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Breakup of the North Western Railway and the Anglo-Indian community

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Kenneth Hugh Staynor was  born at Madhupur on 16 September 1927. In 1929, his family went to the United Kingdom, and returned to India in 1931 to Kurseong, where his father was a teacher, and later Headmaster, at  Victoria School.  Kenneth was educated at St. Josephs College, Darjeeling, and St Mary's High School, Mount Abu. He left India in August 1951 for permanent residence in the UK to get into research and development in engineering, which was not available in India, and because his ancestral roots were in the UK. He lives in South Wales after retirement. His wife passed away in January 2010; he has three sons, five grandsons, five granddaughters and one great granddaughter.

Editor's note: This is part of a chapter from Mr. Staynor's forthcoming book on the Indian Raiwalys.

Before India’s partition in 1947, the North Western Railway (NWR) had several prestigious trains running on its lines. These included the world famous Frontier Mail, a through train with the BB&CIR from Bombay Central to Peshawar, (although this train lost a lot of its glamour after Rawalpindi), the Punjab Mails, through trains from both Calcutta and Bombay Victoria Terminus to Lahore, and the Karachi Mail between Lahore and Karachi. And, not to forget, the Sind Express from Peshawar to Karachi via Campbellpore, where it left the main line and followed the River Indus, keeping to its left bank through Mianwali and Darya Khan, and joining the Lahore-Karachi Main Line at Muzaffagarh, just south of Multan.

Lahore was the hub and Headquarters of the NWR. Apart for opening up trading routes to and from Afghanistan through the Khyber and Bolan Passes, the fact cannot be hidden that the prime purpose for the lines constructed through both these Passes and a good part of the NWR were primarily for strategic defence purposes against invasion through the Khyber and Bolan Passes. There had already been two invasions, once by Alexander the Great, and later by the Moguls. A third invasion was expected, this time by Russia, which was always feared by the British. In addition, continuous militant problems caused for the British by warlike tribes on both sides of the Afghan border, who owed no allegiance to anyone and inhabited these border territories.

[Strangely, the threat to British rule came from almost two thousand miles away, at the Eastern Frontier. The attackers were the Japanese. So, the most strategic railway in India became the Bengal Assam Railway, which was never constructed to cope with such a situation. This was further highlighted by the gauge change between Bengal and Assam, and the absence of a bridge across the Brahmaputra River. This seriously hampered the speed by which supplies and troops could be got to the Arakan Front. These problems frustrated the Americans who eventually took over the running of a big section of that railway.]

Tribute however, must be paid to the Anglo-Indian staff who were the very lifeblood of the NWR and got on with the job of keeping the railways running. They were the drivers, guards, stationmasters and yardmasters, together with permanent way personnel, who kept the trains running come what may. This was especially noticeable during the religious and communal motivated troubles that existed just prior to Independence and the anarchy with the slaughter and massacres of thousands that followed immediately it was declared, giving birth to the division of the Sub-Continent into India and Pakistan.

The Punjab and the NWR suffered most from the partition mainly because, albeit due to a British ‘Screw up’ (It is the best way I can describe it) of not announcing where the border was to be, until midnight on the eve of Independence Day. The problems were further compounded by Mr Jinnah insisting on a separate Islamic state, thereby dividing the Sub-Continent into India and Pakistan. This meant that the Muslim populace who did not want to live in Hindu dominated India, had to get into the newly formed country of Pakistan, and the Hindus now finding themselves in Muslim dominated Pakistan had to get into India.

This led to special trains being run, to transport these refugees. The trains were driven by Anglo-Indians, who took no sides but did what was habit to them, and that was to keep the trains running. However, these trains ran into blockades on the line or were deliberately stopped or derailed. This led to thousands of Hindus and Muslims being massacred by each other.

The Anglo-Indians operating these trains were left powerless to do anything. They stayed in their engines or guards’ vans, and made no attempt to intervene, for fear of their own lives. Unfortunately, the crew members of the Anglo-Indian drivers were usually, with perhaps the exception of the firemen, either Hindu or Muslim. Any attempt to prevent them from becoming victims of the anarchy that prevailed would have cost the Anglo-Indian their own lives.

After Independence, these Anglo-Indians were caught in an untenable situation. They were perhaps complacent and naïve. They were not fully cognisant of the ‘Wind of Change’ that was blowing across the Sub-continent. They did not seem to have fully prepared themselves for such an upheaval in their secure and untroubled lives. They seemed to view the division of the country as only a religious one and not a political one.

Like the NWR to which they had given their working lives, they now found their community fragmented. Suddenly families were split up, some by chance finding themselves citizens of Pakistan while parents, brothers, cousins and sisters were now citizens of India! It just depended where in the Punjab they were at midnight of the 14/15 of August 1947.

Some had wisely foreseen this problem arising, and having completed their statuary minimum years of service, decided to retire, collected their Provident Funds or pensions while there was no doubt which government was to pay them. And they had left for the UK, Australia and other parts of the English speaking countries, taking with them the memories of the land of their birth and the railways that gave them a living.

There were some who did not care which side of the border they were, having made plans to leave the Sub-Continent anyhow at the earliest convenient time. The others found themselves caught up in, even if it was called a political upheaval, nothing short of just a division caused by a difference in religion.

