By Sandeep Silas
Railways enjoyed a special place in Gandhi’s journey through life, be it an inspiration for a struggle for human rights, evolution of an ideology, a measure to connect with the masses or his last destination
Gandhi left the shores of India in April 1893, full of zest to try his luck in South Africa. On his arrival at Durban he soon became acquainted with the ugly face of racism and prejudice. A first class seat was booked for him in the train to Pretoria.
It so happened that at Maritzburg, a white passenger boarded the train and was upset to see Gandhi in the same coach. He reported this to the railway officials who suggested that Gandhi move to the van compartment. He protested.
Eventually, a constable who was summoned by the incensed officials pushed Gandhi and his luggage out of the train. This incident made Gandhi angry and determined to fight for his rights.
The journey of hardships began as he boarded the train again.The more insults they fired at him by calling him a ‘coolie barrister’, the greater was his resolve to stay in South Africa.
Gandhi’s arrival at Pretoria station in 1893 amidst dim lights, few travellers and a helpless ticket collector was the beginning of an end to colonial rule.
His representation to the railway authorities on the unjustified regulations imposed on Indian travelers met with a stilted response. The reply stated that first and second class tickets would be issued to only those Indians who were properly dressed.
In 1896, Gandhi took the S.S. Pongola to India. On arrival at Calcutta port, he boarded a train for Bombay. A desire to see Allahabad made him walk around the town while the train halted there for a while. And missed his train.
This time, on home turf, the station master was considerate and had off-loaded his luggage respectfully.
At Rajkot, Gandhi published a newspaper called the Green Pamphlet, in which he portrayed the condition of South African Indians. The Pioneer newspaper cabled it to Natal by Reuter, which angered the whites.
At South Africa he was charged with condemnation of Natal whites. On his arrival in January 1897, he was pelted with stones and rotten eggs. After fighting for his rights in South Africa Gandhi returned home to India.
In 1901, Gandhi and Sir Pherozeshah Mehta travelled by the same train from Bombay to Calcutta. Gandhi had an opportunity to speak to him in the special saloon which was chartered for him. The kingly style of the Congress leader did not amuse him.
The session at Calcutta, and his stay with Gokhale prompted him to tour the entire country in a third class compartment, to acquaint himself with the hardships of passengers.
The first such journey was from Calcutta to Rajkot, with one day stopover each at Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and Palanpur.
Gandhi did not spend more than Rs 31 on his journey, including the train fare. Third class travel, he thought, was the mirror to the plight of Indians.
These journeys made him realise how India bled. His meagre travel kit comprised a metal tiffin-box, a canvas bag, a long coat, dhoti (loin cloth), towel, shirt, blanket and a water jug.
The sight of a colossus seized by a few people, bound like Gulliver while the pygmies rejoiced, pained Gandhi.
His experiences while travelling through India convinced him that swaraj (independence) was the only hope.
The ‘Mahatma’ was born in a third class compartment of an Indian train. Gandhi preferred the ordinary train-life was closer to him this way. He has recorded vividly that the third class compartments were dirty and arrangements bad.
He had an acrid experience of third class travelling on a journey from Lahore to Delhi in 1917. Twelve annas (75 paise) to a porter got him an entry into the overcrowded train through a window. He stood for two hours at night before ashamed passengers made room for him.
When we read about Gandhi, we realise that a lot of his philosophy emerged during the spare time he had while traveling. The train journeys gave Gandhi an opportunity to think and indulge in introspection.
Writing in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi expressed that railways, lawyers and doctors had impoverished the country. He believed that, but for the railways, the English could not have enslaved India.
He also attributed the frequency of famines to the railways as farmers sent their grain to dearer markets. Gandhi felt that railways as an institution was dangerous.
He said: ‘If we do not rush about from place to place by means of railways and such other conveniences, much of the confusion that arises would be obviated. God set a limit to man’s locomotive ambition in the construction of his body.’
But Gandhi used the rail to traverse the length and breadth of the country. The third class train compartment was his constant companion. Often the Mahatma was interrupted amidst his travels by the British.
Once, after he had been detrained and detained at Palwal, he was sent back in another train in the reverse direction to Mathura. In famine, riots, in his struggle against colonial rule, he was connected by the railways.
The ugly face of colonialism that he saw on rail, gave him an inner strength, tolerance, patience, and furthered his perseverance to the cause of independence.
And it was a third class compartment numbered 2949 that carried his ashes to Triveni, Allahabad on February 12, 1948 for immersion into water.
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