Thursday, May 10, 2012

Third Class in Indian Railways by Mahatma Gandhi

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase and Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews, past and present, at both their blogs.

The manner in which Mahatma Gandhi travelled third class in an Indian train in 1917 is more or less how millions of people still travel by train in 2012 — nearly a century after Gandhi undertook that unforgettable journey from Bombay (now Mumbai, the capital of the western state of Maharashtra) to Madras (now Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu), and back.

Train travel in India has improved vastly since independence in 1947, if not thirty years earlier, in terms of more trains and routes, frequency, amenities and luxuries but much of the rural and semi-urban population continue to travel like cattle. 

Had Gandhi travelled by any one of India’s long-distance express or passenger trains today, he would have found little difference in his experience then and now.

One of the first things the Indian statesman and spiritual preceptor did on arriving from South Africa in 1915 — to lead the freedom struggle against the British — was to travel by Indian Railways, and travel as the masses did, third class. He knew the only way to gauge the mood of the people was to travel by train wherever he went and if he had to champion their cause he had to become one of them. Gandhi did so in all humility and without any qualms.

Third Class in Indian Railways, a 31-page book published in 1917 by Gandhi Publications League in Lahore (now in Pakistan), chronicles the Mahatma’s two-day train journey from Bombay to Madras — a forty-eight hour period during which he studied the pitiable conditions under which hundreds of third-class passengers travelled and also endured insult, humiliation and degradation with them.

“On the 12th instant I booked at Bombay for Madras by the mail train… It was labelled to carry 22 passengers. These could only have seating accommodation. There were no bunks in this carriage whereon passengers could lie with any degree of safety or comfort,” Gandhi writes. “There were during this night as many as 35 passengers in the carriage during the greater part of it. Some lay on the floor in the midst of dirt and some had to keep standing.”

While Gandhi recoiled from the dirt, the filth, the lack of sanitation, the overcrowding, the absence of morality, the apathy, the sheer inhumanity of it all, he couldn’t, as a matter of principle, resort to violent protests as some of the other travellers did. Instead, he tried to improve their lot by bringing his critical observations to the notice of the managers of Indian Railways.

As Gandhi observes, “The existence of the awful war cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the removal of this gigantic evil. War can be no warrant for tolerating dirt and overcrowding. One could understand an entire stoppage of passenger traffic in a crisis like this, but never a continuation or accentuation of insanitation and conditions that must undermine health and morality.”

What hurt Gandhi most about the neglect of the third-class passengers was the loss of a grand opportunity — imparting “splendid education” to millions in orderliness, sanitation, a decent composite life, and cultivation of simple and clean tastes. “Instead of receiving an object lesson in these matters, third-class passengers have their sense of decency and cleanliness blunted during their travelling experience,” he writes.

While third-class passengers usually pay for the ever-increasing luxuries of first- and second-class travel, he felt they were entitled at least to the bare necessities of life.

Third Class in Indian Railways also consists of five other discourses, namely Vernaculars as medium of instruction, Swadeshi (self-sufficiency or self-sustenance), Ahimsa (non-violence), The moral basis of cooperation, and National dress.


  1. Nicely told, thanks. I was thinking of Gandhi a couple nights ago while viewing a film BEFORE THE RAINS, set in India during the 1930s. It is a parable or moral fable about the British occupation of India, and while a personal story of a man caught in the middle, the political resistance is a motif in the background throughout.

  2. Ron, I appreciate it. Most Indians would be familiar with the stories and articles in THIRD CLASS IN INDIAN RAILWAYS as well as with Gandhi's anguish. On the other hand, non-Indian readers will get a keen insight into the mind of the Mahatma and on issues that were close to his heart. Thanks for mentioning BEFORE THE RAINS: i had never heard of this film.

  3. I'm sorry to hear there has been little change, though not surprised. The human race is good about closing it's eyes to unpleasant things.

  4. Charles, in spite of India's booming economy, the country has failed in several key areas and rail travel is one of them. Millions travel by train every day with very little comfort and safety. The poor are the worst affected.