The Tragedy in Wagon 1711 - A complete picture

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

My previous jottings on this subject were, upon looking back, quite unsatisfactory in my own opinion and only served to whet one’s appetite, for more. The various accounts that have been published so far in the media looked far from factual and complete. As I am now in possession of a good amount of information on the subject, I thought I would post an updated version for those interested.

A large number of prisoners had been collected at Malappuram and summarily sentenced under martial law and were ready for transportation. As Malabar jails were overcrowded and it was virtually impossible to house the convicted in Tirur, they were consigned to Coimbatore, Vellore and Bellary. The personnel tasked at the highest level with the transportation of this lot were Col Humphreys, Mr. Hitchcock (Police Supdt) and; Mr FB Evans.
It was an ill-fated journey for the # 77 Calicut - Madras Passenger train on 19th Nov 1921. On this particular evening, a luggage wagon was attached to its rear from Tirur. That was MS and SM wagon 1711 and sadly, it was not loaded with luggage, but with a hundred convicted prisoners mostly from the Karuvambalam and Pulamanthol area - 97 Muslims and 3 Hindus. The additional wagon was demanded to carry prisoners from Tirur to Bellary. As it transpired, the South Indian Railway authorities at Calicut station sent the goods wagon No. 1711, attached to Train No. 77. It arrived at Tirur from Calicut at 6.45 p.m. The van was unloaded, cleaned out and disinfected.

The wagon was to be escorted by police, but it was not done this time. Such methods were regularly used in transporting all kinds of prisoners from Calicut to Cannnore (Stated by K Kelappan - Fortunately when he and others were transported, the door was kept open and a policeman kept as guard). Moyarath in his memoirs indicates that transportation deaths were common in the past and that people looked at these trains and wagons with a terrible fear as they passed the Malabar stations.
Madhavan Nair concurs that open wagons were used in the past, but Mr. Hitchcock in his hearing had explained that he thought it not a good idea this time. He was of the opinion that the rioters would be seen by the public, and in view of the turbulent situation, they could rise up to their rescue. The earlier transportation wagons used were those meant for transporting cattle. Then came the enclosed goods wagon which was more secure from Hitchcock’s point of view. ‘New Outlook’ By Alfred Emanuel Smith mentions on page 698 that the wagon was freshly painted and hence even the small ventilation holes were blocked!! (In fact the British faced a previous disaster where a number of English soldiers were killed while transportation in a similar way in a Karachi troop train!!).

Reserve Police Sergeant A. H. Andrews, Head Constable, O Gopalan Nair and five other constables were put in charge to escort the prisoners to Bellary. The five Police Constables were P. Narayana Nayar, K. Raman Nambiar, I. Ryru. N.T. Kunhambu and P. Korodunni Nayar. The Head constable and the constables occupied the rear of the adjacent wagon. The Sergeant traveled in a second class compartment nearer the engine. The soldiers who escorted the prisoners herded the one hundred prisoners into the wagon, bolted the doors and fastened the hasp with a wire.

The train steamed out at 7 p.m. The train halted at Shoranur half an hour and fifteen minutes at Olavakot. The police on escort duty, who had stepped to the next platform, could of course hear the prisoners cry. They could have opened the door to let air in and give water in order to save the life of the howling prisoners. The agonizing and desperate cries were heard at all stops by many persons, but no action was taken and it was made clear that the doors would be opened only at Podanur. The rail distance between Tirur and Podanur was approximately one hundred and eleven miles. During a subsequent inquisition, the sergeant also stated that while at Cheruvannur, he had heard prisoners screaming for water. But as there was no time, the request was disregarded. A number of witnesses stated to having heard screams at Olavakkot & other stations. They opined that these prisoners went crazy and berserk in their quest for air and water.

During the enquiry, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Criminal investigation Department, Madras clarified, "We have to take into consideration that providing prisoners with water is not enjoined by law though it may be considered as a strong moral obligation. If the Sergeant had taken pity and opened the doors of the van either at Shoranur or Olavakkot, the prisoners would, in all probability, have rushed to the railway station,' looted it and massacred innocent persons. If this had taken place I am sure that the Policemen would not escape punishment for their gross neglect of duty.''
The train arrived at 1230 AM. At Podanur an eminent passenger raised a hue and cry stating that he had heard cries from the wagon, the rear wagon. So the doors were finally opened for inspection. What the authorities saw was a disaster, the passengers were all on the floor and many were dead. Fifty six (including three Hindus) had already died, six died on the way to the hospitals, two died on arrivals, four that afternoon and two more on the 26th. That brought the total of dead to seventy.

