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).”

The repeated bombing attempts led to the passing of the Railways Property Protection Act. Severe patrolling was deployed on the East Bengal State Railway Line for six months. But the intense penetration of the railway network across several small-townships and villages aided the anonymity of the railway bomb-throwers. Meanwhile, travelling on the railways was under grave threat, and between 1910 and 1914, “extensive discussions [followed] about protecting the viceroy,” on the trains. According to the historian, James Bryce, the “Indian Railways were primarily strategic lines, as were the Roman roads. The railway stations are often placed, for military reasons, at a distance from the towns they serve…” India, in 1914, seemed to him to be plagued by an “atmosphere of gunpowder.”

The Indian National Congress used the railways as the umbrella to connect members from the “Indian intelligentsia and ascendant professional classes across the subcontinent.” Notwithstanding the affluent status of many of these members in their respective communities, it took only a journey by train to remind them of the hostile treatment meted out to train-travelling Indians by the colonial administration and European passengers, as though they were second- or third-class citizens in their own country. Meanwhile, the attempts on railway property, along with those on English life, had already thrown a challenge to the most conspicuous symbol of technological superiority that the British had in India—their railways.

For anti-British sabotage the trains became the most symbolic as well as practical recourse. The railways being both the substance of state power and the instrument of that power, attempts to isolate them from sites of insurgency was the chief terrorist strategy. Michael O’ Dwyer, who was lieutenant governor of Punjab during the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, wrote in his autobiographical India as I Knew It, at length, of the frequent attacks on railway lines and railway stations. In the chapter on the ‘The Punjab Rebellion of 1919,’ he reproduces from his report to the government of India, at Shimla, how the “rural population was joining in to loot trains, treasuries and other government property,” and the attacks on railway and telegraph lines that ran across Punjab, from Delhi to Attock, were primarily aimed at immobilising British troops and “isolating the main centres of rebellion.”

In addition, the “general railway strike” was beginning to be assimilated into the larger cause of the rebellion. Indian extremities were not only quelled by equally oppressive measures by the government, and general display of racial hostility on the trains, but also a certain callousness, which manifested itself in examples such as the one during the Khilafat movement. In November 1921, a group of Moplah Muslims got inflamed by the propaganda of the Khilafat movement. The rebels rose both against Hindus as well as the British Government. On 19 November, 100 Moplah prisoners were packed into wagons, without ventilation, to be transported to jail. Chaudhuri writes of that ghastly incident: when taken out after a journey of five hours, “the prisoners were found to be in a state of collapse … In all eighty two men died … the Congress passed a resolution declaring it was ‘an act of inhumanity unheard of in modern times and unworthy of a Government that called itself civilized.’” As a result, the British had lost the right to cling on to the hurt and horror of the alleged Black Hole of Calcutta.

By 1920, British policing intensified at the stations due to increasing terrorist activity. The stations had transformed into sites of mass-nationalism. During the Non-Cooperation Movement, people visiting the railway stations were requested to bring money with them for the freedom struggle. The “military instrumentality” of the railways was now being subverted for the nationalist cause, both in extremist cases of terror activities and moderate activism of peaceful protest meetings and fund-gatherings. The railway platforms often being the first choice for the latter: “in the 1920s and 1930s, the railway station was integral to familiarizing Indians with the ethics and politics of swaraj and satyagraha.”

Attendees at platform demonstrations frequently exhibited the potential of shaping a mob-stage or reverse railway militarisation, in antagonism to the memory of hostile European passengers, ticket-sellers, ticket-collectors, guards and inspectors. They came readily with their small or substantial savings to donate to the Congress’ cause. In one incident reported by Gandhi, the great strategist of such mob-militarisations, villagers “attended the stations in their hundreds and, at several places, in their thousands, and paid…their pice.” He was able to collect the funds from the platform crowds and return to his seat on time, thanks to the efficiency of the Bengal youth in organising the “collection from thousands at wayside stations within a few minutes.”

Later in the Kutch, he found help in one Seth Raymal, who helped organise a similar railway fund-raising campaign: “Kurduwadi is merely a railway junction. The population is merely 2,000 and yet nearly 2,000 rupees were collected there.”

Having been once thrown out of a first-class carriage in Pietermaritzburg [in South Africa], Gandhi was to come back very strongly, first with the English publication of Hind Swaraj (whose Gujarati version, of 1909, was banned by the British government), later by unleashing his third-class phenomenon in his unconventional approach to nationalist propaganda, and his subsequent book, Third Class in Indian Railways, in 1917. His railway-funds campaign was quite demanding. By 1921, the Congress and Gandhi had begun protesting and striking, on a large magnitude, for Home Rule. During that time he delivered many lectures at railways stations.

The railways were used for truly secular purposes by Gandhi. He had no qualms about seeking donations, aboard them, or on platforms for the satyagraha movement. His spirituality was the creed of his ashram. His third-classes were strictly business. “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai” became the usual cry of ticketless third-class passengers, often encroaching on the higher classes to sully the racial purity of the Europeans, pulling alarm-chains to disrupt train services, and inciting the general recalcitrance of the public during the Civil Disobedience Movement. These activities, according to [the historian] Lisa Mitchell, constituted the larger anticolonial praxis and the nationalist agenda of halting the state-machinery through delaying the trains.

The veneer of Gandhi dominated the visual frame of the railway compartments, thronged by his darshan-seekers. Gandhi exploited the very tool he had unrestrainedly panned in Hind Swaraj. It is a grand conjecture today: what might have been if Gandhi had bought the bedding [ticket] at Pietermaritzburg? Perhaps he would not have been thrown out, and perhaps the satyagraha in South Africa would have been forestalled.

This is an excerpt from The Purveyors of Destiny: A Cultural Biography of the Indian Railways, by Arup K Chatterjee, published by Bloomsbury India. The excerpt has been edited and condensed.