Haunting images revisit the railways that united Bengal—until India's Partition divided it

On the 75th anniversary of the end of colonial rule, photos document the British Empire's lasting imprint on the part of India that is now Bangladesh.

By Naeem Mohaiemen
Published 15 Aug 2022, 12:46 BST
A man stands on a train as it waits at the platform in Santahar Railway Station. ...
A man stands on a train as it waits at the platform in Santahar Railway Station. Santahar was a major city developed during the rule of the British East India Company, when the railway station was built as a stop along the route from Kolkata to Siliguri.

Born four decades after the 1947 Partition of India into what eventually became three nations, Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick, 36, has been documenting the fragments of "united" British India—homes, inheritance, transport—that remain in today's Bangladesh. His canvas in this project is the rail system that left the British Empire's lasting mark on the part of India that was first known as East Bengal, before becoming East Pakistan in 1947, and finally Bangladesh in 1971.

Paksey Railway Station in Ishwardi, Bangladesh, is home to the Hardinge Bridge—a steel railway bridge named after Lord Charles Hardinge, the viceroy of British India from 1910 to 1916. Paksey also serves as the western zone headquarters for the Bangladesh Railway.
Jagati Station in Kushtia was the first railway station in present-day Bangladesh. In 1862, during British rule, both the station, which connected Sealdah to Kushtia, and the Eastern Bengal Railway line from Kolkata to Ranaghat were opened.

Protick’s photographs have emptied the space of people; what we see instead are skeletal train tracks and the traces of commerce, habitation, manufacturing, and entertainment that grew up around this architecture of connectivity. There are occasional human figures—a nurse, an entertainer, a mystic—but those people carry an air of confusion, almost as if the activity that surrounded these train depots for a century has vanished, and they forgot to catch the last train leaving the station.

Dubolhati Jamidar Bari in Naogaon is an almost 200-year-old structure. During the reign of Zamindar Raja Harnath Roy Chowdhury, the house was greatly improved, but the family who lived there migrated to India around the time of partition.
Md. Babul Hossain Babu, a nomadic musician, has been performing on trains and living in rail stations for the last 20 years. He learned music from his guru for eight years before setting off to travel throughout northern Bengal. He mostly plays "Bicchedi Songs," or songs of separation.
The railyard at Pabna's Ishwardi Railway Station, the largest junction in Bangladesh. Fifteen separate lines run through the station, which was built in the late 1870s.

Bangladesh has a complex position within the narratives of India’s 1947 Partition, as it was, from one perspective, left behind. British mapmakers split Bengal, a northeastern corner of India that had a shared language and culture, along religious lines. It was splintered into Muslim-majority East Pakistan, which decades later became Bangladesh, and West Bengal, an Indian state to which millions of Hindus fled after the new lines were announced. Today's Bangladesh features in partition stories as a bucolic "before times" that was lost and abandoned.

A locomotive at Parbatipur Railyard in Dinajpur, Bangladesh. Parbatipur was originally built as a station on the Calcutta-Siliguri route, and with the partition, it remained an important junction while other railway links outside of Bangladesh were lost.
Abu Bakkar Siddique, a passenger on the Lalmoni Express train, is raising funds to renovate the local mosque in Parbatipur, Bangladesh. The train is local and one of the oldest in Bangladesh.
A worker stands in a doorway at Saidpur Railway Hospital. The hospital was built by the British for the workers in the railway colony, but it's now nearly inactive.

That idea of being left behind in 1947 is the portal through which I enter Protick's images of the East Bengal Railway, now the national railway of Bangladesh. East Bengal was the fertile, lush agricultural heartland of India—but its connectivity to the British administrative capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata), and to the rest of British India, was hampered by the densely riverine landscape.

