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Euphoria, Nostalgia, Hope and Reality: Khulna-Kolkata Train evokes mixed Emotions

Train journeys in India
Train journeys in India are always a part of a best travel experience. Pixabay

Petrapole (West Bengal), April 8, 2017: As the Khulna-Kolkata trial train chugged in at West Bengal’s Petrapole station, 90-year-old Kumudi Hazra’s eyes turned moist. She nostalgically remembered the early days of her marriage life when she would take the train to visit her parents in Khulna.

Hazra settled down in Jayantipur village of North 24 Parganas district here after her marriage in the early 1940s.

“I am so happy today seeing this train. After marriage, I came here from my ancestral house at Khulna. I used to visit my parents by taking the train. Today, I am flooded with memories of those trips,” Hazra told IANS.

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She was simultaneously happy and sad on seeing the new train – called Maitree Express II. Happy, that people now will no more undergo the pain which she underwent at not being able to visit her ancestral house for 40 years and sad, that at her age, “I won’t be able to make the trip”.

Regular passenger services were in place connecting Sealdah to Khulna and Jessore, much before an international border came up in 1947 when India was partitioned and Pakistan came into being.

Passenger train services between the two countries were suspended after the 1965 India-Pakistan war, when the territory now known as Bangladesh comprised was East Pakistan.

East Pakistan later became independent Bangladesh in 1971.

Also nostalgic was Bharat Debnath, nephew of Hazari Debnath, who had worked at Petrapole railway crossing as a gateman.

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“My uncle worked here as a gateman at the crossing. I came here to see the Khulna-Kolkata train. I have heard a lot of stories about this train.”

There were euphoric scenes in the border villages much before the train reached Petrapole.

People stood on either side of the railway track since morning just to see the train.

As the train passed them, people waved, and clapped.

“I was cooking at home. When I heard the hooters I rushed to see the train,” said Champa Biswas, a housewife.

Recalling his childhood, 87-year-old Achintya Banik said after the Partition, train services were there but many of the villagers were unable to avail it as they did not have passports at that time.

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“We are originally from Bangladesh. Before partition, I came here with my family because my father worked here and later settled down. We would go to Bangladesh regularly by train before partition. Now we can do the same, it is a dream come true for me,” Banik told IANS.

Panchanan Roy was elated at the prospect of commuting becoming easier because of the train service.

“During my childhood, I used to come here because one of our relatives stayed at Naraharipur village, about two kilometres from here. We settled here after 1971. We go to Bangladesh now but through roads. It takes huge time for custom and immigration clearance,” he said, adding the facility will help him to travel to his ancestral house more frequently.

The Bangladeshi delegates who came by the train were also overwhelmed with emotion.

“There might be an international border between the two Bengals, but culture and the social bonding between the Bengalis living on either side of the border is still as warm as it used to be. We need to focus on connecting cities of two Bengals,” said Alam Gir Alam, Additional Deputy Inspector General of Bangladesh Police.

Locals were also upbeat as the train would make the export-imports business more seamless.

“Majority of locals are involved with exports and import. We take working visas and people from either side need to cross the border. But it takes hours to get clearance. Railway connection will give a new avenue,” local trader Raju Saha told IANS.

However, amid all the excitement and enthusiasm, stark reality also dawned on some of the villagers. For them, getting a local train from Petrapole to Kolkata was more important than the Maitree Express.

“Passport holders will only be able to board the Khulna-Kolkata train. We do not have any direct communication from here to Kolkata. We go to Bongaon by autorickshaws. But the auto service stops after 8 p.m. We will be more than happy if a local train service starts from here to Kolkata,” said Rinki Maity, a student of Bongaon’s Dinabandhu College.

Railway officials said they were aware about the local demand, but the tracks needed to be electrified.

“We are planning to send a proposal to the centre for electrification of the lines here. It will be sent soon,” Basudev Panda, Divisional Railway Manager, Eastern Railway, Sealdah told IANS. (IANS)


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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Peace Visionary and a Man Who Believed in India’s Destiny and was Ready To Fight For It

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee -- one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it -- that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India's peace visionary. Image: Flickr

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a man of moderation in a fraternity of jingoistic nationalists; a peace visionary in a region riven by religious animosity; and a man who believed in India’s destiny and was ready to fight for it.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (93), who died on Thursday, will go down in history as a person who tried to end years of hostility with Pakistan and put development on the front burner of the country’s political agenda. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full five-year term.

Even though he lived the last 13 years of his life in virtual isolation, dogged by debilitating illnesses and bedridden, he has left an enduring legacy for the nation and the region where he was much loved and respected across the political spectrum and national boundaries, including in Pakistan.

Vajpayee, former Indian Prime Minister
Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the tumultuous period he presided over the destiny of the world’s largest democracy, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace with it in the most dramatic fashion.
In the process, his popularity came to match that of Indira Gandhi, a woman he admired for her guts even as he hated her politics.

He also became the best-known national leader after Indira Gandhi and her father Jawaharlal Nehru.

After despairing for years that he would never become Prime Minister and was destined to remain an opposition leader all his life, he achieved his goal, but only for 13 days, from May 16-28, 1996, after his deputy, L.K. Advani, chose not to contest elections that year.
His second term came on March 19, 1998, and lasted 13 months, a period during which India stunned the world by undertaking a series of nuclear tests that invited global reproach.

