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.

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