I knew one family on the NWR who lived in Saharanpur, and had a son who was on the engineering staff stationed at Lahore. Their son had to get a special permit to be with the family for Christmas. By accident, he overstayed in India by thirty-six hours. He was arrested by the Indian police, and held in prison for a week until ‘Strings’ were pulled for his release and return to Pakistan, without the chance to apply for Indian citizenship and remain with his family.

This incident led to the family to take premature retirement, and depart for the UK where they were joined by their son from Lahore. Fortunately, both father and son, having settled in Leeds with relations, found employment with British Railways. Not just the railway was left in fragments; families were left in the same situation as the railway they once worked for and loved.

When the borders were finally put in place, the NWR lines were fragmented in several places. Lines which were through routes before partition were now broken up with sections remaining in India only to run into Pakistan and reappear back into India further down the line.

The Amritsar – Lahore (NWR Main Line) was cut between Atari (India) and Wagah (Pakistan); The Kasur to Ferozepore line was cut at a point between Hussainiwala (India) and Ganda Singh Wala (Pakistan) while the Amritsar – Narowal line was cut in three places before eventually ending at Dera Baba Nanak in India. The important Samasatta (also written as Samasata) – Bhatinda line was crossed by the boundary between Qasamwala (Pakistan) and Hindunal Kote (India).

At time of the NWR break up caused by Partition, a considerable mileage of the old Jodhpur metre gauge railway line to Hyderabad (Sind) became part of the Pakistan Railway system. This line was through the Thar Desert with stations very few and far apart but the boundary passed about 30 miles east of a desert settlement of Chor, which was now in Pakistan.

This great railway, like so many in India, started out as a number of disconnected railway systems. Over time, they were eventually joined up, and, when taken over by the government, amalgamated into one large system. That is how the North Western Railway with its headquarters at Lahore was formed. It began with the Delhi Railway, 300 miles from Delhi to Amritsar. This section of what became the NWR remained in India following partition. Later, the Punjab Railway was constructed from Mooltan (Multan) to Amritsar. Meanwhile the Scinde (Sind) Railway was constructed 110 miles from Karachi to Kotree (Kotri). Passengers and freight travelled by river steamer the 500 miles to Multan along the River Indus.

Following the construction of the Indus Valley Railway from Hyderabad following the construction of the bridge at Kotri, a through link was created between Karachi and Lahore and on to Delhi via Amritsar. The South Punjab Railway built a line out of Delhi going directly north to Bhatinda, and then on to Lahore with lines following the Sutlej River meeting with the Indus Valley Railway.

The Punjab Northern State Railway constructed lines north from Lahore first as far as Gujranwala, and eventually to Rawalpindi. The Attock Railway built the line on to Peshawar. Other companies were also constructing lines in the area including the Delhi Umbala (Ambala) Kalka Railway (DUKR). The management of DUKR railway was initially given to the East Indian Railway, but when the Government took over the NWR, this line was given over to the NWR in 1926.

In the west, the Sind Peshin Railway and the Kandahar State Railway with the Nuskhi extension line, which crossed the border with Persia (Iran) to Zehedan, were built. The Kandahar State Railway in spite of its name never went that far but terminated at Chaman. The Khyber Railway was opened after the formation of the NWR. A series of narrow gauge lines were constructed such as the Kulu Valley Railway and the Kalka Simla Railway. They included a vast narrow network of lines in Suliman Mountain area. Among these was the Zob Valley line. At 183 miles in length, this was the longest narrow gauge railway in the world. It climbed to 7,221feet at Khan Mehtrazzi station, which was the highest point of the NWR and the second highest station in undivided India.

At Independence, the NWR had a combined route mileage of 6,890 miles. The NWR consisted of all the broad gauge lines already mentioned plus the following narrow gauge lines: Kalka – Simla; Kalabagh – Thal; Kushbagh – Bannu; Kulu Valley.

After partition, the biggest part of the NWR went to Pakistan. India go only the Delhi Railway to Amritsar, a small part of the Punjab  Railway from Atari to Amritsar, a big part of the South Punjab Railway, the Delhi-Umbala-Kalka Railway, Kulu Valley Railway, and the Kalka Simla Railway.

As I said in the opening chapter of the book I am completing about my railway journeys in India, politics do not play a part in the accounts of my journeys, but I do have to mention some political situations only because, at the time, they influenced events on the railways. In this case, it meant the breaking up of a once great railway, in fact the largest single railway in India and the lives of a great number of people who had helped to make it great! Long may these great railwaymen and the great NWR be remembered!

People crowding on rooftops during the Partition of India

This photograph shows a typical scene of refugees crowding trains to cross the border into India or Pakistan. In panic, they crowded into carriages and open trucks and even on the roof of the carriages to get to their side of the border following the late declaration where the borders between India and Pakistan were to be. With the anarchy that reigned at the borders, there was no guarantee that they or the train arrived at the desired destination.

Last train from India to Karachi

This photograph is of the last train to leave Delhi for Karachi with members of the newly formed Government of Pakistan. They were given a splendid send off with a guard of honour without a hint of the animosity that followed between the two countries.


© Ken Staynor 2013