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Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 12:13 UK

Excitement mounts over train link

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Friendship Express
The train will help boost ties between the two neighbours (Pic: Indian Express)

Rakhal Das, 54, wants to be on the first train to Dhaka, the way he was on the last train from there to India more than 42 years ago.

Mr Das left the Bangladeshi capital as a nine year old, holding his father's hand, boarding what turned out to be the last passenger train from East Pakistan to Calcutta just after the India-Pakistan war in 1965.

"After Bangladesh was created, I hoped the train will start any day. It did not for so many years, but now that it is starting again, I will go back to Dhaka on the first train," said Rakhal Das, his eyes moist with emotion.

The Maitreyi Express (Friendship Express) will finally roll on Bengali New Year's Day on Monday.

The 500km (310 mile) journey from Calcutta to Dhaka will mark the resumption of a direct passenger rail service between the two countries.

Mr Das, a small trader, says the price of a train ticket is well within his reach - $8 for a normal seat.

Confusion

"The direct bus to Dhaka is expensive, air travel is beyond my reach, but the train should be fine," Mr Das said.

But last minute confusion in the Indian Railways headquarters and their Calcutta offices means that Mr Das - and many like him - are still without a ticket.

"Why can't the railways clearly say when and where we can get tickets," said Manik Ghose, another erstwhile refugee from East Pakistan and a travel agency employee, keen to return to his native Narsindi, near Dhaka one more time.

"We should be selling the tickets anytime now, but I can't tell you when," said railways General Manager NK Goel.

Rakhal Das
The direct bus to Dhaka is expensive, air travel is beyond my reach, but the train should be fine
Rakhal Das

The railways have to complete many formalities, including handing over a complete passenger list to immigration officials at least 12 hours before the journey, the official said.

"The first train is almost ready, all fresh paint and fittings," says railways spokesman Samir Goswami.

Many top Indian politicians like Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Railways Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav will flag off the first train from the new station at Chitpur, Calcutta's third railway station after Howrah and Sealdah.

But unlike Mr Das and scores of others who will travel to Bangladesh to see their long-lost homeland, there are others who oppose the train on political grounds.

The Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha (All Bengal Citizens Group), an organisation of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh, has opposed the Friendship Express and called upon their supporters to block and disrupt it.

"Why should democratic and secular India seek to develop such intimate links with Islamic Bangladesh, where Hindus continue to suffer huge torture, intimidation and dishonour," said the Sangha's General Secretary Subhas Chakrabarti .

'Cruel joke'

Mr Chakrabarti described the Friendship Express as "a cruel joke" played out on thousands of Hindus who have fled Bangladesh and continue to flee the country to escape persecution.

"You will see a rise in smuggling, women and weapons trafficking, and movement of Islamist terrorists from Bangladesh," warned Mr Chakrabarti.

But Indian security officials say such fears are unfounded.

"These things happen in spite of the train," said former Indian intelligence official Benu Ghosh.

The West Bengal police service says that the Sangha does not enjoy much political support and insist their efforts to disrupt the train will be foiled.

Gede railway station
Passengers will complete immigration at Gede railway station in Bengal (Pic: Indian Express)

But there are those who say that Bangladeshis will benefit more from the train.

"For every Indian who goes to Bangladesh for business or nostalgia, there are 10 Bangladeshis who come here for all kinds of reason - medical treatment, education, shopping, business and visits to divided families," said Bimal Pramanik of the Centre for Study of India-Bangladesh Relations in Calcutta .

In 1965, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan when the war with India severed the international rail link.

That has remained suspended despite Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan a few years later.

In the 1990s, direct buses began running between Dhaka and Calcutta for the first time.

But the train has symbolic importance.

With seats likely to start from around $8 (4), it will be popular with the thousands of Bangladeshis seeking medical treatment on the other side of the border.

Others will use it for visiting friends and relatives in India, with whom many share a common language.



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