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Not Going beyond the Orientalist History of Indian Railways

A Short History of Indian Railways by Rajendra B Aklekar, Rupa Publications, 2019; pp 248, 295.

Most books on India’s railroad history, particularly of the pre-independence era, have been written by British officials, and almost all such writers claim that the arrival of the railway played an important role in making the Indian society more equal. In the same endeavour, they do not resist from implying, just like the railway officials of the colonial era, albeit implicitly, that inequity and class/caste stratification was unique to the country. With this premise, justifications are given as to why there was a need to segregate passengers in different carriages based on caste and religious differences. While the multiplicity of caste and religion was a reality, and consequent hierarchy in society a stark manifestation of it, the segregation of railway coaches into various classes was not unique to India.

Railroads in the southern part of North America played a critical role in “working out gendered, class, and racial hierarchies” (Prasad 2015). The developmental narratives that are employed in colonial railway writings need to be read in a critical manner, for how the “modernising railway project was executed through processes that traditionalised Indian society and culture”—the separate waiting rooms were a case in point (Prasad 2015). Even in Britain “there were seven classes of travel in British Railways” (Simmons 1997: 85). While such demands for segregation on race and ­religion/caste lines were demanded by the colonial as well as native elites, these demands were “not unequivocal” and “when voiced, such suggestions also generated public outrage” with one local newspaper also warning “political consequences of such exclusionary beliefs” (Prasad 2015).

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Updated On : 15th Sep, 2020

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