Sunday, 19 September 2010

Trains in India

Apparently there were two shows on BBC called 'Tracks of Empire'; we only caught the one.  Brits -- Bill included -- have this amazing fascination with railways.  I can see the magic in some respects; I love travelling by train (for fun, definitely not for work), but my fascination never gets near the obsessional level of many Brits.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this programme, narrated by John Sergeant.  Bill and I both remarked how much he reminded us of Jo Brand.  I thought I read that they are siblings, but in looking to verify this, they are not.  Anyhow, he's there in India to talk about the railway that the British built:  40,000 miles of tracks that reach every corner of the country and serve over a billion people.

He kept saying that railways were about more than the nuts and bolts that made them, something about the irreducible logic of a train schedule.  I think that would be even more special if trains actually ran to their schedules.  Sergeant almost convinced us that trains in India actually do.  However the story begins at sea, where in the 1850's Britain ruled the waves.  India was run by  the British East India Company, with major trading centres at Bombay, Madras and Calcutta; (Mumbia, Chennai and Kolkata).

In 1848, Governor General James Broun Ramsay (Lord Dalhousie) was the President of the British Board of Trade.  Within 10 years he brought 3 million tonnes of construction material in 3,000 ships and used 10 million people to built the railway in India.  In his 1853 memo to Parliament proposing the railways he used words like 'magnificant system', 'grand unified plan' 'vastly surpassing the noble monuments' of the pyramids of Egypt, the aqueducts of Rome and the Great Wall of China (so, not a small ego there).  This was even more ambitious considering there were no factories in India nor any skilled industrial labour.  Mind, iron and steel mills in Britain were happy to supply these materials and they were also a boon to British shipping.

Sergeant said that to understand the railways one must understand India (who writes these scripts?).  They initially experimented on short lengths of track, all built to Imperial measurements (that's feet and inches).  He talks about the station at Calcutta being used for travel by 20 million passengers and for shipping 3 million tonnes of freight, whilst walking through the station that is reminiscent of scenes from Slumdog Millionaire, or of the video of Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) if you missed the movie, which I highly recommend. 

Of course, there was of course a clash of culture -- putting aside the whole colonial-political and racial things.  The railways ran roughshod over historical Indian, through the jungles, over mountains, in intense heat, across the six states of northern Indian.  Sergeant travels overnight to Jamalpur in the train that had the first air conditioned, two-tiered cars.  Of course Indians had to travel in third class whilst Brits enjoyed relative luxury. British rulers never encouraged Indian nationalism, and perhaps it is ironic that the railways were paramount in uniting India as a country and probably made the nationalist vision possible.  One of the big challenges was laying track across the swampy agricultural heartland of the Ganges Plain where the river overflowed with each monsoon season.  This required the building of embankments, which only gave water a better area in which to gather, and increased the curse of malaria.

Sergeant mentions an incident caused by Maoists, left wing terrorists, who have targeted the railway and delayed his train by a couple of hours, though the incident was well away from the filming.  Jalmapur only exists because of the railways where it was built in 1862 in only 4 weeks.  Now 10,000 employees and their dependents live there today.  While the the British are gone the ghosts of their rule are everywhere.  Road signs hark back to the days of the British Raj, (raj means 'reign') such as the Queen's Hotel.  Houses of the railway managers still are surrounded by the hedges prevalent in Britain, so that everyone knows their place and continuity is valued more than individualism.  Rulers of the Raj could say that the railways brought progress to India and that Indians were benefiting, but there was still segregation.

Dalhoosie pushed for more and more material progress and development.  Senior British railway staff who required both Catholic and Anglican churches and Sergeant visited an Anglican church where an interesting Indian version of the Anglican service was being held.  Sixty years since India's independence, more people learn English than did under the Raj.  Railways run the local school, which is integrated with Indians from all across the country, from Kerala, Gujarat and Bengal.  Railway employment mixes people from all over.  They say they 'belong to the railway', like family.  Generation after generation serves the railways with 1.5 million employees, India's largest employer, the fifth largest employer in the world.  Strangely, railway staff supported British rule at the time; I suppose good employment opportunity was a powerful incentive to maintain the status quo.

Travelling 70 miles west to Ara, where it is poor and rural, in belligerent Behar there is more Maoist violence, though none affecting the programme's filming.  One hundred fifty  years ago at Ara there was an Indian Mutiny, though Indians call it the Rebellion or the First War of Independence.  It centred around the house of Richard Boyle, a railway engineer with 15 British and 50 armed Sikhs withstanding several thousand rebels.  They defended themselves with 2 cannons, loaded with heavy brass casters from easy chairs and pianos, not cannon balls.  The siege lasted for 8 days - musta been a lot of chairs and pianos in that house - until the rebels withdrew.  Boyle went on to build the Japanese railway.  Kuwah Singh who led the rebellion is still commemorated at Ara.  I thought it was strange - and more than a little insensitive - of Sergeant to query whether British rule didn't actually benefit India and why Singh was celebrated as a hero, but not British engineers.