The wagon with the dead was quickly sent back to the agony of wailing throngs at Tirur. The next morning they took the remaining forty four prisoners to Coimbatore by another train. When the train reached Coimbatore, six of them died at the railway platform. At Coimbatore they sent twenty five to the central jail hospital. Before reaching the civil hospital two of the prisoners expired. Four of the remaining died in the afternoon. The death of two more persons on 26th November 1921raised the total number of causalities to seventy.
If I read right, the Hindu Correspondent filed the first report from Coimbatore. It was early in the morning of Nov 22nd that the tragedy thus came to light. Moyarath mentions that Manjeri Rama Iyer of Calicut was the prominent person who got the wagon door finally opened, at Podanur. The doctor who treated the survivors at Coimbatore was Raman Nair Dr T Raman.

A survivor narrated the sad events that transpired ‘we were perspiring profusely and we realized that air was insufficient and we could not breathe. We were so thirsty that some of us drank perspiration from our clothes. I saw something like gauze over the door with very small holes so that no air could come in. Some of us tried to put it away but we were not strong enough’. Brahmadattan Nambudiri in his book adds that every two prisoners were handcuffed together in this wagon. They scratched, bit and clawed each other in their death throes, and the wounds were evident on the dead bodies.
The book MP Narayana Menon by MPS Menon and Conrad Wood’s book on the rebellion provides general information of the 70 dead as follows - 32 were coolies, 19 agricultural laborers, 4 Koran readers, 2 tea shop keepers, 2 mosque attendants, 2 preachers, 2 petty merchants, 2 traders, 1 timber merchant, 1 goldsmith, 1 carpenter and one barber (67 Moplahs and 3 Hindus). 10 of the 70 were relatively well to do land owners.

Was the railways in the know?  B. C. Scott, Agent of South Indian Railway investigated on whether luggage vans were sent to Tirur with the knowledge of the Railway authorities. It was concluded that the District Traffic Superintendent at Cannanore was aware of the use of luggage vans for carrying prisoners.
The Government of Madras appointed an enquiry committee on the Wagon tragedy under A. R. Knapp. Moreover it ordered for the prosecution of Sergeant Andrews and the police constables who were on escort duty for their offence under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code and Section 128 of the Indian Railways Act IX of 1890. The Madras government took it lightly at first, stating that the disaster was ‘a result of circumstances’ and that nobody could be held responsible. The Coimbatore medical officer confirmed death by suffocation even though authorities tried to pass it off as death due to other causes. The news reached the press and public only because Coimbatore was not under martial law.

The first sitting of the enquiry committee was held at Coimbatore on 28th November 1921. This group relied on the sole evidence of the surviving prisoners and tried thirty four witnesses. The committee, after its enquiry agreed that the prisoners in the goods wagon did make a huge amount of noise to raise an alarm.
Accordingly a trial was conducted and H. L. Braidwood, the District Magistrate of Coimbatore, presided over the same. Leading barristers from Madras argued on behalf of Sergeant Andrews and other accused. They argued that Sergeant Andrews escorted prisoners on nine previous occasions in goods vans. Nothing unusual had happened till this Malabar Train Tragedy. A Eurasian boiler maker witness stated that as he stood on the platform at Shoranur, when the wagon arrived there, he had heard cries of ‘Vellam, Vellam' meaning ‘water, water' from the van. Another witness said that he heard the utterances of “we are choking".

Hardgrave explains - The investigation found asphyxiation the cause of death, with heat exhaustion as a contributing cause. Examination of the van revealed that the fixed venetians on the upper part of the doors had been covered inside by a lining of fine wire gauze, which had been painted over and was clogged with paint and dust-with the result that the van was 'practically airtight.' The use of such vans had been normal for transporting prisoners but the gauze had turned this van into a death trap.
Even though this mishap was the result of the gross negligence of the officials, all the accused were eventually acquitted. Lord Willington instituted a commission report in Aug 1922 listed the guilty and recommended actions against them. The formal outcome of the commission was as follows

The. Government of Madras appointed a Committee of Enquiry and on the result being reported, the Government of India passed orders on 30th August 1922.
The Government concur in the view of the committee that the use of luggage vans for the conveyance of prisoners in such an emergency was not in itself objectionable, or inhuman. Though not intended for passengers the vans were not closed trucks, but ventilated vehicles and where the venetians were not obstructed; there was sufficient perforation to enable a considerable number of prisoners to be carried in them in safety.

