Railways and the Raj: Travelling Through 'Bad Imperialism' and 'Good Nationalism'

Does the story of the Indian railways really stop at presenting a fact file of imperial patronage?

In the late 1910s, a satirical sketchbook, The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, was published anonymously. Produced in the context of the First World War and swadeshi-influenced anti-colonial thinking, the unknown author claimed the book “may serve to amuse the Railwaymen of India and the general public”. A quick perusal leaves no doubt that the sole purpose was to mock the technological and organisational skills of Indians of all ranks and classes. Those who would soon be running the country were thought unfit to run the world’s third largest railways.

KPR (Koochpurwanay Railway) was not only a line but also an imaginary railway town. The very title contained three Hindi words in their typical Anglicised spelling: Kooch purwa nay (kuch parwāh nahīn), meaning ‘it doesn’t matter at all’ or ‘no one cares’. So Koochpurwanaypore was a town where nothing mattered. The chief engineer was depicted enjoying nautch in his office and the general manager was asleep under the cool breeze of a paṅkhā (fan). The subalterns of the railway workforce, on the other hand, formed the K.P.R. Pioneer Corps with tools ranging from a simple drill machine to the traditional broom and basket.

 ‘Railway Men at Work’. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

‘Railway Men at Work’. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

‘Railway Men at Work’. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

‘Railway Men at Work’. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

The title page gives the author’s name as ‘Jo hookm’. At any rate, this is the pseudonym. Some library websites have identified the author as William Henry Deakin. Each of the engravings is also signed with ‘Jo hookm’. In the absence of reason and intellect, the best natives/Indians could do was to follow command. For running steam engines, steel-like nerves and the unfailing alacrity of the mann, or mind, was required. This mann was obviously European as for long, the Raj thought Indians possessed none. The satirical message made clear that once the British were gone and the Anglo-Indians had retrenched from the railways, the whole country would turn into Mutwalabad (in an inebriated state). It would remain connected through tracks but obstructed by elephants.

'Obstruction on the Line'. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

‘Obstruction on the Line’. Source: The Koochpurwanaypore Swadeshi Railway, by Jo. Hookm

Railway imperialism

The railways is one of three recurrent themes in the tug of war between the apologists of empire and English-educated nationalists; the other two being the Kohinoor and the English language itself.

For long, the colonialists and their apologists insisted that in spite of the exploitation, the British brought the railways to India that gave political unity to the subcontinent. While lauding the railways as a monument of ‘British wealth, power and skill’, it was often forgotten that British private wealth succeeded only under the public guarantee of returned interest offered by the Indian government. The KPR sketchbook is a specimen of that belief. The counter argument to the British enterprise presented by authors like Shashi Tharoor, therefore, goes: “In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam.”

There is a lot that can be said about the blatant colonialist underpinnings of the Indian railways without resorting to intentional oversimplification or even factual errors. Tharoor may or may not be right in noting that the idea of India is as old as the Vedas, but he is definitely wrong in locating one of India’s oldest railway workshop towns, Jamalpur, in Bengal. It is close to the historical town of Monghyr in the state of Bihar. This mix-up is perhaps itself reflective of the deep-seated influence of how the British divided the subcontinent. After all, Bihar was part of the Bengal presidency and hence Tharoor should not be blamed for reproducing the colonial administrative logic of territorial divisions in spite of his visible attempt to criticise it.

The racialised privilege given to whites and Anglo-Indians both in employment and travel facilities is undeniable. It would be grossly erroneous, however, to club white Europeans and Anglo-Indians together just because they both were superior to Indians in the ‘railway caste’ hierarchy. There was deep-seated hierarchy and antagonism between those two groups.

Equally undeniable is the preferential treatment meted out to British firms as against global competition from Germans and Americans in providing engines to India. Between 1850 and 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5 in India. During the Second World War, preconditions for purchases from outside of Britain were relaxed but still the overall balance remained disproportionately tilted in favour of Britain. Thus, prior to independence in 1947, India imported 14,420 locomotives from Britain, built 707 itself and purchased 3,000 from other countries.

