Wagon Tragedy mural painted over at Tirur Railway Station after complaints

The mural was part of a beautification program, but many from the Sangh Parivar had complained against the painting
Wagon Tragedy mural painted over at Tirur Railway Station after complaints
Wagon Tragedy mural painted over at Tirur Railway Station after complaints

A mural depicting the 1921 Wagon Tragedy, newly painted at Tirur Railway Station, has been painted over by the Railways after receiving several complaints, which some reports claim came from Sangh Parivar-linked individuals and associations. 

The Tirur Wagon Tragedy took place on November 21, 1921. As part of the Malabar or Mappila Rebellion, which was a series of uprisings against British rule (and some say, Hindu feudal land ownership systems) that came under the Khilafat movement in the 19th and 20th century, many so-called Muslim rebels were taken into British police custody. On November 21, 1921, 90 of these rebels were being sent from Tirur to the Central Jail in Podanur, near Coimbatore. When the train arrived at Podanur, the jail there was found to be full, and the prisoners were ordered to be sent back to Tirur. The prisoners were bundled back into a closed, cramped iron train wagon. Upon the trains return to Tirur Railway Station, it was found that 67 of the 90 prisoners were dead, having suffocated due to lack of air in the closed wagon. 

The painting depicting the Wagon Tragedy in Tirur Railway Station was reportedly completed on Friday, but was painted over by Monday by order of the Palakkad Railways Division. When asked by TNM if the complaints came from Sangh Parivar linked groups, the Palakkad Railways PRO laughed and said that they had received complaints from “all strata of society”, including possibly Sangh Parivar members, but it was not possible to say that the complaints came only from them. 

The PRO said, “Our aim and our instruction to all railway stations was to beautify the station premises with paintings, that is, cultural and railway-related images. We told section engineers to create these drawings in each station. In Tirur, one of the paintings that went up as part of this project was about the Tirur Wagon Tragedy. The public there said it was objectionable on station premises, as it was not beautiful and could not be connected in any way with beautification. If someone who does not know the history of the Independence Movement or the Malabar Rebellion saw this drawing, they would not find it appealing or understand it. The mural depicted dead bodies spilling out of a railway wagon. If a small child saw it, they would be fearful. We wanted to create beauty in the station, not spread fear among passengers. It was a tragic image, and therefore, despite being both connected to Railways and Tirur, it did not meet with our aim of beautification.”

However, while local BJP leader Nirmala Kuttikrishanan says the complaints against the mural were not politically motivated, she did point to reasons other than what the Palakkad Railways PRO mentioned, that do smack lightly of a possible communal tinge. “There are different versions around the Wagon Tragedy. Some versions call it a “Mappilla Lehela” (Muslim Uprising), and don’t see it as purely an uprising against British rule per se. The regular people of the area did not want such a controversial painting on the walls of the railway station, and felt such issues should not be depicted there, as it is meant to be a public place.” 

Her comments seem to indicate that the objections from locals were less about the goriness of the mural itself, but about controversies surrounding the identities and political leanings of those who died in the tragedy.

Speaking to The New Indian Express, Tirur MLA C Mammootty of the Indian Union Muslim League condemned the move by the Railways to erase the mural, calling it a “clear case of injustice towards history. 

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan responded to this controversy through a post published on social media, and said that the mural was removed due to pressure from the RSS. While commenting that the removal of the mural was an insult to the freedom struggle, he said, "This [mural] was done as part of the railway station beautification process and now because of the opposition from the RSS, they [Indian Railways] have removed that painting. Using their power at the Centre and State level, the attempts by the RSS to rewrite history in an ugly way is well-known to us. Now, even hearing the words "Independence struggle" is like an allergy to this group. We should understand why the RSS has objected to this painting. The RSS was nowhere involved in the freedom struggle."

He continued, "A government body like the Indian Railways bending to the whims of the Sangh Parivar can only be seen as an anti-national action. It has been demanded of the Indian Railways to reverse this decision."

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