Hours before he was named as the prime suspect in the Jnaneswari train disaster, Bapi Mahato told The Indian
Express that he was “sorry” for what had happened, and that the targeting of the passenger train was a “mistake”.
Speaking to the Express inside the Romroma forests, 8 km from the accident site, after much persuasion, Mahato, a key leader of the PCAPA, said: “We are sorry. We never wanted these innocent civilians to die. Trust me, we targeted the goods train. But somehow, we were fed wrong information that the goods train would cross through this track and we removed pandrol clips from a long stretch. We did not want to harm civilians. There must have been some miscalculation.”
However, when the Express contacted him again after he had been named the “mastermind” of Thursday night’s carnage by Bengal DGP Bhupinder Singh and a manhunt launched for him, Mahato denied all role in the attack.
Speaking over the cellphone, he said: “We are being framed by the CPM and police. I investigated and came to know that our cadres were not involved in the sabotage. CPM goons, including Arjun Mahato and Lolit Sahoo of Pathuri and Kotushol, are the main persons behind the incident… Everybody knows that a CPM minister held a meeting in Barjudi Primary school just the night before the incident happened.”
However, based on intercepts of calls among Maoist activists, police and investigating agencies believe that the Jhargram CPI (Maoist) squad, including 12 cadres led by a 15-year-old boy named Kanu, and the local unit of the PCAPA (People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities) removed the pandrol clips and were helped by villagers. The calls also indicate that some gangmen of the Railways were “engaged” forcibly to remove the clips from both the Up and Down tracks. A senior CID official said they had zeroed in on three of the gangmen.
Raj Kanojia, ADG, CID, who visited the accident site today, said there was no evidence of a blast. “It was sabotage and it was done by Maoists. There is no doubt about it,” he said.
Call intercepts also reveal that a quarrel has broken out between senior leaders over the attack. “One group is blaming another… A blame game has started within the CPI (Maoist) and the PCAPA,” a senior police official said.
Bapi Mahato leads the PCAPA in the Guimara-Lalgeria panchayat area under Jhargram, controlling a vast area covering over 20 villages and railway stations like Khemashuli, Sardiha, Banstala and Jhargram.
Express reporters could enter villages around the accident site only with his sanction. The road leading to Romroma forests and the villages surrounding it were blocked with felled trees. Initially, Mahato was reluctant to surface from his forest hideout and sent emissaries. He said he wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t slept properly because of raids by security forces. It was on persistent request that he agreed to meet.
While regretting the civilian deaths at the meeting with Express, Mahato justified the Maoist anger. “Whatever we do, we do with the sanction of local villagers. 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) into villages and picked up people indiscriminately. So they were seething with anger… you would understand,” he said.
Asked about his links with Maoists, Mahato evaded a straight answer. “We stay out of our homes for fear of security forces, and to stay in the jungles you need arms. There are animals, elephants and one has to have something to defend himself. The moment we pick up arms, we are branded Maoists,” he defended.
He was more keen to discuss issues concerning the villagers. He showed an irrigation canal which, he said, could bring smiles to 16 villages if maintained properly. “Just Rs 4 lakh is needed from the government to repair the 32 gates. But those are lying in the same condition since 1971,” said Mahato.
With the police on the hunt for him, the PCAPA leader said over the phone that he wasn’t worried. “Nobody can prove my involvement. I am only concerned and tense about my high school results which will be out in a couple of days,” Mahato said. A student of Manikpara High School, this is his third attempt to pass high school.
Aged 25, he joined the PCAPA a year and a half ago and was assigned the task of leading the Anchal Committee after the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee expelled three leaders in the area for the October 2009 detainment of Rajdhani Express. The next month, at a meeting in Romroma forests, attended by senior leaders including Bikash, Mahato was made the leader of the PCAPA.
Mahato’s father Khudiram was reportedly arrested in 1994 when Bapi was just 10. “I wanted to grow up normally. But one day some miscreants hurled a bomb at a neighbour’s house. My father was unnecessarily picked up and jailed for several years.”
In 2008, Mahato said, he applied for a CRPF constable’s job. “I cleared, but I was asked to deposit a huge sum for the job. I did not have the money.”