The Indian Railway in Public Imagination
Like most Indian kids, I grew up traveling by train. My earliest memories of vacations, visiting family and seeing places other than the city I grew up in are associated with trains. My great grandparents owned a tea stall and my grandfather and dad grew up around trains and the station. For example, my dad knows how to read and change train signals and can identify different types of gauges. My dad was even briefly employed by the Western Railway, but as a tennis player.
However, the Indian Railways are an interesting topic even for those who haven’t had direct exposure or personal experience with this massive, complex system. Because like a Bollywood movie, a lot is going on here: colonialism, technology, sabotage, nationalism, insane economics, and… Bollywood.
For context, the scale of the Indian Railway is truly enormous, which becomes even more interesting when we recognize that this whole system is entirely owned and operated by the Indian Ministry of Railways. The Indian Railway encompasses some 42 thousand miles of railway tracks, runs 22,300 trains, and carries 23 million passengers daily. In 2020, the Indian Railway is expected to carry over 15 billion passengers. To put this in context, all US airlines (domestic and international) combined have only ever carried a record of 1 billion passengers in a year (in 2018). The Indian Railway regularly exceeds this by 10 to 15 times.
A system of this scale is therefore bound to have some interesting stories associated with it, and this piece aims to tell some of those stories. I’m first going to talk a little bit about the history of the Indian Railway and the surrounding colonial narratives. Then I’ll talk about the role that the railway played in India’s independence movements and the partition of India and Pakistan. Then I’ll talk about more contemporary developments in the railway, and about the Railway as a business. Finally, I’ll talk briefly about representations of the railway in Bollywood.
Origins of the Indian Railway
The British(who invented the steam engine and the railroad) brought the railway to the subcontinent in the first half of the 19th century, in what is often called the largest technology transfer of the 19th century. Early trains in India were mainly goods trains and they provided the British with a mechanism to exploit India’s non-costal agricultural hinterlands. These trains were able to take commodities from the interior to British port cities (such as Bombay and Calcutta) where these goods could be exported and the colony monetized. In the mid-1800s, the British government even gave British companies subsidies and incentives to build a railway in India because it was said to have such a high potential to unlock economic value. In 1853, the first passenger train (the focus of this piece) ran in India from Mumbai to Thane. It covered a distance of 21 miles and ran at 14 miles per hour. For context, Usain Bolt does the 100m dash at roughly double this speed.
I want to take a minute and go on a slight tangent to talk about where in Mumbai this first passenger train left from. This station was previously called Bori Bunder, then the British created this beautiful building and called it Victoria Terminus, and then sometime in the late 90s/ early 2000s following increasing nationalist momentum, its name was changed to Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus.
This building was designed by Fredrick William Stevens (who, despite having three first names and being a colonizer, made this amazing building). It is an iconic piece of Indo-Saracenic architecture that blends gothic, Mughal, and Rajput influences. It was a monolithic structure when it was built; nothing of this scale was around, and the British considered it to be a symbol of British technological and cultural superiority. Even now, it dominates the landscape and the grandiosity endures.
A tangent to a tangent: there used to be a marble statue of Queen Victoria under the clock on this building’s main façade. In the 1950s, post-independence, the Indian government began to remove statues of British figures from buildings. So this statue was taken and put in a random park somewhere, and then was declared lost. The fact that India lost a giant marble statue of Queen Victoria is the most Indian thing I’ve ever heard, and I love how it’s a great fuck you to the colonizers: you took our art and statues and put them in your museums, but we misplaced your Queen because we don’t care.
Even before Indian independence, the railway system grew rapidly. Quickly in the 1850s, the railway expanded around major British Indian cities: Bombay, Calcutta, Madras. The number of routes and number of railway companies also increased steadily through the rest of the 19th century and underwent electrification in the early 20th century (both more and less exciting than it sounds). This period also saw a consolidation of railway companies under government purview and increased regulation in the sector. The position of “Railway Minister” was created in the Indian Parliament and the Railway Budget was separated from general government finances
To illustrate the extent to which the subcontinent had been connected, consider the inauguration of the Grand Trunk Express, which used to run between Mangalore, Delhi, and Peshawar (now stops at Delhi for partition reasons).
Trains and Nation Building
Starting in the 1850s, these were big shifts in the Indian identity, and the railway played a part in this narrative of India as a nation. The area we consider to be India today (and Pakistan and Bangladesh), used to be a collection of kingdoms and principalities. Yes, the Mughals did unify a lot of it under a common-ish banner, but it was not even close to the geographic boundaries of British India. A prominent school of thought is that the British were in large part responsible for shaping modern India’s borders.
