Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash

Protesting Empire with Railway Tickets

Kim A. Wagner

A traveller alighting at Amritsar railway station in April 1919, after the train came to a jerking halt along the third-of-a-mile-long narrow platform, would have been met by much the same scene as described by Rudyard Kipling: ‘the station filled with clamour and shouting, cries of water and sweetmeat vendors, shouts of native policemen, and shrill yells of women gathering up their baskets, their families, and their husbands’. The noise would have been amplified by the cavernous structure of the station, reverberating metallically across the platforms as the spasmodic bursts of steam from the spluttering locomotive slowly dissipated. Built by the British in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Mutiny’, the station was a massive whitewashed masonry structure with gargantuan pillars, horseshoe arches, and a maze of girders, supporting the corrugated roof covering the platforms. It was designed, should the need arise again, to be turned into a defensive position, to guard the lines of transport and communication so crucial to the security and maintenance of colonial power. Amritsar was a strategically important railway junction and entrepôt, straddling the Grand Trunk Road: the century-old trade route described as the ‘backbone of all Hind’, linking New Delhi, the newly built capital of British India, with Lahore, the administrative centre of Punjab just 30 miles to the west.

Pushed and shoved in the busy cram of travellers and over-eager porters, one would head for the exit through the main hall, dutifully producing a ticket to show the officious collector at the gate. The observant traveller might notice, amid the hustle and bustle, the eagle-eyed inspection of platform tickets required by Indians who came to send off or welcome passengers—a result of the widespread protests that only a few months before had descended upon the train station. While Europeans had unhindered access to any platform at all times, Indians had to purchase a platform ticket and, earlier that year, the railway administration had stopped issuing these altogether to avoid overcrowding on the platforms. This specifically applied to mail trains, which were the express service on which most Europeans travelled, and the measure thus seemed to be intended to minimise the discomfort of the ruling class—and ruling race.

Far from being a minor inconvenience that prevented Indians from meeting their friends and relatives on the platform, many locals saw the platform-ticket issue in purely political terms, as yet another expression of the racial divides that shaped every aspect of life under the Raj. Protest meetings were held and Dr Satyapal, a Cambridge-educated medical practitioner and member of the Indian National Congress, had emerged as a local leader, arguing that such a blatantly discriminatory policy would never be tolerated if India had Home Rule. At this point in time, the notion of Home Rule invoked the status of white dependencies of the Empire, such as Canada or Australia, rather than outright independence. And so, what began as a seemingly harmless rule to manage the number of people who could access the train platforms gradually turned into a nationalist protest, which eventually forced the authorities to withdraw the prohibition on sales of platform tickets. That such an apparently trivial issue could become a source of intense popular protest reflected the tension within colonial India at the end of the First World War—and was a sign of the growing political awareness and mobilisation among the local population.

From Amritsar 1919 by Kim A. Wagner. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Kim A. Wagner teaches global and British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London. His books include The Skull of Alum Bheg,The Great Fear of 1857, and Thuggee.

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