Mahatma Gandhi's Freedom Struggle and the Railways

By B M S Bisht, ex-GM NFR, IRTS (retd.); 2010

This article was previously published on the website of the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS).

The recent Independence Day enthused me to re-read American author Louis Fischer's classic, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (1951). I tried to look for important rail (train) connections that may have played their part as Mahatma's means of travel. I could find a few and some historic/historical too, though as expected only brief ones for obvious reasons. We know Mahatma Gandhi, after his return from South Africa in 1915, undertook long cross-country travels by train and even wrote detailed letters to Agents of some the Railway Companies and in newspapers, etc., bringing out the gravely unsatisfactory conditions of travel especially in the Third Class. He even suggested remedies for their amelioration. However, that's not the subject of my post here. I am only extracting below the connections that I found and also to say the Mahatma always preferred the trains as he wished to travel amongst the proletariat, though as we shall observe the Government of the day in British India often made special arrangements for his stormy travels especially in the later part of the freedom struggle, for security and operational reasons. Mahatma, it is said, was never happy about such a VIP treatment. Let me hasten to add that in my present sketchy vignette I have tried to contain myself to 'other' details to the extent they make the narration relevant and readable in their context though the history of Mahatma's freedom struggles first in South Africa and later at home in India is so inspiring and exciting that I was tempted to do otherwise.

In South Africa

A business firm of Porbander decided to send Gandhiji to South Africa for a year as their lawyer. He accepted the offer and arrived Durban, Natal in South Africa in May 1893. His mission was to win a lawsuit and start a legal career in right earnest. After coming home from Britain for two years he was not much successful as such in Gujarat. This lawsuit required him to go to Pretoria, the capital of Transvaal. He was booked in First Class in a train from Durban for the overnight journey. At Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, a white man entered his compartment, withdrew himself to come again shortly with two white railway employees who ordered Gandhiji to get out and transfer himself to a Third Class in the train. Gandhiji's protest that he held a valid First Class ticket did not move them. He had to leave. He resisted so they brought a policeman who took off his luggage. He could have travelled in the Third Class but he preferred to remain in the station waiting room. It was very cold as it was a mountainous region but he did not dare to ask for his overcoat in the luggage from the policeman lest he should be again insulted. He sat and shivered all night and brooded on the incident. Next morning other hapless Indian rail travellers met him and narrated their similar humiliations on the railways. It dawned on him that he was to be a brown David against the white Goliath of racial discrimination. But he did not do anything at that moment but instead quietly proceeded to do his work at Pretoria.

He later considered the bitter night stay at Maritzburg station as one of the most creative stories of his life.

Some time later a fellow Indian in Johannesburg sincerely advised him to travel Third Class to Pretoria as conditions of travel for non-whites were much worse in Transvaal than in Natal. But Gandhiji would have none of it; he was insistent. He read the relevant railway rules and found them imprecise on this subject. Prohibitions on travel were not clear. So he next wrote to the local Station Master to clarify stating that he was a barrister and always travelled First Class and would soon apply for a ticket in person. Actually it was his ninth day in South Africa and second journey. The Station Master surprisingly appeared sympathetic. He agreed to sell him the ticket on the condition that he would not sue his railway Company if the guard of the train or other passengers ejected him. The Ticket Examiner soon came to Gandhiji and signalled him to move to Third Class by showing his three fingers. Gandhiji vehemently refused to let him his way. Fortunately a fellow English passenger in the compartment rebuked the guard and asked Gandhiji to be comfortable. The guard sarcastically remonstrated with the Englishman saying, "If you wish to travel with a coolie, what do I care."

At Pretoria station Gandhiji enquired of a railway official but could get no helpful information. Soon Gandhiji held a meeting of all Indians in Pretoria and from them learned more of their plight. He communicated with the railway officials too and extracted a promise that "properly dressed" Indians might travel Second or First Class. This response of the railway authorities was vague and liable to arbitrary interpretation, but Gandhi saw some relief.

Regarding the first Satyagraha there, viz. the Transvaal Struggle, Gandhiji in 1910 established a rent-free rural commune for Indians, their supporters and families 21 miles outside Johannesburg. It was called The Tolstoy Farm. It was because the Transvaal, the epicentre of their struggle against the Government for just treatment of Indian labourers etc, was 30 hours by train from their previous rendezvous at Phoenix Farm.

Occasionally Gandhiji had business in town, mainly his legal cases as a practising lawyer. The rule of the Farm was that if any one went on a shopping trip or errand for the commune he/she could travel by train, third class but if the journey was private or for fun like picnics, etc., one had to walk. Gandhiji often walked 20 miles to the city and returning the same night, walking back another 20 miles.

