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Response to Review of Railways and The Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India

Thank you for a – mostly – kind review and for giving me the opportunity to respond. I would like to pick up on a few of the criticisms.

  1. On ‘altruism’. I stressed throughout the book that the main motivation for building the railways was military and economic. There were, however, claims by some Victorians that the motive for their construction was altruistic which I mentioned but it is clear from the whole thrust of my arguments in the book that there is little basis to this claim. I do stress throughout how the Indians paid through their taxes for the subsidies necessary to create the rail network
  2. On Indian opposition to the railways, I think Aparajita Mukhopadhyay is being unfair. He cites two examples some decades apart which is hardly contradictory and fails to recognise that I stressed throughout that the attitude towards the railways is complex. On the one hand, they provided a great improvement in the transportation system, while on the other they were a ubiquitous symbol of colonialism and all its negative effects. The railways were both a boon and a weapon of oppression, and therefore inevitably responses were mixed.
  3. On sources, I think I make clear the limitations of the few contemporary sources available – but using them partly illustrates the thrust of my argument.
  4. On criminality, I must disagree. On the British railways, there had long been an ethos that you are guilty unless it can be proved otherwise if, for example, you are travelling without a ticket or are on the wrong train for the one you have purchased. Indeed, this attitude still pertains. The railway authorities in India transferred this ethos with an increased emphasis and expanded it to view all Indian travellers with suspicion and to subject them to disgraceful treatment. Look at, for example, the way passengers were screened for disease in a punitive way. Consider, too, why passengers were locked into their carriages and not even allowed, in the early days, to alight briefly at intermediate stations. There are countless examples and I am surprised that the reviewer should say there is no archival evidence.
  5. On technology, I make very clear that the British could have learned much from Indian ways of doing things. However, there was clearly a one-way transfer of technology, much to the detriment of the Indian economy and which, as I note, changed remarkably after 1947. Of course adaptations had to be made to Indian conditions, but one of the real scandals of this story is the way that the rail industry did not stimulate wider economic development, as it did in so many other countries, because the British insisted on supplying the equipment and technology.
  6. While I might have no groundbreaking theory, I think the book does provide a unique one-volume overview of a rather neglected history – at least for a general audience which is its target.

I could go on, but that is probably enough. I am very grateful for the opportunity to engage with the reviewer who has summarised the book very well and has made thoughtful criticisms. And finally, I agree with the suggestion that some of my generalisations at the end might seem trite. They were aimed to encourage those who might be contemplating coming to India and to debunk certain myths about the nation. Writing for different audiences is a complex matter and inevitably results in some inappropriate sounding comments.