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The Grandeur and Horrors of Lahore Railway Station

The Grandeur and Horrors of Lahore Railway Station

On a crisp chilly February morning of 1859, Lord John Lawrence laid the foundation of Lahore Railway Station with his silver shovel. The shovel had following latin words inscribed on it ‘Tam bello quam pace’ meaning ‘better peace than war’. The message was appropriate. Railways were constructed in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny. Swift movement of troops to ensure peace was all over India was vital to keep a grip on Indians and railways served that purpose. But that purpose was not the only one. The other prime objective of building the railways was to transport precious raw materials to the port cities so they could be exported to England and thus started the plunder and loot of Indian resources.
Once the British conquered Punjab in 1849, the whole of Subcontinent was subdued. They knew well that in order to control this huge mass of land stretching from Khyber to Burma, they had to build a vast communication network. For this reason, railways came to India a lot earlier than a lot of European countries. On August 1st 1849 thus came into existence the ‘Great Indian Peninsula Railway’. It was the most expensive and biggest construction project taken by any colonial power anywhere in the world. By 1863, three million tons of rails, sleepers and locomotives had been shipped to India. Engineers managed to loop tracks over the highest mountains and deepest of depths, through burning deserts and bridged rivers as wide as Indus. It was an undertaking the world had never seen.
In Lahore, an area of one square mile acquired just outside the walled city to build a massive infrastructure to support the railway system known as the Lahore railway station. That area, the north east of the city was used as an eid gaah prior to the railway station. Within a year of laying foundation stone in 1859, the inaugural train from Lahore left for Amritsar. Within months, trains to Delhi, Multan and Karachi started followed by construction of Ravi bridge to reach Peshawar. The great game was on.
Vast housing colonies were laid for officers, drivers and other staff. A locomotive workshop was built to make carriages and steam locomotives at Mughalpura. A need for mechanical engineers led to setting up of Lahore Engineering College which we today know as University of Engineering and Technology. Introduction of Lahore Railways brought engineering technology to Lahore. In a way, it created a new Lahore; a new social structure and new elite. Lahore was ushered into the technological era through railways.
The construction of the station was given to the notorious Sultan Contractor of the Delhi gate who was famous for building many buildings for the Britishers.
The marvel of the structure is such that it has been designed keeping in view military considerations. It has been designed and constructed in a way that it could be converted into a fort if need arose. For this reason, very few pictures from the inside of the station exist for it was prohibited. The bricks were specially made in Mughalpura and the masonry, carpentry and ironwork were of the highest quality. What emerged was one of the earliest and finest British railway structures which to date has hardly any match anywhere in subcontinent.
The introduction of railway brought with it a social revolution. The ease of mobility provided easy access to far flung areas of India and created a connection among masses. It brought with it a feeling of India being a single unified entity.
Unfortunately, a century later, the same railway facilitated the partition of India. Partition led to what is called the greatest migration in human history; a migration made possible only due to the railway network. More than 12 million people exchanged their homes and countries and were forever alienated from the land of their ancestors. Over a million lost their lives during this process. And Lahore station was at the center of it.
Initially, it was part of the plan for British to leave India gradually and later than 1947. But looking at the mess that had already been created, Mountbatten made the disastrous decision to leave India earlier than planned in a hurry and within 1947. The decision created the chaos for British in managing the partition and for the migrating families that resulted in the mass massacre of millions.
The fate of Lahore, in the partition game, remained uncertain right till the end. The killings and riots had already started and many people had already left Lahore except for the few in hope that violence would simmer down. In the event that Lahore went to Pakistan, the remaining Hindus and Sikhs fought their way through dead bodies infested streets of Lahore to reach the railway station. At the same time, trains from other Indian cities began bringing migrating Muslims to Lahore. The Lahore railway station became a battleground.
The Lahore station master on 14th August 1947, Khwaja Bilal later recounted ‘We heard an announcement that partition had taken place. Soon after the killing started. Despite presence of British soldiers, hundreds were being killed on the platforms, bridges and ticket halls. There were stabbings, rapes and arson. It was unstoppable. At night i could not sleep due to screams of the injured and dying people coming from the platform. One morning, i think it was 30th August the Bombay express came in from Delhi via Bhatinda with 2000 people. We found dead bodies in the lavatories, on the seats under the seats. We checked the whole train and found only one person alive who had hidden in the water tank. We used to receive hundreds of trains daily. Each train had hundreds of corpses’.
88 years earlier, on a chilly February morning, Lord John Lawrence laid the foundation stone of the Lahore railway station with his silver shovel bearing the motto ‘better peace than war’. Little did he know.

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