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.