Although his tenure again proved short-lived, his and his government’s enhanced stature following the world-defying blasts enabled him to return as Prime Minister for the third time on October 13, 1999, a tenure that lasted a full five-year term.

When finally he stepped down in May 2004, after an election that he was given to believe he would win, it marked the end of a long and eventful political career spanning six decades.

Vajpayee had gone into these elections riding a personality cult that projected him as a man who had brought glory to the nation in unprecedented ways. The BJP’s election strategy rested on seeking a renewed mandate over three broad pillars of achievement that the government claimed — political stability in spite of the pulls and pressures of running a multi-party coalition; a “shining” economy that saw a dizzying 10.4 percent growth in the last quarter of the previous year; and peace with Pakistan that changed the way the two countries looked at each other for over 50 years.

The results of the elections could not have come as a greater shock to a man who was hailed for his achievements and who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 influential men of the decade.

Success didn’t come easily to the charismatic politician, who was born on Christmas Day in 1924 in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, into a family of moderate means. His father was a school teacher and Vajpayee would later recall his early brush with poverty.

He did his Masters in Political Science, studying at the Victoria College in Gwalior and at the DAV College in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he first contested, and lost, elections. He began his professional career as a journalist, working with Rashtradharma, a Hindi monthly, Panchjanya, a Hindi weekly, and two Hindi dailies, Swadesh and Veer Arjun. By then he had firmly embraced the ideals of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
But even as he struggled to win electoral battles, his command over Hindi, the lingua franca of the North Indian masses, his conciliatory politics and his riveting oratory brought him into public limelight.

Also read: For Modi, Road To 2019 Will Be Steeper

His first entry into Parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha election. He was elected to the lower house seven times and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vajpayee spent months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency rule in June 1975 and put her political opponents in jail. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, dethroning the Congress for the first time, he became the foreign minister.

The lowest point in his career came when he lost the 1984 Lok Sabha polls, that too from his birthplace Gwalior, after Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming majority following his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And the BJP he led ended up with just two seats in
the 545-member Lok Sabha, in what looked like the end of the road for the right-wing party.

In no time, Vajpayee was replaced and “eclipsed” by his long-time friend L.K. Advani.
Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s and the assorted Hindu nationalist groups’ strident advocacy of Hindutva, an ideology ranged against the idea of secular India.

Often described as the right man in the wrong party, there were also those who belittled him as a moderate “mask” to a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology. Often he found his convictions and value systems at odds with the party, but the bachelor-politician never went against it.

It was precisely this persona of Vajpayee — one merged in Hindutva ideology yet seemingly not wholly willing to bow to it — that won him admirers cutting across the political spectrum. It was this trait that made him the Prime Minister when the BJP’s allies concluded they needed a moderate to steer a hardliner, pro-Hindu party.

He brought into governance measures that created for India a distinct international status on the diplomatic and economic fronts. In his third prime ministerial stint, Vajpayee launched a widely acclaimed diplomatic initiative by starting a bus service between New Delhi and Pakistan’s Lahore city.

Its inaugural run in February 1999 carried Vajpayee and was welcomed on the border by his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif. It was suspended only after the 2001 terror attack on the Indian Parliament that nearly led to a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

The freeze between the two countries, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the border for nearly a year, was finally cracked in the spring of 2003 when Vajpayee, while in Kashmir, extended a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan. That led to the historic summit in January 2004 with then President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad — a remarkable U-turn after the failed summit in Agra of 2001. Despite the two men being so far apart in every way, Musharraf developed a strong liking for the Indian leader.

His unfinished task, one that he would probably rue, would be the peace process with Pakistan that he had vowed to pursue to its logical conclusion and a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

He was not known as “Atal-Ji”, a name that translates into firmness, for nothing. He could go against the grain of his party if he saw it deviate from its path. When Hindu hardliners celebrated the destruction of the 16th century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, he was full of personal remorse for the apocalyptic action and called it — in a landmark interview to IANS — the “worst miscalculation” and a “misadventure”. He even despaired that “moderates have no place — who is going to listen to the voice of sanity?”

In his full five-year term, he successively carried forward India’s economic reforms programme with initiatives to improve infrastructure, including flagging off a massive national highway project that has become associated with his vision, went for massive privatisation of unviable state undertakings despite opposition from even within his own party.

While his personal image remained unsullied despite his long innings in the murky politics of this country, his judgment was found wanting when his government was rocked by an arms bribery scandal that sought to expose alleged payoffs to some senior members of his cabinet. His failure to speak up when members of his party and its sister organisations, who are accused of killing more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat, was questioned by the liberal fraternity who wondered aloud about his secular proclamations. He wanted then Chief Minister — now Prime Minister, Narendra Modi — to take responsibility for the riots and quit but was prevailed upon by others not to press his decision.

A day before his party lost power, Vajpayee was quoted as saying in a television interview that if and when he stepped down he would like to devote his time to writing and poetry. But fate ruled otherwise. The man who once rued that “I have waited too long to be Prime Minister” found his last days in a world far removed from the adulation and attention — though across the nation people prayed for his well-being — surrounded only by care-givers and close family whom he even failed to recognize. (IANS)