. There could be a hundred or more, they said. Several of them were in police uniform while an equally large number appeared to be villagers, they added.