In a book called A Short History of Indian Railways, author Rajendra B Aklekar has curated anecdotes and stories from the time the first wagon rolled in India, up to the advent of bullet trains. This is a people’s history of Indian Railways. In one of the essays, Mahatma Gandhi, back in 1917 had recounted his experiences of his travel by the Indian Railways. An extract from his essay:
I have now been in India for over two years and a half after my return from South Africa. Over one quarter of that time I have passed on the Indian trains travelling third class by choice.
I have traveled up north as far as Lahore, down south up to Tranquebar, and from Karachi to Calcutta. Having resorted to third class travelling, among other reasons, for the purpose of studying the conditions under which this class of passengers travels, I have naturally made as many critical observations as I could.
I have fairly covered the majority of railway systems during this period. Now and then I have entered into correspondence with the management of the different railways about the defects that have come under my notice. But I think that the time has come when I should invite the press and the public to join in a crusade against a grievance which has too long remained unredressed, though much of it is capable of redress without great difficulty.
On the twelfth instant I booked at Bombay for Madras by the mail train and paid 13.9 rupees. It was labelled to carry twenty-two passengers. These could only have seating accommodation. There were no bunks in this carriage whereon passengers could lie with any degree of safety or comfort. There were two nights to be passed in this train before reaching Madras. If not more than twenty-two passengers found their way into my carriage before we reached Poona, it was because the bolder ones kept the others at bay. With the exception of two or three insistent passengers, all had to find their sleep being seated all the time. After reaching Raichur, the pressure became unbearable. The rush of passengers could not be stayed. The fighters among us found the task almost beyond them. The guards or other railway servants came in only to push in more passengers.
A defiant Memon merchant protested against this packing of passengers like sardines. In vain did he say that this was his fifth night on the train. The guard insulted him and referred him to the management at the terminus. There were during this night as many as thirty-five passengers in the carriage during the greater part of it.
Some lay on the floor in the midst of dirt and some had to keep standing. A free fight was, at one time, avoided only by the intervention of some of the older passengers who did not want to add to the discomfort by an exhibition of temper.
On the way passengers got for tea tannin water with filthy sugar and a whitish looking liquid mis-called milk which gave this water a muddy appearance. I can vouch for the appearance, but I cite the testimony of the passengers as to the taste.
Not during the whole of the journey was the compartment once swept or cleaned. The result was that every time you walked on the floor or rather cut your way through the passengers seated on the floor, you waded through dirt. The closet was also not cleaned during the journey and there was no water in the water tank.
Refreshments sold to the passengers were dirty-looking, handed by dirtier hands, coming out of filthy receptacles and weighed in equally unattractive scales. These were previously sampled by millions of flies. I asked some of the passengers who went in for these dainties to give their opinion. Many of them used choice expressions as to the quality but were satisfied to state that they were helpless in the matter; they had to take things as they came.
On reaching the station I found that the gari-wala would not take me unless I paid the fare he wanted. I mildly protested and told him I would pay him the authorised fare. I had to turn passive resister before I could be taken. I simply told him he would have to pull me out of the gari or call the policeman…
Compare the lot of the first class passengers with that of the third class. In the Madras case the first class fare is over five times as much as the third class fare. Does the third class passenger get one-fifth, even one-tenth, of the comforts of his first class fellow? It is but simple justice to claim that some relative proportion be observed between the cost and comfort.
It is a known fact that the third class traffic pays for the ever-increasing luxuries of first
and second class travelling. Surely a third class passenger is entitled at least to the bare necessities of life.
In neglecting the third class passengers, the opportunity of giving a splendid education to millions in orderliness, sanitation, decent composite life and cultivation of simple and clean tastes is being lost. Instead of receiving an object lesson in these matters, third class passengers have their sense of decency and cleanliness blunted during their travelling experience.
Among the many suggestions that can be made for dealing with the evil here described, I would respectfully include this: let the people in high places, the Viceroy, the Commander-in-Chief, the Rajas, Maharajas, the Imperial Councillors and others, who generally travel in superior classes, without previous warning, go through the experiences now and then of third class travelling.
We would then soon see a remarkable change in the conditions of third class travelling and the uncomplaining millions will get some return for the fares they pay under the expectation of being carried from place to place with ordinary creature comforts.
HOW AN ALERT TRAIN DRIVER SAVED GANDHIJI’S LIFE
It is a little known fact that there was a possible conspiracy to assasinate Gandhiji by derailing a train. Various records state that there were five to six attempts to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi since 1934. One of them was eighteen months before his death, when a train that he was travelling in was attempted to be derailed. An alert train driver had stopped it in time, saving Gandhiji’s life.
On 29 June 1946, Gandhiji was travelling by train to Pune from Bombay and there was a huge pile of debris on the railway track between Neral and Karjat stations, with the intention of killing Gandhiji in an accident.
However, the accident was averted because of the alertness of a motorman, M.L. Pareira. Yet, the railway engine was severely damaged. Pyarelal Nayyar, Gandhiji’s personal secretary, wrote an article in the 7 July 1946 edition of Harijan on this incident. He writes:
The railway train which carried Mahatma Gandhi collided with the heaps of debris piled up across the railway track on the night of 29 June, when the said special train was in full speed. The said debris were deliberately piled up across the track. The accident was averted only because of the alertness of the engine driver. Otherwise, there would have been damage to the life of Gandhiji and others because of the accident.
Since the train was the only one scheduled at that time, it seems likely that the intended target of derailment was Gandhi himself. He was not injured in the accident. At a prayer meeting after the event Gandhi is quoted as saying, ‘I have not hurt anybody, nor do I consider anybody to be my enemy. I can’t understand why there are so many attempts on my life. Yesterday’s attempt on my life has failed. I will not die just yet; I aim to live till the age of 125.
Sadly, he had only eighteen more months to live.
THIRD CLASS COACH FOR GANDHIJI’S FUNERAL
As in life, so in death. The last journey of the Mahatma was also in a third class rail carriage. Throughout his life, Gandhiji never preferred to travel in any other class other than the common or the third class, and the Asthi Special (the train carrying the urn with his ashes), ferrying the mortal remains for submersion in the holy confluence of rivers at Prayag in Allahabad also comprised five third class carriages.
The urn was placed in the middle carriage, heavily covered in flowers and khadi flags and illuminated by six electric lights, and so clearly visible to spectators from the platform. Large images of the charkha and Ashoka’s national lion seal were painted on the carriage.
The train left Delhi at 4 a.m. on 11 February 1948. The urn with Gandhiji’s ashes and bones was looked after and guarded during the journey by Abha, Manu, Pyarelal, Dr Sushila Nayyar, Prabhavati Narayan and others who were Gandhiji’s daily companions at prayer. The train stopped at eleven stations en route where millions paid their homage. Many sobbed, others wept bitterly. The special train reached Allahabad on 12 February where the urn was placed on a miniature wooden palanquin and placed on a motor truck, and the cortège proceeded for the obsequies among the throng of an estimated 1.5 million mourners.