There’s this really interesting quote by British poet and journalist Edward Arnold that I think is relevant here.
“Railways may do for India, what dynasties have never done — what the genius of Akbar the Magnificent could not effect by government, nor the cruelty of Tipu Sahib by violence — they may make India a nation”
The idea here is that the railway, and its scope, played a part in deciding India’s geographical borders, and allowed for the transfer of people and ideas in a way that unified it. However, one can counter this by saying that the fact that a national railway existed at all implied that India was already a nation.
I know that some of the things that I’ve said here sound like I’m sympathizing with the colonizers. So now I must make fun of them to prove that I’m not a race traitor. This piece is supposed to be about the Indian Railway in the public imagination, and a lot of the literature we have about the early Indian Railway comes from colonial sources. The three key themes that emerge from this literature are enlightenment, wonder, and acceptance. This literature, and these themes, tell a lot not only about the Indian railway’s history and present but also about colonial and imperial attitudes towards India and Indians.
A lot of literature and documents that exist surrounding proposals of bringing the railway to India cite that the idea of “enlightening” the country. British politicians and businessmen insisted that they wanted to bring the railway to India and give the subcontinent an industry and technology that would “civilize the country”. But as we know, and as people at the time also knew, their actual agendas were almost entirely financial. They also probably had some military agendas, because this was the Great Game era when the British and the Russians were jockeying for powers in South and Central Asia (where they had no business being). So an effective railway system in India (and modern-day Pakistan) would provide the British army key supply routes in case of war with the Russians in Afghanistan.
As a side note, some really nerdy European took this enlightenment narratives too literally and opened up bookstalls on railway stations under the “AH Wheeler” brand to sell literature and assert European moral superiority. The stalls started off selling “literature” and then rapidly became outlets for mostly smutty French novels. Yet another resounding victory for Hypocrisy.
The second theme that emerged in European literature surrounding the Indian railway was that of wonder. The Europeans, even though they had their own trains, were completely fascinated by the Indian Railway. There are a lot of travelogues and written by Europeans traveling throughout India by train because the Indian Railway was this new, fantastical thing that connected such a large, strange land area. These books described Indian trains, landscapes, and people to make them accessible to readers back home. There is this one account that compares the sheer number of languages spoken on a random Indian railway platform to the land of Babel. And if you think about how this sounds, it’s very similar to what India is like in modern western imagination: exotic, diverse, colorful (for better or for worse).
First, le’s talk about the acceptance of the railway by Indians. When passenger trains first began in India, the British did not expect Indians to embrace rail travel. A large part of Indian society was very conservative about breaking caste rules, which disallowed people to travel, eat, and associate with people of other castes. The colonial narrative was that Indians weren’t ‘civilized’ enough to make use of this great technology. However, this turned out to be a much smaller problem than they anticipated. A lot of Indians ended up breaking these caste rules to travel in trains because of the economic opportunities train travel presented.
On the one hand, British accounts describe sounds of “raucous festivity” coming from Indian compartments of trains, portraying the railway as an equalizer. On the other hand, there was also infrastructure built into the railway system that helped maintains certain caste rules and advanced the whole “divide and rule” strategy infamously associated with the British Raj. For example, you see this picture of a Hindu tea stall, which means that there was probably a separate Muslim tea stall because Hindus did not want to share food with Muslims (yes, saddeningly little has changed in 200 years.)
Indians’ acceptance of the railways was great for the British financially. Not only did Indian travelers purchase a bulk of the tickets, but Indian businessmen also bought shares in British owned railway companies.
So while the British were happy about Indians traveling by train, “the Indian experience, was that of a discriminated other, struggling hard to play the role of a petitioner to be accepted in the same ranks as those of their rulers” (Chatterjee, 2019). This brings us to the topic of the acceptance of Indians on the railway. Indian and European compartments were segregated, and they offered two completely different travel experiences (think first-class on Emirates vs Mumbai Local trains during rush hour).