‘But what about historical complexity…?’

But does the story of the Indian railways stop at presenting a fact file of imperial patronage? Tempting though it is to rally behind the engines to score points over the apologists’ arguments, this can be done only by engaging in historical distortion and ignoring the manifold stories and practices that constitute India’s railway modernity.

Contrary to Tharoor’s claim that “the railways were first conceived of by the East India Company”, the fact is that it was first conceived by private British capitalists and railway engineers. In fact, when R.M. Stephenson first approached the East India Company, his plan to build railways in India was dismissed as a “wild concept”. In his visit to Calcutta in 1843, he collected opinions from a wide array of officials and merchants including notable Indians who supported the plan.

Tharoor is equally and quite surprisingly wrong in claiming, “Nor were Indians employed in the railways”. In particular, he argues that to “protect investments”, signalmen and “those who operated and repaired the steam trains” were all white.

This is simply wrong. Belief in racial superiority at times gave way to the pure logic of economics. Precisely because Indian labour was hired cheap, as early as the 1860s Indian drivers were deemed fit to run engines in certain parts of the country, for instance, in the Madras presidency. An 1863 report made a categorical call to address the absence of natives in higher grades in the traffic department. In Madras, Indians were also employed as train guards in common with Europeans and Anglo-Indians on lesser salary. “Nothing can contribute,” the report stated, “in a greater degree to sound and economical management than security of office tenure and a fair system of promotion without distinction of race, and with strict regard to efficiency alone.”

Ironically on the same Great Indian Peninsular Railways in whose magazines the KPR sketches first appeared, by the end of 1882 no fewer than 60 native engine drivers were in employment. By the beginning of the 20th century, the same Jamalpur workshop in which Tharoor claims no Indians were employed to repair engines, had almost 10,000 people, almost all of them natives, working there. The first locomotive engine at Jamalpur was manufactured in 1899 at a cost of Rs 33,000 as compared to the imported cost of Rs 47,897.

The native skill that made this possible was highly praised right from the beginning. The ability to handle imported heavy machinery such as steam hammers, rolling mills and cranes was applauded in particular. In fact, on a visit to the workshop in 1868, over the topic of repair of one particular locomotive, a traveller was told by the shop manager: “No English fitter in the world could do that. That job takes a native to do it.”

The workshop relied on the generational transfer of skill from fathers to their sons – so much so that the railway company initially resisted the idea of standardised technical education. They were happy to get their labour pool filled from villages dotted around the workshop.

Train tales of modernity

These stories can again be twisted into arguing that precisely despite the availability of skill, imperial favours to the British stunted the chances of indigenous growth. And the blame game can go on forever. Understanding the complexity of the Raj and the railways does not necessarily mean becoming an imperial apologist. If race was prioritised in the colony, class mattered more in England. As late as 1910, it was claimed that drivers ought to be hired from ‘higher classes’ particularly when the existing ones were found ‘deficient in brains’.

Notwithstanding the colonial specificity of Indian railways, there was something shared between the colonial and the metropolitan world. The ‘ladies only’ compartment is one such example. The popular representation as well as public mediations such as one by Tharoor would have us believe that these worlds were poles apart. Even in their apparent dissimilarity we can see seams that bind them together.

One popular way of casting the difference between Western modernity and Indian traditionalism was to pitch the encounter in terms of engines vs elephants. Allegedly, they represented two civilisations, two epochs that came face to face.

Soon after its introduction in India, the director of Indian Railways Juland Danvers assured the British parliament, “now even a Rajah […] in his own territory must submit to the ‘imperative call’ of the railway bell.” The old had to make the way for new.

The black beauty represented calm, concentrated power. When the wheels of the Falkland moved on the opening of the first railways in Bombay, the Illustrated London News reported that the ageless superstitions of natives had melted away. Engine was the new divinity to which natives salaamed as it passed. One eyewitness report claimed that the moving iron horse put natives in awe and wonder. The “hissing monster” which was called āg-gāṙī (āg meaning fire and gāṙī carriage) in native parlance was not only to be seen from a distance but to be touched, stood upon and ran along with.

