On Sunday afternoon, Y Jaswanth boarded the Ratnachal Express from Visakhapatnam to Vijayawada at Tuni, a small town of 53,000 people in Andhra Pradesh's East Godavari district. Jaswanth, his wife and son hoped to reach Vijayawada by 6.30 that evening. Instead, their journey ended a few kilometres beyond Tuni.

Late that evening, reports began to trickle in that protestors at a massive rally calling for reservations for the Kapu caste had set a train on fire and attacked government property. That was the train Jaswanth was on.

The rally was at a field in Velama Kothuru, a small village off the Howrah-Chennai national highway, where a few signs of the protest that shook the state are still visible. Hundreds of watermelon rinds were scattered at the site of the protest, as were remnants of water packets. While there did not seem to be any attempts to clear the grounds, the railway did not have the same luxury.

A group of around 30 employees were hard at work replacing elastic rail clips, heavy steel clips that hold railway sleepers in place.

“The people had removed the clips and thrown them far out into the fields,” said S Padanna, a senior section engineer of the railways at the site. “They also moved the sleepers 200 metres to one side to stop the train. All this took a long time to put back into place.”

Workers get the tracks ready for traffic again.
Workers get the tracks ready for traffic again.

Velama Kothuru might seem an unlikely spot for a protest of the scale witnessed on Sunday. It is, in fact, a regular venue for political rallies, with its uncultivated fields of almost 100 acres along the highway being regularly rented out for events. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned here.

On Sunday evening, the village that had absorbed so many political events before, was stirred by unprecedented violence, when protestors at the Kapu rally stopped a train and set it alight.

What happened?

Protestors at the rally stopped the train at 3.20 pm on Sunday. At around five, they asked passengers to leave the train, saying that there would be a fire.

“I didn’t believe them at first,” said Jaswanth. “I thought they only wanted us to get off the train for their own purposes.”

Before the train burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Before the train burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

However, unidentified people set two coaches ablaze. When he saw the flames, Jaswanth was no longer in doubt. He, his wife and son left the train with their belongings and began the five-kilometre trek back to Tuni. It took them two hours.

Back at Velama Kothuru, the fire rapidly spread from the first two coaches to the rest of the train. All but one of its 24 coaches were gutted. The most expensive component of a train – its engine worth Rs 25 crore – was also damaged beyond repair.

The train stands now at Tuni station, where it was brought at 2 am, once the fire brigade finally managed to douse its flames.

“We have put it on a loop line [which bypasses the main one] so now the schedule is not affected,” said MD Srinivas, station superintendent at the small town’s railway station. “But the train cannot be salvaged. After the police finish their investigation, it will have to go for scrap.”

The police has formed seven teams to investigate the incident, with officials drawn from across the district and state. The station itself now bristles with representatives from the Railway Protection Force and local police. A car with the helpful sign “Clues” is parked at the station entrance. Its occupants had gone for an extended tea break.

The scene at Tuni station, where the remnants of the gutted Ratnachal Express now stand.
The scene at Tuni station, where the remnants of the gutted Ratnachal Express now stand.

Railway authorities estimate the damage to be around Rs 13 crores, but their loss goes beyond one train, Padanna said. Sixteen trains were cancelled because of the blocked line, which meant that the fares of disgruntled passengers had to be refunded. In the initial confusion following the return of passengers who had left their station only a few hours ago, railway authorities also denied them any refund. They insisted instead on retaining Rs 30 as cancellation charges, as per existing railway rules. Only passenger outrage, said Jaswanth, forced them to relent and return the full amount of Rs 700.

Kapus allege conspiracy

Reports of the size of the rally vary, pegging the crowd at anything between five lakh to eight lakh attendees.

Mudragada Padmanabhan, the Kapu leader who had announced the rally two months ago, said that Kapus had nothing at all to do with the violence. Instead, it was “bad elements” in the crowd, allegedly planted by the government, who caused the entire violence.

“We got the approval for the rally in advance,” Padmanabhan said. “There was no lathi-charge there. Our people were cool and the police were cool. We faced no aggression. So how could this have suddenly occurred then?”

Padmanabhan also alleged that these “bad elements” were at work even before they stopped the train – his generator was unplugged and his microphone switched off mid-speech.

“This is a conspiracy to dilute our agitation,” he said. “Why else would the police go away during the meeting?”

Protestors perch on the engine of the train before it is burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Protestors perch on the engine of the train before it is burnt. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

The police version

Why indeed did the police abandon their post? Some answers might be had at the Velama Kothuru police station, which is not inside the village, but a few hundred metres away, adjacent to the meeting ground.

Padmanabhan had informed the police about the rally, permission for which, said head constable at the station, T Prasada Rao, came from the chief minister himself. Although there were 2,800 police officials on duty that day, drawn from all neighbouring villages, they were unable to withstand the crowd, Rao added.

“First they burnt the train and when we tried to stop them, they attacked us instead,” he said. “We had to run away."

The mob burnt 26 four-wheel vehicles, including new Boleros belonging to the superintendent of police and the deputy superintendent. They also set fire to 40 two-wheelers and the records rooms of the Velama Kothuru police station. Rao’s own car, a privately owned Indica, parked at the police living quarters a few hundred metres away, was also burnt, he said.

“We got no order for lathi-charge from above,” Rao said. “If we had, we could have done something. They told us to wait, which is why we could not control the crowd.”

Burnt vehicles at Velama Kothuru police station. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth
Burnt vehicles at Velama Kothuru police station. Photo credit: Y Jaswanth

By nine that night, the crowd had moved ahead to Tuni, where the police station bears signs of their vandalism, including a soot-blackened porch and windows with holes the size of stones in them.

Up to 33 cases have been registered so far, but there have as yet been no arrests.