In addition to Europeans accounts of how alienating it was to travel with ‘unruly’ Indians, there are also some Indian accounts of the trains leading to alienation from cultural roots. This is because while the railway may have played part in abating some caste hierarchies, it created new ones: of class, luxury, colonial privileges. This was especially manifested by rich westernized Indians who wanted to assimilate into urbane mainstreams that the British tried to forge in India. Many princely states had their own railway and entourages, which were essentially palaces on wheels — to an extent to show off their riches, and to an extent, because these Indian royals weren’t allowed in European first-class compartments on commercial trains.
Trains and Independence
Since the railway system embedded itself so deeply in life in British India, it’s no wonder that it played an important part in various Indian independence movements.
One way in which it did so was by serving as a target for anti-British sabotage. The Railway was British technology that was intended to be a symbol of superiority and domination and an instrument of state power. So naturally, Indian Freedom fighters decided to fuck with it to fuck with the British. They threw bombs at trains carrying British officers and blocked railway tracks leading to and from cities where insurgent movements were underway. A famous example of this kind of activity is the Kakori Robbery of 1925, dramatized in this clip from Rang De Basanti. In this incident, freedom fighters looted a train carrying British money being transported to the treasury and used it to buy guns to give firepower to the independence movement.
Later, the independence struggle in India became more Gandhian, and non-violent movements such as Satyagrah and civil disobedience became more popular than sneaky sabotage tricks of erstwhile. Gandhi was often seen collecting donations for the freedom movement in trains and on railway platforms. Yes, this was a non-violent movement, but you can be non-violent and still super annoying. And so that’s what they did, as illustrated in this line from Chatterjee’s 2009 book.
“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 defiance of the public during the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Eventually, the British got so pissed off that they passed laws that would land you in jail if you pulled the chain for no reason (these laws are still in effect today).
Gandhi, a Europe educated lawyer was part of the Indian National Congress, which was central to the independence movement. It consisted of mostly affluent, European-educated men, and train journeys reminded them of the stark differences between the way Indians and Europeans experienced trains, where Indians were treated as second- or third-class citizens. Gandhi allegedly also viewed traveling third class as a strategic move to connect with the common man, but eventually, he got tired of being mobbed by supporters and stopped.
Trains and Partition
In 1947, as India got independence from the British and India and Pakistan were partitioned, millions of Muslims left Indian territory to go to Pakistan, and non-muslims went from Pakistani territory to India. In the largest mass migration in history, 14 million people were displaced, and some 200,000 to 2 million were killed in the riots that happened. The horrors that took place are encapsulated poignantly in this excerpt from a Washington Post article:
Trains carrying refugees between the two new nations arrived full of corpses; their passengers had been killed by mobs en route. These were called “blood trains”: “All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors,” Hajari wrote in his book.
Even the fruit on the trees tasted of blood, recalls Sudershana Kumari, who fled from her home town in Pakistan to India. “When you broke a branch, red would come out,” she said, painting an image of how much blood had soaked the soil in India.
Right after partition, India and Pakistan got into war over territory conflicts and tensions have remained more or less hostile since. After partition, the next time a train crossed the India Pakistan border was in 1976, following a peace agreement made between the countries after Bangladesh’s liberation war. This train was called Samjhauta Express (or Friendship express in English). In 2007, there was a bomb blast on this train, and the service was stopped. Since then, the train has run sporadically depending on the political climate between the two countries. (And even if the train is running, getting a visa is nearly impossible)
Following independence, different railway systems were nationalized, and colonial-era technology was replaced by electric/ computerized systems (which even the New York subway still hasn’t done fully!). As Chatterjee puts it:
One common theme in these decades has been the inexorable drive to acquire and develop technology to ensure faster, inexpensive, and safer travel for all users. The increase in the speed of travel has been steady, progressive, and not an attempt at creating records.
Notably, the Indian railway the largest employer in the world at one time.
Special Mention: Lalu Prasad Yadav
I wasn’t going to include this in here, but I was talking to one of my Indian friends about writing a piece on the Indian Railway, he said: “So you’re going to give a presentation on Lalu Prasad Yadav?”, and then I realized that talking about the Indian Railway without talking about this gentleman would be a mistake. So this is Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was the Indian Railway Minister from 2004–2009.
He is one of the most memorable rail ministers (or any politicians for that matter) in recent history — and not just because he looks like that. As Railway Minister, Yadav left passenger fares untouched and focused on other sources of revenue for the railways. For instance, he banned plastic cups from being used to serve tea at railway stations and replaced those with kulhars (earthen cups), to generate more employment in rural areas. When he took over, the Indian Railways was a loss-making organization. In the four years under his leadership, it showed a cumulative total profit of $5.2 billion. Sadly, this wasn’t what most people think of as “profit”, only a few well-executed accounting tricks.
