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11 yrears after train crash, families of 18 ‘missing’ await closure

More than 11 years after the tragedy, the 16 families to which the 18 'missing' passengers belong, continue to await closure, running from courtrooms to government offices in a desperate attempt to procure death certificates.

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya , Sweety Kumari | Kolkata |
Updated: July 5, 2021 6:59:12 am
Rajesh Bhatra (right) lost his wife Indudevi and son Sourav. His daughter Sneha is on the missing list. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Around 1.30 am on May 28, 2010, the Howrah-Mumbai Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Jnaneshwari Express derailed in West Bengal, allegedly after Maoists removed a portion of the tracks. Soon afterward, a goods train going in the opposite direction rammed into the wreck. A total 141 people were declared dead in the incident.

Another 18 victims remain officially “missing”. All these individuals were travelling by the Jnaneshwari, but none of the dismembered limbs and other body parts found at the crash site could be established as having belonged to them. DNA tests could not produce matches with members of the families to which these individuals belonged.

One of those originally declared dead has turned out to be alive. The CBI recently filed a case of cheating and forgery against Amritava Chowdhury of Kolkata, whose sister, it is alleged, even got a job with the Railways as part of the compensation for his ‘death’.

But more than 11 years after the tragedy, the 16 families to which the 18 ‘missing’ passengers belong, continue to await closure, running from courtrooms to government offices in a desperate attempt to procure death certificates.

“We were shocked to learn that a man who was declared dead was found alive. And here we are, with no idea of what happened to my husband, and with no death certificate, after so many years,” 39-year-old Juthika Ata, a resident of Salkia in Howrah, said. Juthika’s husband Prasenjit Ata was on the Jnaneshwari that night, travelling to Bhusawal. He would be 42 now if he were alive.

“It could well be that the body that was cremated as Amritava Chowdhury’s was that of my husband’s. That is why my daughter visited the CBI office, and we wrote a letter to them,” Juthika said. Juthika and Prasenjit’s daughter Poulomi studies in Class 11.

Juthika said that in the absence of a death certificate, she has been unable to access her husband’s bank account, or claim the benefit of the LIC policy he had bought.

“We got Rs 10 lakh compensation, that’s it… A death certificate will also help my daughter get a job as compensation. My husband was the only earning member of the family,” she said. Juthika herself suffered a stroke in 2019, and is now bed-ridden.

Juthika said her brother had identified a body that he believed was Prasenjit’s, but it had been claimed by another family before she could go to the police. “Since then, I have visited many offices, met many people, but have been unable to get a death certificate. We have also filed a case in a court in Jhargram asking for the death certificate, but the matter is still pending,” she said.

The Jnaneshwari went off the rails near Sordiha station in Paschim Medinipur district, close to Jhargram. The accident was among the deadliest of recent years.

Rajesh Bhatra of Belur lost his wife Indudevi (40) and son Sourav (17) in the tragedy. His daughter Sneha (14) is on the missing list.

Bhatra (52) had written to then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. He has tried to meet Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I don’t have any hope from anyone. I got my wife’s body nearly seven months after the accident. But where did my daughter go? I have written to the PMO, tried meeting the CM, approached the court, but nothing has happened. I may now approach the CBI,” Bhatra said.

“I see my Sneha in every little girl. Why should I accept that she is dead when I haven’t been handed her body?” he said.

Bhatra’s family was travelling to Kalyan to spend the summer holidays at Indudevi’s brother’s home.

“I rushed to the accident site in a car,” Bhatra said. “There were bodies and body parts everywhere. “I looked for my daughter and wife. My son died after three days at CMRI hospital in Kolkata. My wife’s body was given to us in the month of December. But 11 years have passed and I do not know what happened to my daughter; if she is dead, where is her body?” Bhatra said, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Surendra Kumar Singh (54) said he had recognised a severed limb as that of his wife Neelam’s but could not find the rest of her body. Both Neelam and the couple’s son Rahul are in the list of ‘missing’ passengers.

“I saw a severed leg on the tracks and recognised it as Neelam’s. I started to look for other parts of her body, but failed. When I came back to where I had seen the severed leg, it was no longer there. People were fighting over body parts. Police and local people were saying “Jise jo mil raha hai utha lo (Just pick up whatever you can get),” Singh said.

Singh too has been unable to operate his wife’s bank account in the absence of a death certificate. “We gave blood samples twice for DNA tests, but I don’t know what the results were,” he said. There is a picture of his wife and son next to Singh’s bed in the couple’s two-room flat.

Like Juthika, Singh too moved court in Jhargram in 2018 asking for death certificates. The matter is still being heard, he said.

Tirthankar Bhakat, lawyer for both Juthika and Singh, said: “The law says that if a person is missing for seven years, a court can declare that person dead. For the past one year, the court has not functioned properly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is unfortunate that the Railways and the state government could not help these families on humanitarian grounds… Juthika is poor; a compensatory job will save the family. But they still do not have a death certificate.”

On the alleged ‘fake’ death, CBI sources said the agency’s anti-corruption branch had received a complaint from the General Manager (Vigilance) of South Eastern Railway alleging that the ‘dead’ passenger Amritava Chowdhury, son of Mihir Kumar Chowdhury, was in fact, alive.

The Railways had handed over ‘Amritava’s body’ to his family after DNA profiling; according to the Railways, Amritava was shown as dead “by getting his DNA matched in a dishonest way with the help of government officials and insurance agents”.

A case has been registered against Amritava, members of his family, and unnamed public servants. The CBI had sought permission for a DNA test on Amritava and his father, which was carried out after the court allowed it.

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