The enchantment with engines was not unique to the colonial world. Both amidst the general public and the railway workforce, engines were a subject of fascination in metropolis as well as colony. In Britain, railway enthusiasts drew pleasure by spotting engines and using their cameras to take eye-catching shots.

The early railway enthusiasts in India might not have used their cameras but the element of charm and surprise — the bewilderment that the moving engine caused — was equally pronounced. In both metropolis and colony, the engine was feminine. She was a black beauty who could either make an apprentice her slave or would happily belong to her efficient master.

In India, perhaps the added element was of divinity. Myriad stories circulated in the print bazaar of the British Empire that used steam technology to claim that the religious superstition of Indians would soon change, in fact, disappear. One such story was of a Brahmin exclaiming the following when the ‘fire horse’ Lawrence reached the Punjab, “All the incarnations of all the gods in India never produced such a thing as that.” The same was the case on the other side of the country. The power of steam enraptured the imagination of Bengalis who flocked to see how the new “car of Indra” looked.

Expressions and proclamations like these can easily be fitted into the formulaic narrative of ‘clash of civilisations’, but these stories show the social engagement with a new technology. They also show how railways with all their novelty still came to be understood through the language of providential creation. Next to the traditional forms, the pantheon of godly vehicles now got a new member. When railways became the new vehicle of Indra, the modern sensibility of speed and mechanical robustness was acknowledged as novel and yet co-opted into the existing structures of tradition. The engine did not displace the belief in Indra. It rather became his vehicle. The tracks of modernity often did not erase the site of tradition, as is clear from the image below.

‘A Sutie Relic at an Indian Railway Station’. Source: The Railway Magazine, LIII, July to December 1923

‘A Sutie Relic at an Indian Railway Station’. Source: The Railway Magazine, LIII, July to December 1923

‘Bad imperialism and good nationalism’

A set of representations based upon claims of the colony’s cultural and intellectual deficiency was one way of depicting the introduction of modernity. In this version, the western technological advancement brought modernity to India often through the painful but necessary exercise of conflict, confrontation and displacement. Howsoever exploitative, the argument ran that colonialism brought science, education, hospitals and railways into India.

The train tales of India’s modernity are, however, more complex than the above framework would have us believe. Beyond the formulaic tussle between ‘bad imperialism’ and ‘good nationalism’ lies mundane stories, fantasies and imaginations, satire and rhetoric, and more importantly their retellings that are no less powerful than factsheets of institutions and nation states to understand the complex encounters between cultures, technology and people.

These everyday practices related to peoples, technologies and places make up India’s railway modernity. And they are not narrowly limited to imperialism and nationalism alone. In the KPR sketch of Mutwalabad, the lines of modernity, at least momentarily, were disrupted by the weight of the mighty oriental beast but in Burdwan the same traditional beast carried people to witness the charm and surprise of railway modernity. It also frequently ushered in the very vehicle of Indra into towns.

Often, in settling our contemporary scores of ‘arrested development’ or underdevelopment due to imperial rule and in the quintessential follow-up mention of compensation and reparations, historical prudence is sacrificed. The railways have unfortunately become a whipping boy of reductionist arguments, a punch bag between imperialist apologists and suave nationalists. Lost in these debates are the words of unknown millions whose lives the railways touched. Beyond Mahatma Gandhi and Tharoor, some of them, as a local poet expressed in the 19th century, did like what they saw.

चलल रेलगाड़ी रंगरेज तेजधारी,
बोझाए खूब भारी हाहाकार कईले जात बा।
बईसे सब सूबा जहाँ बात हो अजूबा,
रंगरेज मंसूबा सब लोग के सुहात बा ।

Off goes the train, with fierceness and rush,
Mighty it looks, creates thunderous sound on its way.
Reaches all corners (subahs), where it is marvelled as a wonder,
This piece of work is admired by all.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at ZMO (Centre for Modern Oriental Studies), Berlin.