The striking Indian miners in this struggle were treated the worst by being forced into trains that carried them back to their mines. There they were forced into wire-closed barricades and placed under company employees, who were sworn as special constables. But despite their whips, sticks, and kicks the miners refused to mine during this struggle.

In October 1912, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Professor of English and Economics, President of the Servants of India Society in India, came to South Africa to assess the condition of the Indian community and to assist Gandhiji. Gokhale's tour, accompanied by Gandhiji, was a tremendous triumph. From the Transvaal frontier to Johhanesburg he travelled by a special train. At every town he stopped for a meeting with the local mayor presiding. All the principal railway stations had been gaily decorated by Indians.

On 1st January, 1914 Gandhiji announced a march along with other Indians from Durban, Natal to court arrest to regain their lost rights. While this threat was on the white employees of all the South African Railways went on strike. Gandhiji immediately called off his march as it was not part of his Satyagraha tactics to destroy, hurt, humble, or embitter the adversary or to win a victory by weakening him.

General Jan Smuts, the head of the Union Government, pre-occupied with the railway strike, nevertheless invited him to a talk.

In India

It was at Annual Convention of Congress in 1916 that one poor sharecropper from Champaran, Raj Kumar Shukla, met Gandhiji and beseeched him to visit Champaran to look into the terrible exploitation of the indigo workers' by the local landlords, mostly British, in Bihar. Later, one day both of them boarded a train from Calcutta for Patna. He led him to the house of the famous lawyer Rajendra Prasad who later became president of the Congress party and also of independent India. Gandhiji first decided to go to Muzzafarpur, inviting Professor J B Kriplani of the Arts College there. The train from Patna arrived at Muzzafarpur at midnight on 15th April, 1917. Kriplani received him at the station with a large body of his students. When Gandhiji later called on the British Commisioner of Tirhut Division he bullied him and asked him to get out of Bihar. Gandhiji did not leave Bihar but instead proceeded to Motihari - the district of Champaran. At Motihari railway station a vast multitude greeted him.

Gandhiji entered active politics around 1920 when he became President of the All-India Home-Rule league. He toured the country incessantly, indefatigably, in torrid humid weather, addressing mammoth public meetings of lakhs of people in those pre-microphone days. For seven months he travelled in hot uncomfortable trains across India. These trains during their run were always besieged by vast multitudes of the public, day and night, wherever he passed through, as every one wanted to have at least a glimpse of him. Inhabitants of one remote area en route once sent a message to railway authorities that if the Mahatma's train did not stop at their station they would lie down on the tracks and prefer to be run over! The train had to be stopped there and it was midnight. Gandhiji woke up from his deep slumber and appeared before the crowd. The hysterical people sank to their knees in reverence right on the platform and wept -- perhaps with the tears of a very rare ecstasy!

In 1925, he was persuaded to take over the presidency of Congress. Thereafter he travelled continuously -- in 1925 itself across the 1500 mile wide and 1900 mile long territory of India mostly by trains visiting most provinces and native (princely) states. Central Provinces, East Bengal, United Provinces, Bihar, Madras and Assam were some prominent areas of his visits. But he complained that in most of these train journeys his co-workers would now take him in Second Class and not in his favourite Third Class where he had to be squeezed most uncomfortably among the packed space. The apparent reason for this upgradation by his colleagues was their extreme solicitousness for him. He reluctantly acquiesced because in a Third Class he could not write his regular articles, attend to his sizeable daily correspondence or rest or even take an occasional nap.

People venerated him as a Mahatma even in trains. He resented but to no avail. Once during one of his rail journeys his train stopped with an unusual jerk as some one had pulled the alarm cord and a lawyer somehow fell with his head first out of the compartment but was picked up unhurt by others. He ascribed it to the grace of the Mahatma being his fellow traveller! "Then you shouldn't have fallen out at all", remarked Gandhiji laughingly. But the wit was lost on the devout.

In Bihar he addressed many meetings with large women audiencec in purdah totally disapproving of such artificial and unnecessary feminine seclusion and bondage. One such meeting was at Kharagdeha which was reached by branch railway line and then a 26 mile journey by car.

Touring his own native Gujarat region in 1929 he came to Poona to take the train for Bangalore and for a tour of the Carnatic in south-east India. At Poona station Gandhiji felt so weak that he had to be carried to the Bangalore train. His vision got blurry and he could hardly scribble a note. Fortunately a good sleep on the train refreshed him and next day at Kolhapur and subsequently in the Deccan princely states he addressed seven meetings.

