We will punish train killers, says Maoist rebel leader

West Bengal's Criminal Investigation Department presents report to state's chief minister blaming local rebel Maoist militia.

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MIDNAPUR WEST BENGAL // A leader of the largest Maoist umbrella group said yesterday that the renegade cadres most probably responsible for last week's train derailment, which resulted in the death of 148 passengers, would be "punished" if found guilty in an internal investigation.

"We shall soon begin our probe on the two accused cadres. If they are found responsible for the train crash, they will receive punishment from us," said Akash, a leader of the Communist Party of India - Maoist (CPI-Maoist), an umbrella group for the leftist rebels, by phone from an undisclosed location. Akash - who until Saturday had hinted that West Bengal's ruling Marxists were behind the sabotage and the Maoists were being falsely framed - indicated that "very soon" a Maoist probe in the case would take its course.

"Our investigation will be impartial. Any member of any group close to us will face punishment if their involvement in the sabotage is proved beyond doubt," Akash said. Hours after Friday's train crash police said that by intercepting mobile phone conversations they had pinpointed members of a local rebel Maoist militia who had sabotaged the railway tracks and triggered the train crash. Within two days, West Bengal's Criminal Investigation Department presented a report to the state's chief minister blaming cadres of a Maoist offshoot - the Maoist People's Committee Against Police Atrocity (PCAPA) - for the sabotage.

"We have definite evidence of Maoists' involvement in this case and we hope to arrest the two main culprits soon," said the West Midnapur police chief, Manoj Verma. The CPI-Maoist leadership, which usually claims immediate responsibility for attacks, originally refuted the charge, saying that no Maoist groups were involved in the attack on the train. At least four CPI-Maoist leaders called several news organisations on Friday and Saturday, and said their groups were being wrongly accused.

But this week, after some local newspapers and television channels ran reports further "exposing" the subversive role of the two Maoist cadres in the train disaster - with one cadre even confessing to the Indian Express newspaper that he had sabotaged the track - the CPI-Maoist leadership appears to be changing its position on the case. Kolkata's largest Bengali daily, Ananda Bazar Patrika, reported on Tuesday that Umakanta Mahato, a local PCAPA leader, hatched the plan and his deputy, Bapi Mahato, who is not related, executed the sabotage.

"On Umakanta's order, Bapi forced the day-wage linesmen to accompany him with their sledgehammers, hacksaws, pick-axes and other accessories. Virtually held at gunpoint, the linesmen removed the elastic rail clips and sawed off the rails," the paper wrote in its investigative report. The Indian Express reported on Monday that before police announced that Bapi was behind the sabotage, the local Maoist PCAPA leader, 25, confessed to the paper that he was behind the sabotage on the railway track.

"We are sorry. We never wanted these innocent civilians to die. Trust me, we targeted a goods train. But somehow, we were fed some wrong information ? There must have been some miscalculation," Indian Express reported Bapi as saying. Bapi also told Indian Express that Friday's sabotage was organised as part of an angry protest against torture by security forces and armed squad members of the ruling CPI-Marxist (CPI-M).

"Our villagers are being tortured mercilessly by security forces and in the wee hours of Thursday, several teams of security forces came along with 'Harmads' [armed goons backed by the CPM-M into villages and picked up people indiscriminately. So they were seething with anger." Many villagers in the West Midnapur district of West Bengal state, where the train crash took place, said the Maoist leadership is usually very serious in dealing with their "rogue cadres" and that the punishment would likely be execution.

"Since it is now clear from several media investigations that [the two accused Maoist People's Committee Against Police Atrocity leaders] Umakanta Mahato and Bapi Mahato indeed sabotaged the railway track, we believe the Maoist probe too will find the two guilty," said Nabin Mandi, a private tutor in a Maoist-dominated area of Lalgarh in West Midnapur. "The issue is very serious involving death of so many innocent people.

"We are sure the Maoist leadership will decide to execute the two rogue cadres following a Maoist trial," Mr Mandi said. A school teacher who is known as a Maoist sympathiser and lives around Sardiha, where the train derailment took place, said in an interview that he is sure the two PCAPA leaders will be handed out "very tough" punishment by the Maoist command. "I shall be surprised if they are not handed out capital punishment by the Maoist command ? At least a dozen PCAPA, Village Defence Force and other Maoist group members have received such capital punishment for indiscipline in eastern India in the past year," the teacher said, on condition of anonymity because he fears police harrassment.