The Role of Railways in the Life of Gandhi

In 2019, The Indian Railways displayed their veneration of the Mahatma through a beautiful tableau at the Republic Day Parade. It featured the incident in South Africa and Gandhi’s use of trains during the national freedom movement. In the rear, it showed Gandhi collecting donations for ‘Harijan Fund’ during his train journey. Later in the year, the East Central Railway celebrated Gandhi Jayanti by rechristening Motihari Railway Station to Bapudham Motihari Railway Station. This station has great historical significance : Gandhi arrived at Champaran, the site of his first Satyagraha in India, at this very station.

Railway Gandhi Tableau republic day
Indian Railways Tableau at the 2019 Republic Day Parade. Credit:

The Railways has played an undeniable role in the Mahatma’s life. The incident in South Africa is only the beginning of a long connection between Gandhi and the railways.

Gandhi’s legacy in a Railway Station in South Africa

Most Indians are well-versed with the story of Gandhi’s experience in South Africa : how he was thrown out of the First Class Compartment at Maritzburg Station despite holding a ticket, and how the incident sparked his first Satyagraha movement.

Today, the Maritzburg railway station is known as Pietermaritzburg Station. It honours Gandhi by vividly documenting his experience. This is displayed in the same waiting room where he once spent the night mulling over questions of race and discrimination. A plaque marks the place where Gandhi was evicted, and a two-sided bust of Gandhi named “Birth of Satyagraha” features two phases of Gandhi’s life; as a young lawyer and as the bespectacled Bapu. The pedestal under the statue also has an interesting story. The bricks used for it are sourced from ruined buildings which were once of similar construction to the Railway Station. Close to the statue is a Smart Sound Kinetic Power Device, which plays some of Gandhi’s favourite bhajans. It even delivers a speech in Gandhi’s voice! The project is the brainchild of Birad Rajaram Yajnik, the curator of the Mahatma Gandhi Digital Museum in Hyderabad.

Gandhi’s opinions about the Railways

In his book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi has laid down the many reasons for his disapproval of the railways.

Despite this vehement opposition, Gandhi came to rely on the railways a lot. On his return to India, he was advised by his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale to “discover the authentic India”. He travelled the length and breadth of the country via trains. It is ironic that Gandhi used the same colonial enterprise that was introduced for the subjugation of India, to unite the country under one idea of nationhood. It was through his train journeys that he reacquainted himself with India. And his early travels across the subcontinent were instrumental in his understanding of India and the idea of ‘nation’.

How a closed railway crossing saved the Gandhi’s life

There had been a total of 5 attempts on Gandhi’s life, the first of which occurred on 25th June 1934. Gandhi was headed to a meeting at Pune Municipal Corporation auditorium as a part of his Harijan Yatra. As soon as the car pulled up outside the hall a bomb was thrown at it gravely injuring the passengers inside. As it turns out, this was not the car that Gandhi was arriving in. Similar in make and model, the cars were meant to be travelling in a procession. But Gandhi’s car had been delayed by a closed railway crossing, a blessing in disguise!

newspaper Gandhi attempt life
Article in the Indian Express dated 26 June 1934.

Third Class in Indian Railways : Gandhi’s experience

Although he had traveled in the First Class in South Africa, in India Gandhi chose to travel in the Third Class Compartment. He felt that it connected him to his countrymen as he could understand them better through his long journeys. He questioned why he should enjoy the luxury of the first class while his fellow countrymen suffered in the filth and congestion of the third class compartment, where passengers were ‘packed like sardines’.

He tried his best to better the conditions of the third class but to no avail. He said that there would be a change in the conditions of the Third Class only when the Viceroy and the Rajas and Maharajas go through the experiences of third class travelling.

I have travelled 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 travel, I have naturally made as critical observations as I could.

You can read Gandhi’s complete observations in this book: Third Class in Indian Railways written two and a half years after his return from South Africa.

Gandhi’s final railway journey

After his death, his remains were taken for submersion to the confluence of holy rivers in Allahabad by the Asthi Special. It is symbolic that the train had five third class carriages. The middle compartment had the Mahatma’s remains in an urn which was piled to the ceiling with flowers from mourners. The Asthi Special stopped at 11 stations before reaching its final destination and at each stop lakhs of people gathered to show their reverence.

Gandhi Asthi Special Train
Ashti Special carrying Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes from Delhi to Allahabad

Even today the Indian Railways finds different ways to pay homage to the Mahatma, including but not limited to, special tourist packages that cover the important places in Gandhi’s life and converting trains into exhibition halls. These are fitting tributes to the Mahatma, whose life was so closely intertwined with the railways: from the birth of Satyagraha at Maritzburg to the submersion in Allahabad via the Asthi Special.

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Chitralekha is a museum professional based in London. She holds an MA in History of Art from SOAS. Her areas of interests include Indian miniature paintings, decoloniality in museums, and open access in the cultural space.

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