A 25-year-old bright student from Assam gets kidnapped and killed by criminals in Bihar while travelling by train and how do those supposed to be responsible react? With explicable -- or should we say `routine'? -- indifference, apathy and insensitivity.
Pritam Bhattacharjee’s story is old by now, past its sell-by date. Nine days after all, are too long by our media standards. But it needs to be retold. Any of us travelling by train anywhere in India could land in a similar situation and lose our lives. His story is a sad statement on the pathetic safety standards on our trains and railway stations.
Here is a recap of the events of that day. Pritam, a graduate in physics from the 2010 batch of Gauhati University and the only child of his aging parents, was on his way to Delhi via the Avadh Assam Express for higher studies. His journey started on 9 July and his mutilated body was found under a goods train at Naugachia station in Bihar's Bhagalpur on 15 July.
His problem was his thick wallet. A gang of pickpockets from Guwahati attempted to rob the money from the young man but did not get a chance. Finally, it gave up the effort at Bihar's Katihar station, handing over the job to another group.
"The second group kept on trying and finally succeeded in snatching a bag from Pritam at the Naugachia station in Bhagalpur district," sub-divisional police officer Ramshankar Rai told Firstpost from Naugachia. "We have arrested one of the pickpockets Ram Krisha Singh. During interrogation, Singh told us that Pritam's wallet had Rs 40,000 in cash," Rai said.
Soon after his bag was snatched, Pritam got down from the train and began chasing the pickpockets. While at it he called up his family and informed them about the incident. The family advised him to carry on with his journey to New Delhi on a different train and not to chase the criminals. Pritam also reportedly informed the railway police about the theft.
He never got a chance to board the second train.
"One of the gang members showed up again at the station with the bag enticing Pritam to chase him. This was a trap and he fell for it," the police official said. Pritam was kidnapped. "The gang kept him in an orchard for three-four days. But with police pressure growing gradually, they finally killed him and threw his body under a goods train," Rai said.
Whatever arrest the police made was by chance. One village head Jai Prakash Mandal caught Ram Krisha Singh when he attempted to rob him and handed him over to the police. Soon Singh informed the police that his gang was also involved in Pritam's murder.
It was foolish of Pritam to risk his life in an unknown territory. But that is not where the problem lies. The police could have done much more to help Pritam, but it did not. Every other agency was busy passing the buck, disowning any responsibility for the incident.
The East Central Railway, under whose jurisdiction the incident happened, was reluctant to take up any responsibility. "We have ordered a departmental enquiry which is being carried out by the General Railway Police," East Central Railway spokesperson Amitabh Prabhakar told Firstpost from Hajipur over telephone. The headquarters of the East Central Railway are in Hajipur.
"This is purely a police case. We are not in the loop," Prabhakar said when asked if the Hajipur HQ was in touch either with the state governments of Assam and Bihar or even with the Centre.
The North East Frontier Railway also adopted a similar approach despite demands from different quarters to help bring justice to the family. "This is purely a security matter. This is a law and order problem and it falls under East Central Railway. There is nothing much we can do," chief public relations officer, North East Frontier Railway, S Hajong, told Firstpost over telephone from its zonal headquarters Maligaon in Guwahati.
Curiously, the tragic death of Pritam found little interest among Assam’s lawmakers. The issue found no mention during the assembly session between 16-21 July. The lack of heart from the representatives was appalling indeed. Perhaps, they all also toed the railway’s line by dismissing it as a law and order issue. What was lost in the silence was the question of safety of passengers in trains passing through Bihar’s badlands in particular, and the general helplessness of passengers vis-a-vis organised gangs specialising in robbing commuters.
In an instance of late action, the state’s BJP unit has condemned the incident. However, it offers no satisfactory answer on why it did not raise the issue in the assembly. "We did not take up the issue in the assembly but we wrote to the chief ministers and chief secretaries of both the states," general secretary, BJP Assam state unit, Ajit Bhattacharjee told Firstpost from Guwahati in a meek defence.
"The Bihar administration has shown a callous attitude. Our party unit in Naugachia told me that the GRP and the local police had no information about the issue. We also approached the party MP from Bhagalpur Shah Nawaz Hussain to help us. This is a shocking incident," he added.
This indifferent attitude of multiple government agencies has driven student bodies into protest mode. "We are creating constant pressure on the Union Railway Minister (Mukul Roy) for action. Why are the state governments and the Centre passing the buck to each other? The government has all the competence and information source to nab all culprits," adviser, All Assam Students' Union, Samujjal Bhattacharya, told Firstpost from Guwahati over telephone.
"If the government agencies fail to provide security to train passengers from Assam while passing through Bihar who else will? Such a brilliant career was snuffed out in a moment. We are surprised that the Union Home Minister (P Chidambaram) is silent so far. Even the Assam and Bihar governments are hardly doing anything," he added.
Let’s finish with some questions. Whose responsibility is passenger safety on trains? Pritam’s case made it to the headlines because he died, but what about the cases of robbery and dacoity that keep happening on trains on a regular basis? Who allowed the gangs to operate on trains and in stations in the first place?
The authorities involved must kick their conscience hard and get their act together.
Manoj Kumar in Patna contributed to this story