The Hardinge Bridge in Paksey was important to the Pakistani army's strategic retreat in December 1971 to Jessore, their last stronghold during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Old railcars sit at Santahar Railyard in the Bogra District of Bangladesh.
The power station for the town of Santahar Junction towers over old rail cars sitting at the station.
A water tank stands at the Parbatipur Railyard in Dinajpur, Bangladesh. After Parbatipur became a stop on the Chilahati-Parbatipur-Santahar-Darshana Line in 1876, it became a center of further railway development.

The first railway system in the world was set up in 1825 in England; within 40 years the British had set up a private company called Eastern Bengal Railway to corral the remote parts of eastern India–its people and resources–under British imperial oversight, using rail lines. While the railway system led to hyper-development of imperial capitalism, it also enabled human connections, a rising middle class and business community, and a newly empowered polity that allowed the flourishing of all-India political alliances. These pan-India movements became national forces behind the "Quit India" independence movement that finally expelled the British in 1947, when they were exhausted by World War II.

Rani Singh lives in Parbotipur rail station and leads a spiritual life as a Sannyasini, an individual in the fourth life stage of Hinduism that renounces material possessions. She left her home three years ago to lead a nomadic life.
Mohammad Shaheen Sarkar Sheikh Farid Ranhu is a jockey who often lives in Saidpur Railway Station in Nilphamari. He began riding horses at seven years old. His horse's name is "Chumki," which translates to glitter.
The rail line from Kurseong to Darjeeling Station through the mountains is known as the "Land of White Orchids." Kurseong is home to one of the oldest municipalities in the state of West Bengal, and Darjeeling has led the tea industry with a farm dating back to 1841.

Thus railroads that led to a zenith of British colonial expansion also laid the tracks for its eventual annihilation.

Within a plethora of crossings and junctions, what is salient is that many of these rail lines started in one country and ended in a different one after 1947. Trains across Bengal were the conduit for refugees fleeing into and out of India,. Passenger flows continued for two decades after independence, but the lines of control hardened after the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Today what remains is the Bangladesh Railway, a decrepit and moribund institution plagued by the woes that fuel third world disenchantment: decolonisation followed by homegrown corruption and the incompetence of state management.

A broken clock at an office in Ishwardi has the logo for the Eastern Bengal Railway. It was manufactured in Pakistan in 1961—four years before India and Pakistan went to war.
A welcome statue at the entrance of a hotel by Union Chapel in Darjeeling, India, resembles the soldiers in the Queen's Guard in England.
The Saidpur railway workshop was established in 1870 by the British as a meter-gauge steam locomotive repair shed. Now it is one of the two remaining rail repair workshops in Bangladesh—and the largest.
An office chair sits in an abandoned and rundown railyard security and lockup office at the Santahar Railway Junction in the Boga District.

The railway is still the chosen mode of transport for a vast working-class population, but an ever-expanding highway and bridge system now provides faster alternatives for people and goods. Protick’s vacant, haunted photographic tableaux evoke the feeling of what was left behind by decolonisation.

Machinery inside the Saidpur railway workshop still includes some working pieces brought by the British Raj during their rule. Most, however, are in derelict condition.

As with his earlier projects, an intense layer of mist and fog lies over many of the images. The opacity of vision and diffusion of light captured by his camera suggests both the end of a story, and a hope for a new arrival. In a coda image of the series, an orange, rain-soaked light envelops the beginnings of a train entering the frame. There are no visible signposts, and I imagine a superimposed palimpsest image of two trains traveling in opposite directions, entering Bangladesh and India at the same time. In the dark of night, the railway carries passengers who don’t want to go home past giant machines whose operators have passed away, and toward a wooden puppet in the shape of the British Queen's palace guards. Watching over this nightscape is a broken clock that tells the right time only twice a day.

Monsoon rain pours on the rail cars at Parbatipur Railyard in Dinajpur, Bangladesh.

Divided Bengal cannot now be united, but the viewer may find in these images the revival of a phantom India-Bangladesh train network, a dream of suturing the open wounds of Partition.

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