When India began to fight for freedom, the nationalists saw the railway as their first target, the aim being to cripple the British economy.  Railways carried iron, sulphur and other of India's natural resources to the coast where they were sent to Britain.  They saw the railways as a tool to exploit India.  When asked about what was important, a railway employee listed administration, discipline and punctuality as all important, but none as important as freedom.  Britain gave India the railway (sounds rather more generous than I think the facts reflect, but nevertheless this is a true statement).  Dalhoosie was blamed for the mutiny because of his greedily annexing land, through the Doctrine of Lapse -- ironically, his own title as First Marquess became extinct with his own death and was therefore lapsed --  but it was the railway that aided the quelling of the mutiny, by moving troops.  It was also the symbol of the Iron Hand, the power of the paramount authority in India:  Britain.

After the mutiny, Britain tightened its grip, doing away with the British East India Company.  The Raj was born.  The railway network was consolidated and there was a boom of railway building.  Within 10 years, 3,000 more miles were laid, transporting troops and weapons.  There were 10,000 staff in workshop towns, bringing the industrial revolution to India,  and the court of the British Empire.

Gandhi recognised that but for the railway, the English could not have had such a hold on India.  The mile long Dufferin Bridge - now called Malviya Bridge - was built at Varanasi in 1887, with 7 thousand men.  Vast rivers needed strong bridges to withstand the monsoon foods.  They were later nicknamed the Meccano bridges, with huge brick pillars extending 140 feet below the river bed.  1887 was also the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (a celebration of her 50 year reign - any excuse for a party).

Rudyerd Kipling wrote about the building of the bridge.  It was hugely controversial, the building of this modern industrial monstrosity across the holiest river in India, the Ganges, AKA as Mother Gunga.  It was a 19th century intrusion by the ruling power upon a sacred place with an ancient history.  The locals were extremely upset. 

Even though the railways have made it possible for many more Indians to come bathe in the Ganges river, Gandhi felt that this ease of transport devalued the purity of the pilgrimage; that the great difficulty of the journey meant that only real devotees came to bathe.  Now "rogues could come to practice roguery" and pilgrimage became big business.  Though five hundred million passengers could and did unlock resources and local trade, Gandhi attacked the railway because its power and scale were the means by which Britain plundered India.  Whilst part of him was reconciled to the practicalities, he still held it as evil.  He didn't like modern inventions, modern meaning Western and industrial.  Industry to him equated with greed and violence.  He didn't like speed in travel.  He believed in local self-sufficiency.  He felt that the huge growth brought about by modernism was a threat to Indian culture and society.  Paradoxically, the railway was the only way he himself could tour the country and spread nationalist literature.

In 1947, India gained her independence.  Under the Raj, Hindus and Muslims lived together, but Muslims wanted a Muslim state, through the partition of India - or that's how this programme portrayed history.  I have a feeling it isn't that simple.  Anyhow, Sergeant is at a town in India near the border with Pakistan.  He speaks with a man, Kauldit, who at the time of partition found himself caught on the wrong side of the border.  He was suddenly not welcome in his own country, coming as he was from across that border.  The partition resulted in the killing of a million people and the uprooting of 20 billion, mostly Hindus.  Kauldit relates that refugees traveled by train, Hindus to Indian, Muslims to Pakistan.  Train stations were battle grounds, bodies were thrown from the trains en route.  Two and a half million people crossed the border looking for new homes.  He relates how he was threatened with being thrown off by his fellow Hindus.  They made him prove he was not Muslim.  The only way to do that was to show them he was not circumcised, as Muslims are.  He was still bitter about the indignity of it.  He said he learned through that experience that Muslims have no kindness and Hindus have no forgiveness, all men are beasts.  Life before the partition was so much better, he thought.

Between the late 19th Century and 1947, the railways doubled to 40,000 miles, but partition devastated the railways.  The network was dismembered at the political border.  Only two trains a week cross into Pakistan.

At the border there is a nightly ritual.  Crowds gather to watch the border guards from each side do their military swagger, both sides shouting nationalist slogans.  The guards come together and shake hands, but the border is nonetheless ferociously guarded and to cross it is not lightly undertaken.

Thirteen million Indians travel daily on the railways.  India, the world's largest democracy, hosts the 4th largest railway in the world.  Gandhi's ashes were carried in state on the train.  The English language which is spoken across India, their legal system, and their democracy are all British constructs, as are the railways.

The Indians interviewed clearly value the railway system as necessary transport and as good employment.  Sergeant seemed to want them to express gratitude to Britain for the railway, which I found a bit much.  I thought the fact that they smiled and were friendly to him was pretty good.  Still in all, it was a good programme and Bill enjoyed and I both it a lot.

1 comment:

Struggler said...

I wonder if my Dad saw this programme - it sounds just his cup of tea. A useful reminder that a country is only really as strong as its transport system...