Very few of us recognise how — unobtrusively and without fanfare — Indian Railways has, over the years, erased barriers of class, caste and creed from its system. It eliminated, in Paul Theroux’s words, “compartmentalisation that Indian Railways inherited from the British administration”.

Karl Marx believed that “modern industry resulting from the railway system will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour upon which rest the Indian castes”. This is similar to what other thinkers like Charles Trevelyan felt; he said, “Railways will also be the great destroyer of caste...”

But the divisive colonial legacy was daunting, with divide et impera being a cornerstone of British policy in India. This was blatantly manifested in the form of the segregation of drinking water served to railway passengers. Some of us old-timers did actually see “Hindu piao ” and “Muslim piao ” co-existing on platforms and thought nothing of it at the time — so blasé were we. Yes, railway water had a religion!

Ritika Prasad’s Tracks of Change demonstrates how refreshments and eating spaces were saturated with questions of religion and caste. Until the country awoke to freedom, railway refreshment rooms at stations were strictly segregated for European sahibs and natives, Hindus and Muslims. Nearly all stations were shown in the timetables with the initials ‘RHM’. ‘R’ denoted there was a refreshment room facility for Hindus (H) and Muslims (M), each run by “caterers of proper caste”. ‘High-caste Hindus’ wished to be served by ‘Brahmin watermen’, all others by bhistees .

At their service

Initially, rail catering establishments were so planned as to cater to the British, first and foremost, besides at best the Anglo-Indians. A railway circular of August 1864 directed that refreshment rooms for European passengers be complemented with “suitable arrangements for the supply of food for the natives. ‘Native’ passengers came to be served predominantly by platform vendors and stalls.

European passengers had refreshment rooms set aside for them until around 1907, when the Railway Board directed that refreshment rooms for Indians be opened at stations where long-distance trains halted for half an hour or more. Not only were there demands that Hindu and Muslim passengers be accommodated in separate railway carriages, but “sweepers, chamars and other low-castes” be separated from high-caste Hindus!

Just as the differences of religion and caste led to segregation of catering facilities on Railways, the ‘class’ of Europeans vs natives too left its long shadow. Gandhiji’s experience in Pietermaritzburg in British-ruled, apartheid-ridden South Africa could well have happened in India itself. As for Kipling railways was “a metonymy for a class divided society”; the exclusiveness of first class travel was for “whites only” here as much as in South Africa.

In his Travelling by Train in the Days of the Raj , Ken Staynor narrates how the train between Sealdah and Demukhdia Ghat was ordered to do away with its corridor only because the wife of a sahib complained about “natives hanging around in the corridors”. Stratification became a part of policy.

It was to first class and, in part, second class passengers that every courtesy was extended. Only first class travellers were first allowed in the dining car. Lal Bahadur Shastri as Minister of Railways announced in 1955-56, “the abolition of the distinction…between different classes of passengers in the matter of the use of dining cars.” Shastri also introduced “a new type of Janata corridor train with a well equipped dining car” between Calcutta and Delhi from October 2, 1955.

Gandhiji found third class travel as “being part of livestock, in goods or cattle carriages, roasting under the blazing midday sun”. Shastri replaced the “third class” by “second class with sleeping accommodation”, and introduced from October 2, 1957 “a vestibuled fully air-conditioned fast train service” with only two classes” — those hugely popular ‘De-luxe’ trains.

Integrating class and social identities on post-independence railways is well depicted in film songs such as Hum dono do premi (Ajnabee,1974) or Hoga tumse pyara kaun (Zamane ko Dikhana Hai,1981).

What is least recognised is that, while the country at large remains fragmented by religion and caste as much as class, our railways has played a big role in knitting together the nation’s diverse and disparate elements — quietly knocking down barriers which the Raj had reinforced to its advantage in the public space.

The writer is former CMD, Concor