| The family of Bimal Bardhan, who was driving one of the trains, at their Siliguri home. Picture by Kundan Yolmo
Siliguri/Cooch Behar, June 23: Om Prakash Shah refuses to accept that the punishment for wiping out his family can be only two years in prison and Rs 11,500 in fines.
“It is too late and too little,” said the resident of Japani Patti in Cooch Behar, a day after six railway employees responsible for the 1999 Gaisal train tragedy were sentenced.
Far from bringing relief, the verdict has reopened old wounds and left victims’ families stunned.
Clutching a photograph of his three children, whom he had lost along with his wife, Shah said: “They should be hanged.”
A “human error” had led to 300 deaths as the Brahmaputra Mail and the Avadh-Assam Express, running on the same track, collided at Gaisal in north Bengal’s Islampur. Officials at the Kishanganj station had ignored a gateman’s warning as a false alarm.
Shah, a tea trader, trembled as he recalled the sight of his children and wife dying one by one. “First, it was my son (four-year-old Hitesh). His body was hanging from the upper berth,” he said.
“Then I heard Riddhima (his six-and-a-half-year-old daughter) calling out ‘Papa’ and asking for water. She was bathed in blood. I had barely taken her out, rested her on a seat and given her water when she died in my arms. Durga, my wife, breathed her last on the way to hospital and Rittika (his 10-year-old daughter) gave up her fight at the hospital, muttering ‘Papa, Papa’ with her last breath,” he recalled.
His 87-year-old father, Kedar Prasad, broke down every time he tried to speak.
“I was outraged as I read the news (of the judgment) in the paper,” Shah said.
Outrage was the sentiment that echoed in all families who have lost loved ones in the accident.
“This punishment only makes a mockery of our sufferings,” said Krishna Bardhan, a resident of Siliguri.
Her husband Bimal was driving the Brahmaputra Mail. “After so many years of waiting, I was hoping for at least life imprisonment for the culprits. The punishment is no punishment at all,” she said.
Her son Bappa works at the New Jalpaiguri railway station as a helper, a job he got on compassionate grounds. “We simply don’t understand why it took so long when negligence was proved within a month of the incident,” he said.
“What is the message that the judgment is trying to send out'” asked Kalpana Das, the widow of Sukumar Das, who was Bardhan’s assistant. “That you can go about killing so many people in the name of human error and get away with it so easily'”
Sukumar was on the train by a stroke of bad luck. On leave for his daughter’s wedding, he was asked by a colleague, who had fallen ill, to step in. “He went on duty just for one day. He never returned,” recalled Kalpana.