Lord Irwin, the new Viceroy, arrived in India in April 1926 to relieve Lord Reading, the outgoing Viceroy. After nineteen months, on 26th October, 1927, while at Mangalore on the western coast Gandhiji got a message that the Viceroy wanted to see him on 5th November. The Mahatma immediately broke off his tour and travelled to New Delhi, some 1250 miles away by train. It was a two-day train journey. He was at the Viceroy's at the appointed hour.

Gandhiji was imprisoned in 1930 for violating the Salt Law. For Lord Irwin, Gandhiji's imprisonment was more than an embarrassment; it affected the government revenues and virtually paralysed the British administration. Thus, Gandhiji in prison was an equally great problem. So in July 1930 he wanted Gandhiji to confer with the Congress Working Committee members. Accordingly Motilal Nehru, his son Jawahar Lal Nehru, and Sayed Mohammed, the acting Secretary of the Congress, were taken in a Special Train with a lot of comfort and courtesy from their jail in the United Provinces to Poona where Gandhiji was incarcerated along with other leaders like Mrs Sarojini Naidu and Vallabhbhai Patel, the elder brother of Sardar Patel.

There were many reservations and blocks among the minds of leaders like Ambedkar, Gandhiji and others regarding representation of the Depressed Classes in the National Assembly and State Legislatures which the Britsh goverment had proposed towards progressive steps for Indianisation of the administration. Tej Bahadur Sapru, Jayakar, Rajagopalachari, Devdas Gandhi (Gandhiji's son) took the midnight train and were in Poona the next morning. At 7am they were in Poona jail with Gandhiji who, having been on a fast for last 24 hours, met them laughingly and presided over their meeting.

On 3rd September, 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. Immediately thereafter the British government included India in the Second World War without consulting Indians. This was naturally resented by the national leaders as it was thought to be a further proof of the continuation of nefarious British control over India. Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy, telegraphically summoned the Mahatma to see him at Simla, the summer capital of India. At Delhi railway station the vast public chanted "We Do Not Want Any Understanding" as Gandhiji boarded the train. Since it was his day of silence Gandhiji only smiled, waved and departed.

Later in the 1940s communal clashes at various places deeply disturbed Gandhiji and often he undertook rail journeys to these unfortunate towns for restoring peace and sanity. He would tell people not to come to railway stations either to see him off or seek his blessings. He was just in no mood for such things. But the public would not care for his advice and always came in hordes. The British government therefore would often give him a Special Train because whenever he travelled by a regular express train there would be total chaos. Crowds would stop the train at all stations to just have a glimpse of him and the train would be badly delayed putting their advertised schedules hopelessly out of gear. The people would jam the tracks, beleaguer the stations and the staff and would mount the roof of the coaches, break glass windows and not spare even the wooden shutters. The noise and din at the stations would be unbearable. Sometimes it would not be possible for the guard of the train to start the train for hours as the emergency cord would be misused repeatedly. In one such instance the station authorities hosepiped the crowd with water to disperse them. It flooded Gandhiji's compartment and this train reached him Calcutta 5 hours late totally tired and sad.

During last days of the freedom struggle in 1947 when Indian Independence was certain but the prospect of tragic partition appeared inevitable, Nehru telegraphed Gandhiji to come back as the Congress Working Commitee was meeting on the 1st of May for a great historic decision. Gandhiji immediately undertook a 500-mile trip by train to Delhi in hot May.

Gandhiji's last train journey

Gandhiji would often say he would live upto 125 years may be once he said 133 years. But alas! That was not to be. At about 5.05pm on 30th January, 1948 he fell to an assassin's bullet and died in Birla House in New Delhi. The special train, the Asthi Special, which took his mortal remains for submersion in the holy confluence of rivers at Prayag at Allahabad had 5 Third Class carriages. It was very symbolic as Gandhiji always preferred to travel Third Class. The train left Delhi at 4am on 11th February, 1948. The compartment in the middle of the Train had Gandhiji's ashes and bones in an urn which was piled almost to the ceiling with flowers. It was looked after and guarded during the journey by Abha, Manu, Pyare Lal Naiyyar, Dr Sushila Nayyar, Prabhavati Narayan and others who were Gandhiji's daily companions at prayer. The train stopped at 11 stations en route at each of which lakhs of people paid their homage by bowing reverentially, laying floral wreaths and chanting prayers. Many sobbed, others wept bitterly. The special train reached Allahabad on 12th February where the urn was placed on a miniature wooden palanquin and placed on a motor truck and the cortege proceeded for the obsequies among the throng of an estimated 1.5 million mourners.