On the night of October 29, 1922, a special train left Amritsar and headed towards Peshawar. Among the passengers on board were a number of Sikh prisoners who were being transported to the Attock Fort to serve out their remaining prison sentence of two and a half years each.
These prisoners, and hundreds of others like them, were summarily tried and convicted by the British administration for participating in a non-violent agitation sparked by the Gurdwara Reform Movement at the time. The Reformists wanted to rid the gurdwaras and their shrines of the hereditary mahants (somewhat akin to the Muslim gaddi nashins) who had started misusing their position and control for personal gains. The British administration, for some reason, seemed to take the side of the mahants and would arrest and punish the protesting Sikhs, often beating them inhumanly, even for minor violations. This provoked more protests, and large-scale arrests and convictions.
Because of the clear injustice meted out to them, the prisoners aroused widespread sympathy among the Sikh community, and they became instant heroes.
The train from Amritsar arrived at Rawalpindi station on the morning of 30 October. After the change of the crew and servicing of the engine, it steamed out of the station, with the instructions that it was not to stop anywhere along the way until it reached Attock.
Hasan Abdal, the home of Panja Sahib, happened to be on the train route, and under normal circumstances trains routinely stopped there. When the word reached the Sikh community at Panja Sahib that there were Sikh prisoners on the train en route to the Attock Fort, it caused a great deal of excitement in the community. They decided that the least they could do to honor the prisoners was to serve a quick meal to them on the train. So, they had the food prepared and took it to the train station ahead of the expected time of arrival.
The stationmaster, when he saw all this excitement at his otherwise sleepy little station, informed the Sikhs that the train was not scheduled to stop there and, therefore, there was no point of bringing food to the station. The Sikhs implored him to stop the train just long enough for them to serve food to the prisoners. But their entreaties failed. “The train will not stop at Hasan Abdal; these are my orders”, the stationmaster told them bluntly. “Alright then”, declared a strapping young Karam Singh, barely 30, who was among the leaders of the crowd. “We will stop the train. If Baba Nanak could stop that massive rock rolling down the hill with one hand, can’t we, so many, stop a train?”
“Yes, we can, and we will!” another young man, twenty-four-year-old Partap Singh, chimed in,
At about ten o’clock, on a crisp and cloudless morning, typical of Potohar autumn season, the train emerged from the Margalla pass, billowing clouds of black smoke. When the Sikhs at the station noticed the smoke, a joyous shout went up in the crowd, “Bole so Nihal, Sat Sri Akal”, and many of them, led by Karam Singh, jumped onto the tracks and squatted there cross-legged. Next to Karam Singh sat young Partap Singh followed by others including both men and women. They were convinced in their minds that the train would, somehow, stop.
Approaching the station, when the train driver noticed from a distance that there were people squatting on the tracks, he simply couldn’t believe his eyes. He had orders not to stop the train under any circumstances. He blew the whistle long and hard, but to no avail. No one budged from the tracks. He blew the whistle again and again, and yet again, but no one moved. The train continued hurtling towards the station, the horrified driver simply closed his eyes. The vacuum lever (controlling the braking system) dropped from his hands, the wheels screeched against the tracks sending out showers of sparks. There was a loud thud and the train came to a halt — but not before hitting the first man and plowing onwards into the others, raising a mound of mangled bodies. The station was instantly engulfed in shrieks and groans mingled with the huffing and hissing of the steam engine as if it was angry at its path being obstructed.
Everyone at the station rushed to the rescue, but Karam Singh, who lay mauled and dying, stopped his rescuers.“Serve the food to the hungry prisoners first and then help me” he told them. It took one and a half hour before the tracks were cleared and the prisoners fed (I wonder if they had any appetite left after the tragedy). The train resumed its journey to the Attock Fort.
Bhai Karam Singh died within few hours while Bhai Partap Singh succumbed to his injuries the next day. It is not known how many others died later.
Miracles do happen, but obviously, you cannot always rely upon them.
Tailpiece: On 15 April 2007, at the Vaisakhi festival at Panja Sahib, Pakistan’s federal minister for religious affairs announced to the Sikh pilgrims that the government of Pakistan would build a memorial at Hasan Abdal in memory of the train tragedy that occurred there on October 30, 1922. Commemorating resistance to injustice, I believe, is a good idea. But as of 2018, the promise of building a memorial remains unfulfilled.
Note: The story is based on the information gleaned from Internet sources and so are the pictures.