A side note: in 1996 Lalu was convicted of embezzling several hundred dollars from his state’s animal husbandry department in what came to be called “Fodder Scam”
In 2002, IRCTC — the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (which subsidiary of IR) launched its online ticketing platform. Today, it gets around 600,000 bookings every day, has 30 million registered users, is India’s largest e-commerce platform, and the world’s second-busiest website. It also has a complete monopoly over catering in Indian trains. And when operating on this scale, even the little things count. For example, IRCTC is the only entity that’s authorized to manufacture and distribute packaged drinking water at all railway stations and on trains. Sales from water contribute 10% of IRCTC’s revenue IRCTC has a 45% market share in packaged drinking water in India.
As a result, when IRCTC was IPO’d in 2019, it was oversubscribed by 112 times. That means there was 112 times more demand for the shares compared to the number of shares issued!
However, as a lot of us know from our introductory economics classes, monopolies are famously inefficient, especially when they are government undertakings. Over the years there have been many, too many, reports of how unhygienic IRCTC food is. People have found cockroaches, rodents, and other vile delights in their food on trains. Various audits have concluded that train food in India is not fit for consumption. So if you do ever visit India, while I recommend that you travel by train because it’s so integral to the Indian experience, I urge you to stay far away from the train food.
Future of Indian Railways
So what’s the future of the Indian railway? The Indian government currently is not a good place financially (or otherwise hehe). India is in the middle of a recession and the government needs to spend money that it doesn’t have to stimulate the economy. So, it’s divesting its assets like there’s no tomorrow. But it doesn’t have that many great assets, and the Indian Railway, as one of the government’s very few even kind-of-profitable enterprises is being cut up and given away first. Moreover, the government is looking to privatize select train lines to make the railway experience more luxurious to compete with the growing Air travel sector.
The Railway on Film
Undoubtedly, the Indian Railways were the biggest single industry the British gave India, but representations of the railways … are an even bigger industry (Chatterjee, 2019)
So, Railways and Bollywood have shared a symbiotic relationship. For one, Bollywood music helped make the Indian Railway a mode of tourism, instead of just convince. Early Bollywood films were almost entirely set either in Mumbai or Delhi or on shitty sets. So, all film settings that were removed from Bombay, Delhi served as tourism by proxy. As Chatterjee puts it:
The obsessive cinematography — or reeling on the rails — that featured hill-stations, viaduct bridges, sprawling farmlands or forests, made these new cinematic destinations the new touristic destinations for the emerging middle-class
One of these touristic destinations was the hills of Darjeeling in northeastern India, which were connected by The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The trains that run on this narrow gauge line are now popularly called “Toy trains”. It’s interesting how colonial ideology miniaturized the narrow-gauge mountain railway, and Bollywood miniaturized the miniature. So, instead of a dangerous hilly journey, this train ride became an easy and affordable thrill, as depicted in the song Mere Sapno ki Rani from 1969, which has one of the earliest depictions of trains on screen.
Another notable train song is Chaiyya Chaiyya. If you grew up as a brown kid in the late-90s/ early-2000s you really really know this song. This song, for me, is peak Bollywood. It’s set on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, which is also a narrow-gauge railway in another tea-producing region in India.
As you could probably tell from these songs, the railway in Bollywood is very romanticized and far removed from the terrifying catering horrors I previously mentioned. But why? It’s because trains give people geographical, economic, and social mobility, which gives people a sense of choice in who they are and who they like, leading to lofty romantic associations. There are a lot of movies that are set in/around finding love at the train station (which honestly is not a super pleasant place in most of the country).
A clip from one of the most iconic moments in Bollywood that captures this perfectly:
I’m going to end on this note because I can’t hope to compete with DDLJ. I hope you had fun reading this piece because I had fun putting it together. Ultimately, what I hope you take away from this is that the Indian Railway is large and it contains multitudes.
Sources & Disclaimers
This was piece is just an amalgamation of the random information I’ve hoarded on this subject, so all my sources aren’t documented super well/ to any sort of academic standard. Moreover, this piece contains a lot of opinions and jokes that I hope people won’t take seriously.
I do however want to give one big shoutout to Arup K Chatterjee, whose 2019 book “The Great Indian Railways: A Cultural Biography” has been the central inspiration for this piece.