Whenever I wanted to visit the Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu, I preferred being there around Diwali to avoid the crowds. It was in the year 2003- on October 25, I was there.
Looking back eighteen years, the incident that occurred on our return trip after we boarded the Shalimar Express from Jammu to Delhi on the 26th night still gives me shivers.
My wife, daughter (21), and son (17) were with me. While my wife and I were given adjacent berths, my children got different berths in the same bogie. After a strenuous journey, we were all ready to sleep as soon as the train left around 9:30 p.m. We planned to take the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Mumbai the following evening.
We had a few conversations with other passengers. By the time we arrived at Samba railway station, everyone was getting ready for bed. More passengers boarded, and the train departed Samba around 10:30 p.m. Almost everyone had gone to sleep by this point.
As far as I could tell from my half-asleep state, the train was moving slowly. Around fifteen minutes later, there was an explosion somewhere within the compartment. The train started to tilt to the right, and passengers and luggage tumbled to one side of the train. The train continued to move for a while before coming to a complete halt. We heard continuous gunshots from outside even as the train was tilting.
My immediate concern was for my children, who were not near us. My wife was shocked, but she quickly regained her composure. As people scrambled to stand up from the bogie’s unbalanced position, I found it difficult to reach up to my children. I eventually got to them, and the four of us, along with other passengers, struggled to get out. While the bogie stood at an angle, some youths volunteered by extending their hands to pull people down.
Due to the frequency of terrorism at the time, there were a few Border Security Force personnel on the train to secure passengers. The gunshots could still be heard from a distance. The security men ensured all of us lie down adjacent to the railway track. It was pitch dark and the stars were visible clearly. Behind us was a thicket of elephant grass, and in front of us was our derailed train. The security personnel requested all of us not to make any noise, lest the terrorists figure out our exact location.
Within minutes, a contingent of Indian Army personnel arrived with flashlights. They took control of the situation. To our relief, the gunshots were now at a more distant location. We could also hear multiple shots, and guessed some encounter was taking place.
The Army reassured the passengers that they were safe and advised them not to panic. We could see that our bogie and the one behind it had slid off the track. There were about five bogies behind, unaffected by the explosion. The Army personnel led the passengers from about six front bogies one by one and accommodated them in the five bogies at the back. It was a painful operation, as there were many elderly people and children. There was a culvert in one spot, and the passage to tread was not even one foot wide. But, with the help of powerful light and helping hands, people shifted gradually. It was a cold winter night. Though the passengers of eleven or more bogies were cramped into five, everyone felt relieved as there were no injuries to anyone, and they were safe.
Around 3 a.m., a relief engine arrived from Jammu and hauled back the five bogies with passengers to Jammu. The Jammu railway station was in a state of disarray. Apart from gun-wielding security personnel all around, people occupied every square inch of space. Fear and anxiety pervaded the entire atmosphere. Due to the damaged track, there were no incoming or outgoing trains, leading to more confusion. There was only one track back then, and no one knew when normalcy would return.
Fortunately, I remembered I had the phone number of my company’s business associate, Mr. Subhash Abrol, of Jammu. I thought of contacting him. Though I had a mobile phone, it was not of any use in Jammu as signals to the phones from outside Jammu were not available. There was one Public Call Office where there was a long queue of people waiting to dial family members. I patiently stood for my turn and finally contacted him by 6 a.m.
Mr. Abrol arrived in his car and took us to his home. Oh, what a relief! Till then, we were all in the grip of anxiety and fear, but now it felt like we were in heaven- in the safety of home of a man who belongs to Jammu. He was so welcoming that we felt like we were in our own home. We cannot forget the sumptuous breakfast, Aloo Dum with Parathas and Pickles, typical of Jammu. The menu for lunch was Rajma and Rice, in addition to Kheer, Pulao, Chapati, Palak Paneer, and Dal.
We were with Mr. Abrol when we watched the news about what happened to the Shalimar Express the night before. The terrorists had crossed the international border into the Samba sector and were on the highway adjacent to the railway track where the attack happened. The explosion in the train could not be specifically connected to these terrorists. A bomb, which exploded, was hidden beneath the toilet. They opened fire with an AK-47, attacked a wedding party, killed the guests, stole their car, and drove to Akhnoor. On their way, they shot two security guards. The Army confronted the terrorists at a location and killed two of them in the encounter. The remaining two infiltrated the Jammu Legislative Assembly compound, where they met their fate in the encounter.
I needed to finish some urgent tasks for my company in Mumbai. I informed my management of the situation, and they agreed to let me fly to Mumbai with my family. Mr. Abrol’s influence once again assisted me in getting the flight tickets, as all flights were fully booked. We arrived in Mumbai that night.
At one side, there were those terrorists who killed innocent people and created fear. And at the other, there was Mr. Abrol, ever ready to help anyone in distress. My family will forever remember his courtesy, warmth, and timely gestures.
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