From Blighty to Patna: Objections to the building of railways

Pakistan Quarterly, 1962, 11, 1, Page 23

I came across this fascinating article on ‘The Origin and Growth of Pakistan Railways’ by M. B. K. Malik in Pakistan Quarterly, 1962, Vol 11, No. 1. It provides a brief history of building the railways in British India, especially the motivations and impact this had on the two outer regions of Bengal and Punjab. What captured my interest was actually the objections put forward in the initial days. The first one is from the British perspective, but the second one is from a high-caste Hindu, who obviously envisages multiple problems for those guided by astrologers. Both however, express suspicion and concern at this new system of transport and the wider impact it will have on society and the environment. Of course the railways went on to be built in both Britain and British India, and became pivotal to colonial rule. The economy of empire, with key towns and port cities, coupled with the ability to swiftly move the colonial army from cantonment towns was only made possible because of the railways in British India. But that’s another story. Read below the extract from pages 22-23.

Pakistan Quarterly, 1962, 11, 1, Page 23

The earliest proposals to build railways in India had been made to the East India Company in England in 1844 by Mr. R. M. Stephenson and others. But the time was not propitious. The land had not yet recovered from the effects of the Sind Wars, and the British power and the Sikhs in the Punjab were on the verge of an armed conflict. Nor were the Court of Directors of the East India Company convinced of the feasibility of railways in India. Even in England and Europe railways had met with opposition. In 1835 John Bull had denounced the railways as a menace:

“If they succeed” wrote the paper, “they will give an unnatural impetus to society, destroy all the relations which exist between man and man, over-throw all mercantile regulations, over-turn the metropolitan markets, drain the provinces of all their resources, and create at the peril of life, all sorts of confusion and distress. If they fail, nothing will be left but the hideous memorials of public folly”. It further remarked : “Does anybody mean to say that decent people …. would consent to be hurried along through the air upon a railroad, from which, had a lazy schoolboy left a marble, or wicked one a stone, they would be pitched off their perilous track into the valley beneath; …. being at the mercy of a tin pipe copper boiler, or the accidental dropping of a pebble on the line of way?…. We denounce the mania as destructive of the country in a thousand particulars …. the whole face of the kingdom is to be tattooed with these or a odious deformities …. huge mounds are to intersect our beautiful valleys; the noise and stench of locomotive steam-engines are to disturb the quietude of the peasant, the farmer and the gentleman; and the roaring of the bullocks, the bleating of sheep and the grunting of pigs to keep up one continual uproar through the night along the lines of these most dangerous and disfiguring abominations”.

Objections by Hindus
The orthodox Indians had religious objections. A civilian District Officer, posted in the province of Bihar during the sixties of the last century, has recorded an interesting story showing how orthodox Hindus regarded railway travelling in those days. The officer questioned a nobleman, who had just returned from his first journey by rail, about his views on railway travel. The nobleman replied that it made great noise and that it would be difficult for persons of his high caste to travel at all by such means:

The trains only go at stated times; now I cannot commence a journey except at the minute decided upon by my astrologer as a favourable moment for starting. This makes it very difficult for me to travel at all. Tomorrow I have to go to Muzafferpur, and the astrologer has decided that I must start at 1 A.M. Now my cousin Gadahur went by railway the other day with his wife, and daughter of six years old, and a baby. He started at an unfavourable moment. His wife and two children and a maid-servant were put in a palanquin, which was placed on a truck, which prevented their being seen; and he went in an ordinary carriage. Somehow or other a spark from the engine flew into the palanquin and set fire to some of the linen in which the baby was wrapped; and the servant in her confusion, thinking it was only a bundle of clothes, threw it out. The moment it was done she found out the mistake and they all shrieked. This was only a mile from the Patna station and the train soon stopped. The station master was very kind and did his best, but the palanquin was on fire, and the wife in getting out was seen by many persons. It is not a fit subject even for conversation”.

But all the objections came to naught. England was just entering the age of ‘railway mania’ and it was decided to construct railways in India through Guaranteed British Companies.

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