“John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire” on BBC TV

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Michael Palin hit the headlines last year for making a relatively modest defence of the British Empire. The former Monty Python star said that Brits should stop apologising for their colonial past.

Palin had just taken up the role of president of the Royal Geographic Society and, in an interview in October’s Geographical Magazine, he said: “If we say that all of our past involvement with the world was bad and wicked and wrong, I think we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.” The travel writer singled out “lines of communication between people that are still very strong,” as a particular virtue.

Nowadays it is coventional wisdom to think that all “was bad and wicked and wrong.” The main reason for its fall into disrepute was its involvement in the slave trade. And rightly so, you would agree. “The difficulty with the achievements of empire”, however, writes Niall Ferguson in the introduction of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2004), “is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire.”

No doubt, then, Ferguson would have welcomed Palin’s view given that, as fellow British historian Andrew Roberts pointed out last fall, hand-wringing risks overshadowing the virtues of Empire such as, for instance, the building of the Indian Railways. For those who question the Empire’s living legacy to India, John Sergeant’s two-part, two-hour documentary, John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire (BBC Four), is required viewing. Since, as the British reporter-cum-broadcaster states in part one (Unite and Divide), “If you understand the railways, you can begin to understand India.”

Starting in Kolkata (Calcutta), Sergeant embarks on a 3,000-mile journey across the “inland sea of the interior”, from east to west, along a “river of rail”. Proposed in 1853 by Governor General Lord Dalhousie, the railway would become the largest engineering project of its time, instrumental in every chapter of India’s history. No wonder its first mover described the enterprise as “vastly surpassing in real grandeur the aqueducts of Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the palaces, temples and mausoleums of the great Moghul monuments”. Today it runs on 40,000 miles of track and has 7,000 stations. With a staff of 1.5 million (together with a further 500,000 in associated industries), it is the fifth largest employer in the world.

As splendid as the footage of the magnificent Victoria Terminus in Mumbai (Bombay) – what reminds the presenter of “the Houses of Parliament” – and as historic as retracing the (21-mile) route 400 people took in the first ever passenger service to neighbouring Thane in 1853 is, though, it is the railways’ unifying force that is most fascinating. It not only physically linked distant regions, but also united India’s myriad of castes, languages and religions. (Director Gerry Troyna’s 2005 film, Monsoon Railway, also screened on BBC Four recently, illuminates the idea of togetherness among “railwaymen” who overlook their Punjabi or Bengali backgrounds.)

As Sergeant reminds viewers, this “network of steel” helped solidify a disparate collection of states into a united country for the very first time. It could even be argued that Gandhi might not have been the nationalist hero he was were it not for the railways. He needed, let us not forget, the railways he despised to disseminate his literature. Put another way, the vast railway network - originally constructed for the transportation of raw materials - planted the seed of the Empire’s own destruction and derailed British rule by allowing the anxious to unite.

Railways, to be sure, enjoyed a special place in Gandhi’s journey through life. The ugly face of colonialism he faced on the way to Pretoria in South Africa led him to tour India in a third class compartment, where, it is commonly believed, the ‘Mahatma’ was born. Take a cursory glance at his writings and you soon become aware just how inextricably linked these train journeys were with Gandhi’s philosophy.

As groundbreaking as Railway Imperialism by editors Clarence B. Davis and Kenneth E. Wilburn Jr. with Ronald E. Robinson (1991) and Railways and International Politics: Paths of Empire, 1848-1945 by editors T.G. Otte and Keith Neilson (2006) are, then, Sergeant’s two-hour film presents a more profound side of affairs. Unlike the National Geographic’s 1995 film, The Great Indian Railway, the BBC production illuminates that even though Mahatma Gandhi denounced the railways as evil, they became a civil engineering triumph that united the country and played a pivotal role during the long independence movement, transporting important political leaders to the four corners of the subcontinent.

As a consequence, to paraphrase Ferguson’s concluding words in Empire, does not this feat of engineering alone expunge all the Empire’s sins in India?

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