Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXIX No. 6, July 1-16, 2019

Thandalam railway sabotage case

by S. Nagalingam, Supdt. of Police, Special Branch, C.I.D. Madras.

Sabotage of the permanent track in the Railways does not require any elaborate preparation. A few simple accessories and equally little technical know-how will ordinarily suffice and added to all this, of course, there must be a motive. When the Permanent Way Inspector of Chingleput Division ordered the E.L.R. Gangmen towards the close of last year (1964) to change six sleepers a day as carried out by other divisions, instead of the usual three, it was thought that he was only issuing what was considered a routine administrative order which, of course, lay fully within his competence and authority, not too exacting a demand for that matter. Yet, little did any one guess, at that time, he was supplying a motive for sabotage to be committed on the permanent track. The few disgruntled E.L.R. gangmen perhaps thought that this was the best way to teach an all-too-strict a boss a lesson, but then at what cost?

On October 24, 1964 night, Rajagopal, an E.L.R. gangman, was on his routine patrol duty checking the permanent track near Karunguli. When he arrived at Thandalam bridge lying between Padalam and Karunguli railway stations that wintry night, he found to his horror the fish-plates and keys removed and missing. It was already 10 p.m. All the three South-bound express trains had passed the bridge without any mishap. The last one – the Tuticorin Express – was due at any moment. Possibly, the attempt was to derail this train with its full complement of passengers. Unless the crew were warned in time – and time was running short – disaster was imminent and certain. Rajagopal shuddered even at the thought of the impending danger not around the corner, as the saying goes, but, here, on the track, right in front of him. Whoever the perpetrators of this mean dastardly crime, he should act quickly if the disaster was to be averted. And he did. He placed the danger light at the spot, ran to a distance in the direction of the approaching train and placed three detonators on the track to serve as a warning to the crew. He returned to the bridge only to find to his dismay the danger light missing. Frightened as he was, he ran to the nearby Thandalam village for help.

At the village, he secured the helping hand of the Harijan leader Thangavelu. They took a torch light and cycle lamp and returned to the scene as fast as they could. The Tuticorin Express was fast approaching as seen from the white beam of light from a distance. Rajagopal asked Thangavelu to take the cycle lamp covered with red cloth and run ahead to stop the train, while he stood near the scene with the torch-light turned red. As the train neared the bridge, Thangavelu vigorously waving the red lamp, raised a cry for the train to stop. The crew saw the frantic waving of the red lamp and brought the train to a screeching halt. The driver and guard of the train got down and were fully apprised of the tampering of railway track. The railway authorities were duly informed and the Railway Police were called in.

The Railway Police, Chingleput, registered a case and as the offence was cognizable, entered into investigation. Senior Officers of the Railway and the Police Departments arrived at the scene and inspected. Detective dogs from both the City Police and the Railway Protection Force kennels were also brought and given scent but they did not prove useful. As the C.I.D were already investigating a few other cases of the kind, the investigation of this case was also entrusted to them.

The scene of occurrence was on the top of a bridge running from north to south and situated between Padalam and Karunguli railway stations between 76/6 and 76/7 kilometres. The entire area was a desolate place and the only village that was near the scene was Thandalam, about 100 yards in the North Eastern direction. The Bridge had four piers. In between the second and third pier, there was a steel girder.

It was on this central portion, it was found, that two fishplates and 43 keys on the eastern rail track and 3 keys on the western track had been removed. Along with the keys, the jaws had also been removed. The railway track at this place was found to be loose and it had lost alignment, which by itself was sufficient to cause derailment.

An investigation of this type of crime is usually beset with numerous difficulties. There is no clue left by the culprits as one would usually expect in other types of offences at the scene. Even the dogs, a usually dependable clue-getting agency were of little help this time. The scene was already much disturbed and what little scent there was, should have been lost by the time the dogs had arrived. The only course open to the investigating officers was to enter into an exhaustive enquiry with a view to get some tangible information which might lead to the identity of the culprits. Simultaneously, an enquiry was also instituted about the railway employees who were directly in charge of the track. An enquiry in this direction has its limitations and the investigating officers at the beginning seemed to make no headway. A patient and persevering enquiry proceeded. A break-through came when one of the officers contacted a nearby tea-stall keeper at Padalam railway station where the railway labourers used to gather for light refreshments. The suspicion turned towards one Velu, a gangman.

It transpired that there was a strike following the insistence of the Permanent Way Inspector, in asking those who were engaged in relaying sleepers to replace six as done in other sections, instead of the usual three per day.

Narayanasami and Natarajan, accused 1 and 2, took leading part in effectively organising the strike among gangmen as well as men engaged in painting work. This caused a temporary set-back in the progress of work on the permanent way. Later, when the labourers sought re-employment, on the insistence of Permanent Way Inspector, some of the leaders chose to tender an unqualified apology, besides disclosing the names of actual persons responsible for organising the strike. Those who organised the strike were not taken for duty.

Disappointed at this attitude of the Permanent Way Inspector, the accused persons – Narayanasami, Natarajan and Ramasamy, along with Velu, conspired to wreck the Permanent Way in order to bring disrepute and and discredit to the Permanent Way Inspector.

Velu and the three accused met on the previous day and planned as to what they should do on the day of occurrence. On 24-10-64 night, before the arrival of Tuticorin Express, accused Narayanasami and Natarajan removed a pair of fishplates from Thandalam bridge with the help of spanners. The third accused, Ramasamy, removed the keys while Velu kept a watch over the track. On seeing the night watchman Rajagopal, they ran and hid themselves. Narayanasami and Natarajan took away the red lamp placed by the night watchman on the Karunguli side when the latter was proceeding in the opposite direction towards Padalam. Velu, one of the accomplices, in this case, was no doubt with the accused at all the stages of the conspiracy and until the actual accomplishment of the crime.

Velu was first secured by the Police on November 22nd, 1964 and on interrogation, came up with the entire story relating to the incident. He turned approver in this case. Accused Narayanasami was arrested on November 22, 1964. Natarajan and Ramasamy were arrested the next day. The spanner and hammer used in this offence were also recovered from the houses of the accused. Velu gave a straightforward story of the circumstances under which the conspiracy was hatched and how finally the offence was completed. The motive for the offence, though apparently flimsy, went to prove that when personal hardships enter, the finer sentiments of humanitarian attitude are given a clean go-by. The evidence of Velu was largely corroborated by other material and circumstantial evidence and his evidence was in no way rebutted. Evidence of persons seeing the accused, and Velu under suspicious circumstances prior to the occurrence, was available from other independent sources as well. The accused persons could not bring forth any substantial material either to discredit the evidence of their accomplices or other witnesses.

After a preliminary enquiry by the Sub-magristrate, Conjeevaram, the case was tried in the Sessions Court, Chingleput. As many as 36 witnesses were examined on behalf of the prosecution. In the end, all the three accused were found guilty of the offence and were sentenced to 3 years imprisonment.

Had it not been for the vigilance of the night patrol man and the painstaking efforts of the State Investigating machinery, the disaster with all its dire consequences would have been certain and the saboteurs gone scot-free. There can be no substitute for a patient and prodding enquiry which has its own ultimate reward. And, what better example of this can there be than the Thandalam Railway Sabotage case. – (The Madras Police Journal, October-December, 1965.)

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