Raj & The Railways: Part II
Updated: Jan 13
The construction of the railway not only helped the colonizers to expand the territory and have effective control over it but also helped them to ideologically justify their rule over India. For the English legislators, the railway physically embodied the mission of civilizing the barbarian Indians.
An ideology that allowed the British to justify their right to govern, arbitrate disputes and insist upon deference. In fact, Dalhousie exalted that the construction of the railway would lead to “similar progress in the social improvement that has marked various kingdoms of the Western World.” Peers at Westminster argued that the railways were the embodiment of fulfilling the duty of propagating civilization, in the most peaceful and harmless way.
The public opinion in England too perceived the railway expansion as a civilizing mission. In 1855, newspapers and magazines ran articles on the social change the railway was causing in India.
The Economist printed an article hailing the railway as the ‘pathway of English science, religion, arts, and opinions for people that were miserably poor and wretched, and like young children without a distinct idea what they wanted.’ All contemporary commentators agreed that the railroad development in south Asia was elevating the Indian masses from ignorance and poverty.
Captain Davidson and engineer for the Government of Bengal said that the steam engine was overturning prejudices, uprooting habits, and changing customs. The rails had now allowed a high caste Hindu-Brahmin to travel in a third-class carriage with backward class untouchable. Everyone without any exceptions, including Karl Marx, believed that the railways would inevitably lead to socio-economic improvement on the subcontinent. He predicted that modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve hereditary division of labour, upon which rests the Indian caste system, those decisive impediments of Indian progress and Indian power.
The Indian rail network, larger than any in North America and Europe now encouraged the interactions of tens of millions of people every month alone. For people of vast differences and backgrounds, it was helping them find educational and employment opportunities that were not accessible to them.
Being able to compress space and time, the English were able to facilitate the formation of a modern colonial state establishing links between far-flung areas where none before existed allowing them to establish authority over the subcontinent entirely. They were intended to be a network of iron that would allow the government to manage diverse territories, lands, and people. Unifying all of Britain’s south Asian holdings into one centralized government.
Marx envisaged the railway as allowing the British to unify a subcontinent that was supposedly socially and politically broken up into disconnected atoms of isolated self-sufficient villages.
For the Indians, the complexity, scale, and power of the railway symbolically and physically manifested Britain’s Imperial presence. The railroads had literally entrenched that colonial authority into the landscape itself. The active railway initially both terrified and awed the Indians. The Chief resident Engineer in Karachi, John Brunton, noted the reaction of the residents, who were astounded having seen the locomotive not able to understand what hidden power enabled to drag such enormous loads. Supposing that they moved by some diabolic agency, they called the locomotives ‘Shaitan (satan).’
By inspiring British superiority amongst the Indian populace, railway development effectively served to spread and consolidate British supremacy over the entire subcontinent including the so-called independent native states. Thus seeing that the railway was furthering the imperial ideology and utilizing it to create colonial India, the British encouraged rapid large-scale railway development.
The profit-making opportunity for the British through the railways was too lucrative to be disregarded, railroads provided a means of conveyance for shipping and moving goods around the country, for both production and sales. It was also a money-making enterprise for western financiers. The Indian government assured a guarantee as compensation in case the annual surplus of the railways was insufficient. It was impossible to raise revenue to construct the railways without providing a state guarantee. Although the colonial state leadership possessed the decision making power, the Indian railways were heavily shaped by commercial interest groups. Until 1870 the cotton manufacturers and other business groups encouraged railway development that would be to their advantage. For example, the Manchester Commercial Association, Oriental bank, persuaded the board of directors to sanction a line spanning from Bombay to Ahmedabad. The developers preferred real routes that would generate the highest commercial traffic. When Stephenson campaigned for the introduction of the railway in India, the board of directors doubted the railway would attract any traffic at all. However, within the first year of railway activity, 450,000 people travelled by rail.
The Bombay line was crowded for the first three days by ‘Calcutta Baboos’, notes Dalhousie. By 1853 the Fire carriages were carrying more than a million passengers per year and made a substantial contribution to the annual railway revenue.
Everything about the Rail benefited the British interest and its implications on the Indian populace, however, is debated. In our future episodes, we hope to explore the intentions as well as the implications of such transfer of technologies from the west to its colonial subject lands.