Though started to further Britain's economic interests, over the first half of the 20th century, the railways became a platform used by those fighting for India's independence to stage protest, register dissent and garner support for the freedom movement.
Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal's Train Bombed in 1907
In November 1907, two attempts were made to derail the train carrying Andrew Fraser, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal (1903–1908), who had acquired great notoriety for his role in partitioning Bengal. The attempts were unsuccessful. On 5 December 1907 another bomb was thrown at Fraser's train in Narayangar. One rail line was twisted, several sleepers were derailed and a hole two feet deep was formed but Fraser escaped. Those arrested included Barindra Kumar Ghosh, Bibhuti Bhushan Sarkar and Ullash Kumar Dutt.
The Kakori Conspiracy of 1925
The Kakori Conspiracy was an armed train robbery which took place on 9 August 1925, in Central Uttar Pradesh about 16 kms from the train's final destination, Lucknow. The government treasuries on board the Number 8 down-train were looted. The raiders belonged to the Hindustan Republican Association and attacked the train to fund their revolutionary activities. Those involved in the attack included Ramprasad Bismil, Rajendranath Lahori, Roshan Singh, Ashfaqullah, Chandrashekhar Azad and Sachindranath Sanyal among others.
Ram Prasad Bismil, born on 11 June 1897, was an Indian Revolutionary. He executed the meticulously planned loot of the government treasury carried in a train at Kakori. He was captured and hanged on 19 December 1927.
Ashfaqullah, born on 22 October 1900, was involved in the Kakori conspiracy. After the raid, Ashfaqullah went underground, but was betrayed and handed over to the police by a friend in Delhi. He was hanged on 19 December 1927.
Chandrashekhar Azad, born 23 July 1906, was an Indian Revolutionary who was also involved in the Kakori Train Robbery. He was later closely associated with Bhagat Singh. Azad killed himself following a shootout with the police in Allahabad in 1931.
Newspaper report from The Statesman on the Kakori Conspiracy (1925-08-11) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
Report of 11 August 1925 in The Statesman on the Kakori Train Robbery.
Attempt to Bomb the Viceroy's Train in 1929
An attempt was made to bomb the Special Viceregal Train on which Lord and Lady Irwin were travelling, en route to New Delhi. The bomb was set-off by means of a concealed cable attached to a battery. In a strange coincidence, this attack was carried out exactly 17 years after the attempt on Lord Hardinge in 1912, the then Viceroy of India, when he was entering Delhi.
Naseem Mira Changezi Recalls being part of the group that attempted to bomb Lord Irwin (2018-01-10) by Partition MuseumPartition Museum
Naseem Mirza Changezi recalls aiding Hansraj Wireless in the attempt to assassinate Lord Irwin while he was en route to New Delhi by a special train. The attack was carried out on 23 December 1929.
Times of India report on the bombing of Lord Irwin's special train (1929-12-25) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
A Report from the Times of India detailing the arrests made by the police in association with the attempt to bomb the Special Viceregal Train carrying Lord and Lady Irwin near New Delhi.
Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930
The Chittagong Armoury Raid of 18 April 1930 was conducted by a group of revolutionaries who favoured armed uprisings to help achieve Indian Independence. The plan was to capture the two chief armouries of Chittagong, destroy the telephone and telegraph offices and cut off rail connectivity in the area. Rail connections were severed at Nangalkot and Dham causing the derailment of goods trains. Led by Surya Sen, those responsible for the raid included Ganesh Ghosh, Loknath Bal, Ambika Chakrobarty, Harigopal Bal, Ananta Singh and Subodh Roy among a group of 50-60 other people. Women such as Pritilata who attacked the European Club in Pahartali and Kalpana Datta played an important role in the raid.
Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Railways
Mahatma Gandhi's arrival in a third-class carriage, surrounded by huge crowds of people was seen as a reason the railways became, like Khadi or the Charkha, symbols that connected him to the people.
Gandhiji at Lahore, en route to the North West Frontier Province (1938) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
Crowds came to see the Mahatma wherever he went. Pictured here, a crowd gathers to see him at Lahore when he was en route to the North West Frontier Province in 1938. The video shows the Mahatma travelling by train in 1932.
Gandhiji addressing people at a platform in Kurukshetra (1946) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
Mahatma Gandhi addressing a large crowd at Kurukshetra Station in 1946.
Women weaving on the platform at Madras in 1946 (1946) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
The Charkha became a symbol of Satyagraha and self-reliance. Gandhi saw women as the forerunners of his non-violent Satyagraha. This image from 1946, shows Mahatma Gandhi at a mass spinning demonstration led by women at Madras railway station.
A Gandhi Special Train (1946) by Courtesy Nehru Memorial Museum and LibraryPartition Museum
The Gandhi Special Train, started in 1946, toured the country to express the importance of opening temple entry to Harijans.
The Railroads to Freedom
During the freedom struggle, the railways played two important roles. First, because the British had built the railways to further their colonial interests, in the early 1900s, revolutionary freedom fighters attacked these trains as symbols of colonial power. Second, Mahatma Gandhi used the railways to reach out to the rural population, thus making them a tool for mass involvement in the freedom struggle.
Deborah Nixon Personal Collection
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge