Contesting Nation Space: Railway Travel in Colonial India
By Aparajita Mukhopadhyay
Salisbury University (USA)
This post is adopted from my monograph manuscript in progress and as such is part of a wider and ongoing project. Aparajita is an Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Salisbury University, Maryland, USA. Her forthcoming monograph is a social history of railways in colonial north India. For more information of Aparajita’s work, visit her Academia.edu page.
The first trains rolled out in India from Bombay (modern Mumbai) on 21st April, 1853. By the turn of the twentieth century, the region boasted of the fourth largest railway network in the world. This impressive growth however, happened within a colonial context. India was the premier colony of the British Empire, the so-called ‘jewel in the crown’. Thus, railway development in India was a colonial project, and it was initially promoted and developed by the English East India Company and was eventually taken over the British Crown and the Parliament in 1858 after the transfer of power from the former to the latter after a violent ‘mutiny’ by the Indian soldiers of the English East India Company army. Not surprisingly therefore, railways in colonial India was primarily envisioned as an economic tool designed to transport raw materials such as cotton and other products from the interior of India to the ports and subsequently to the factories of industrial Britain. Additionally, the railway tracks were expected to provide military benefits to the colonial state in India, especially by facilitating faster movement of troops across the vast stretches of India in case of any political and military insurrections. The events of 1857 alluded above, provided an apposite context to expand the existing railway network also as an interconnected web of military posts and cantonments and buttressed the claims of the colonial administrators who wanted a faster and better mode of transport.
In short, the viability of trains in India was largely thought in practical terms and was aimed fulfil the needs of the British Empire. This however, is not unique in case of colonial India, as technology transfer in a colonial context is rarely, if ever, directed towards benefitting the colonised. Nevertheless, the colonial state as well as the railway promoters couched the economic and military advantages accruing out of railway expansion in India in a language of progress and ‘modernity’. Once again, the Indian case is not singular. European colonists across the world justified new technical intrusions in their colonies using a language of scientific progress that used, to borrow Michael Adas’s famous book title, ‘machines as measures of men’ and invariably found the colonised lacking. Consequently, the colonists argued that introduction of new technologies or machines were to bring the colonies at par with the former, even in a socio-cultural sense and thus ultimately signified a positive transition for which the colonised should rather be grateful.
At any rate, in the context of colonial India, railway promoters as well as the colonial administrators argued that the introduction of railways will bring manifold social advantages. Most notably, these included an eventual breaking down of the caste and religious prejudices that arguably held Indians in its stranglehold and retarded Indians’ march towards modernity, as well as ‘making India’s vastness graspable’ by linking far-flung corners of the country with a railway network. This latter aim, was particularly advertised as railway travel experience was anticipated to forge a sense of national unity based on homogenised territorial conceptualisation. More specifically, railway promoters claimed that travelling in trains from one part of India to another, while looking at the diverse landscape in passing, would provide Indians with a reliable and unprecedented opportunity to conceptualise India as a shared nation space. Thus, railway travel was to contribute to ‘make India’ where none existed before. Interestingly, some contemporary Indians too, found this possibility appealing and expressed hopes in the ability of the railway tracks to connect Indians with one another, both in literal and metaphorical sense – a desire that had a clear political flavour.
But if travelogues written by Indian railway travellers in Bengali and Hindi is anything to go by then Indians interpreted their travel experiences in more diverse ways than imagined by the proponents of steam-powered nationalism. These travelogues are a fascinating window into the minds of a cross-section (albeit literate and elite) of Indian railway passengers. Most of the authors exude admiration for the possibility provided by the railway network to ‘see’ different parts of India within a matter of weeks if not in days. But despite such frank adoration for the technology that made the journey possible, the conceptualisation of territory was not merely in terms of what can be defined as ‘national’. For instance, most authors use an explicit religious idiom as opposed to a political one to imagine India. Not surprisingly therefore, India came to be largely defined as a ‘Hindu’ territory – an imagination that was a clear by-product of railway travel to various parts of India, especially those sites that doubled as important Hindu pilgrimages. An author of one of the travelogues even claimed that travelling through pilgrimages of north India imparted a knowledge in history that was ignored in school textbooks.
Travelling away and spending time in different parts of India also contributed to a conceptualisation of ‘homelands’, viz, the places to which the authors belonged. These imaginings create a romantic picture of these ‘homelands’ as geographically and culturally distinct from other parts of India, as places that offer emotional succour mainly through homogeneous cultural (food, language) experiences. Indeed, most of the authors argued that though railways provided a fantastic opportunity to travel around India, at the end of such long journeys, their hearts longed to return home. Clearly, home as defined by these authors implicitly challenged the cohesive ‘national’ whole or at least suggested that loyalty to nation as a territorial concept had to contend with the regional and even local. So, here I am arguing that in the context of conceptualising territory, railway travel experiences produced diverse imaginings and interpretations. Interestingly, this I think clearly shows the agency of the colonised in the sense that Indian railway travellers conceptualised territories that challenged the ways in which the colonialists expected the former to respond. More importantly, these responses underscore a more important, though largely ignored aspect viz., the wider and long-term social impact of such diverse territorial conceptualisations on India and Indians, a certainly thought-provoking theme; but one nonetheless beyond the scope of this post.