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A Railway line to Northeast India : from Meter Gauge to Broad Gauge
Shilajit Kar Bhowmik
A Railway line to Northeast India : from Meter Gauge to Broad Gauge
PHOTO : First BG engine rolling from Agartala to Udaipura from Agartala Rail Station. TIWN Pic March 15

The geographical expression, ‘North-East’ in India has always been relegated to ‘dereliction’ since its incarnation on Earth. And as a matter of fact, India has always been ‘virtually’ polarised along the lines of regionalism. In the country’s social as well as political discourse, one side of the country have always been termed as ‘Northeast India’, whereas the other as ‘Mainland India’. Both sides have been connected with each other via the 21-km narrow corridor called ‘Siliguri Corridor’ or the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ since Independence.

As the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) was over, Assam was annexed by the Britishers after inking the ‘Treaty of Yandaboo’.

However, as Alexander Mackenzie took over as political correspondent with the Government of British Bengal in 1866, he was asked to furnish a report on the relation of the hill tribes with the British administrators. In 1871, he put in his report entitled ‘Memorandum on the North-Eastern Frontier of Bengal’. Advertently or inadvertently, Mackenzie was the first person to coin the term ‘Northeast’. Though it took 30 more years for ‘Northeast’ to become an integral part of British administrative discourse, yet history still seeks the reason behind Mackenzie’s ‘Northeast’ notion.

As because it is not always possible for North-East to lean on the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ for connection with India and the rest of the world, railways lend a helping hand to it. And speaking of it, North-East is connected with the mainland via the 437 km Lumding-Agartala metre gauge rail line, most part of which is erected and installed in Assam, and the remaining in Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur.

Down the annals of history, railway made inroads into North-East India first through Assam in 1881 when the Assam Railway and Trading Company constructed a 65-km long metre gauge line from Dibrugarh to Makum Collieries in Margherita for transporting tea and coal. However, it was extended along the entire North-East in 1899 when the Britishers laid the metre-gauge line to connect Chittagong with Sylhet, Karimganj and Silchar. The sole purpose of constructing the metre-gauge was boosting tea industry in Southern Assam. Few years later, in 1905, the line was extended upto Hailakandi and Lumding to link with the rest of India’s rail network via Guwahati.

Metre-Gauge railway line was most fortunate to lie down the red carpet for greats in the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. On his way to Sylhet in Eastern Bangladesh (then a part of Assam), Rabindranath Tagore came to Badarpur ( 32 kms from Silchar) in February 1919, through this metre-gauge line and spent a few hours at Badarpur Railway Station. He was given a massive reception there. And thus, the name of ‘Silchar’ occupies a special place of mention in one of Tagore’s most famous novels, ‘Shesher Kabita’. Not to forget, Shillong, a Northeastern state capital joined the likes of Silchar in the novel.

Two years later, on August 27, 1921, Mahatma Gandhi visited Silchar from Kolkata (via Bangladesh) through the metre-gauge line itself and addressed a mammoth public gathering, thus soaring the heat of the struggle for India’s Independence in the North-East.

The metre-gauge is also a testament to the historical language martyr’s day in May 19, 1961 of Silchar. As then Chief Minister of Assam, Bimala Prasad Chaliha passed a circular mandating Assamese in Barak Valley, the masses took strong exception and registered a protest. Eleven people, including a woman were shot dead in Silchar Railway Station. Their sacrifice did not go in vain as finally the circular was withdrawn and Bengali was given official status in all the three districts of the valley.

In the spirit of historical alteration, now it’s the turn for broad-gauge railway line to replace metre-gauge.

Broad-gauge railway line was introduced by India’s then Union Minister of Railways, C K Jaffer Sharief in 1992, who served under the Prime Ministership of P V Narasimha Rao. Jaffer Sharief came up with ‘Project Unigauge’ whose sole aim was to convert India’s maximum number of metre-gauge railway lines to broad-gauge.

Guwahati-Lumding metre-gauge railway line was the first of its kind in the entire North-East to undergo conversion into broad-gauge in 1994. It was followed by the Silchar-Lumding route in April 1996, the foundation stone of which was laid by former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda in the presence of then Union Minister of Railways, Ram Vilas Paswan.

Trains plied along the metre-gauge line in the Lumding-Badarpur-Silchar-Karimganj-Bhairabi-Jiribam-Dharmanagar-Agartala routes for the last time ever from September 28 to 30, 2014 to make way for broad-gauge in the long run. At that point of time, it was an emotional moment of adieu to metre-gauge which served as an ‘interlocutor’ between the estranged brothers ‘North-East’ and ‘Mainland’ for 115 long years.

The distance between the end of Tripura i.e Sabroom and Chittagong Port is 75 kms. And as the Guwahati-Lumding broad gauge route is connected with Sabroom via Agartala and Udaipur, North-East will witness the rise of the ‘Sun of Economic Development’.

As metre-gauge metamorphoses to broad-gauge in the North-East, and as metre-gauge is drawn in the abyss of history’s oblivion, ‘Mother India’ is rife with hopes of union of its children named ‘North-East’ and ‘Mainland’.

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