How the Indian Railways Became Integral to the Growing Nationalism in the Independence Era

10 June 2017

In The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways, Arup K Chatterjee writes about the varying representations of the Indian rail network, from its conceptualisation by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to its representations across decades of Indian cinema. “Under the guise of nation-building, the railways were primarily tools of economic exploitation and moral policing,” he writes in his introduction to the book. “Even then, so many literary and cultural representations of nationhood would have been lost without [them].” Chatterjee writes that several Indian cultural and political events have a strong relationship with the railways—the rise of Indian nationalism in the Independence era, the Partition, or the development of modern Indian culture over the subsequent decades, such as in the films of Satyajit Ray and in the writings of the poet and lyricist Gulzar. “Undoubtedly, the Indian Railways were the biggest single industry the British gave India,” he writes. “But representations of the railways ... are an even bigger industry.”

In the following extract from the book, Chatterjee discusses how the railways became integral to the rise of Indian nationalism and the freedom movement. After incidents such as the Kakori conspiracy—a 1925 train robbery planned by the freedom fighters Ram Prasad Bismil and Afshaqullah Khan—the railways, Chatterjee writes, became associated with subversive acts. Later, the railways would also become a crucial tool for Mohandas Gandhi, who used them to plan and execute campaigns such as the Non-Cooperation Movement.

The Kakori dacoity was highly symbolic. It changed the course of the perception of the railways in public consciousness, for times to come. Henceforth, trains also came to be associated with subversive, clandestine and noir-oriented activities. The semiotics of the conspiracy have not been any better decoded than in popular Indian cinema. The signs of the whole sequence are fabulist. A train compartment is looted in the middle of the night. The harbinger of civilisation—that monster of steam—is dared at an unwieldy hour. It provided a partial vent to the anger towards the one of the great symbols of British fortification, that had escalated six years ago during the imposition of martial law, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, in April 1919. Most perceptibly, the railway stations became the fully operational grounds of British armoreality. Lala Giridhari Lal, deputy chairman of the Punjab Chamber of Commerce, and managing director of the Amritsar Flour and General Mills Company, provided an eyewitness account of the railway station, before the massacre.

I reached Amritsar by Calcutta Mail from Cawnpore on 11th April, 1919, about 11-30 a.m…From and on the canal bridge near Amritsar, I saw batches of policemen guarding the railway lines. When the train steamed into the station here, the whole place looked like a regular military post, with soldiers and guns scattered all over. No coolie or conveyance of any kind was to be had. Just as I came out of the platform, Sardar Bikram Singh met me and advised me either to go back where I had come from, or not to enter the city in any case. Being extremely nervous, as it appeared to me, he did not talk to me long. By the kindness of a railway servant, after waiting for 20 minutes, with great difficulty, I got a coolie to carry my luggage as far as the Golden Temple. At the foot bridge there was a guard of some European soldiers, who would not let anyone enter the city without searching all things thoroughly…No one was permitted to go over the carriage bridge. This continued for days, till the 15th April probably.

But the Kakori conspiracy was not the first of its kind. In 1907, repeated attempts were made to derail the train carrying Andrew Fraser, lieutenant governor of Bengal (1903–1908), who had acquired great notoriety for his role in partitioning Bengal. Revolutionaries managed to cause a crater in the permanent way, and a dent in the rails, but the train did not derail. Amongst those arrested were Barindra Kumar Ghosh, Bibhuti Bhushan Sarkar, and Ullash Kumar Dutt. Despite the government coming down heavily through its Explosives Substances Act of June 1908, which decreed severe punishment for manufacturers or possessors of incendiary substances, the attempts of train bombings did not cease. In August 1908, a bomb encased in a coconut, charged with metal spikes and explosives, was thrown at a train from Shamnagar. Jute-casing was used in another attempted bombing, in November of the same year, in a passenger-train, near Agarpara. The later attempts comprised bombs made of “ad hoc materials: marbles, rifles and revolver bullets, air gun pellets, darts and shards of glass, as well as nails (such as that in the bomb that exploded under the third-class carriage of a passenger train standing at Akole station on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway).”

Arup Chatterjee is an assistant professor of English at the Jindal Global Law School, at the OP Jindal Global University.

Keywords: British raj Gandhi colonialism nationalism British rule Indian railways Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi Non-Cooperation Movement