They agree also with the Committee that practice of using vehicles of this exceptional type which were never intended for the conveyance of human beings, should not have been left to the unregulated discretion of subordinates but should have been brought under proper regulation. They concur also in the view of the Committee that for the omission to take this precaution, the Military Commander cannot be held responsible.
The Government of India appreciate the-admirable services rendered during the rebellion by Mr. Evans and Mr. Hitchcock and they recognize the arduous character of the work which devolved upon them. They cannot but greatly regret that neither of these officers took steps to bring the practice of conveying prisoners in these luggage vans under proper regulation. Had it been laid down that a responsible civil officer should in consultation with the railway authorities satisfy himself that the ventilation of each van was adequate for the number of prisoners despatched in it, it is almost certain that no loss of life would have occurred.

As between Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Evans, the Government of India think the larger share of the responsibility attaches to Mr Evans who was constantly at  Tirur and had therefore greater opportunities for looking into the arrangements at that place for the transport of prisoners and was the Superior Officer.
They cannot however, agree with the Committee that Sergeant Andrews cannot be blamed for using this particular van. As the Police Officer in charge, he should not have limited his inspection of the van to the question of security, but should have satisfied himself that the accommodation was suitable for the conveyance of the prisoners.

There is independent testimony that the noise from the van was such as to suggest that the prisoners were in distress. The Committee observe that it is not possible to define with complete certainty, the nature of the clamour made by the prisoners, but they cannot avoid the conclusion, that the shouting and the meaning and calling for water and air must have been so exceptional and so striking that they ought to have attracted the special attention of the Sergeant and his escort. The Government of India concur in this conclusion.
They do not wish to dispute the views of the Committee that Sergeant Andrews was not guilty of deliberate inhumanity, but they consider that in disregarding the cries and failing to investigate for himself the reasons for what must, in the words of the Committee, have been a very unusual clamour, both in extent and nature the Sergeant displayed culpable negligence. They also agree with the committee that the Head-constable and constables who failed to convey to Sergeant Andrews a clearer understanding of the position which their better knowledge of the language must have given them, must share in this condemnation.

The Government of India have instructed the Government of Madras that a prosecution should be instituted against Sergeant Andrews. It will rest with that Government to decide what action, in view of the findings above recorded, should be taken in regard to the Head constable and the constables
Sergeant Andrews and the Policemen were accordingly prosecuted but discharged. The Madras Government have sanctioned a compassionate allowance of Rs. 300 to the families of each of the 70 deceased prisoners. (Order No. 290 dated 1st April '22).

Robert Hardgrave in his paper (introduction to the Hitchcock papers) wrote - That the British were engaged in a policy of virtual genocide seemed evident to many Indians when it became known that in the transfer of prisoners in a closed railway van, 70 died of asphyxiation.
The Tirur wagon itself measured 18’x9’x7.5’. Comparing this to the holocaust trains used by the Nazis to transport Jews to Auschwitz, the Nazis’ usually had 50 people in one wagon, and only towards the later days packed a maximum of 100.

What started as the Khilafat movement had soon spread into an agrarian and religious revolt. The revolt and the atrocities resulted in high handed actions like the above. The heavy actions brought down the British from their moral high ground and the resulting sympathy waves amongst Indians were one of the precursors for the mass uprisings against the British colonial rule.
Hardgrave summarizes - In the course of the rebellion, official figures recorded that 2,339 rebels had been killed, 1,652 wounded, and 5,955 captured. An additional 39,348 rebels surrendered voluntarily during the later stages of the rebellion. Government losses were minimal: 43 killed (including 5 British officers), 126 wounded. General J. T. Burnett-Stuart who estimated rebel deaths at between three and four thousand, wrote in his 'Final Report on the Operations in Malabar' that 'though I regret the heavy loss of life, I am satisfied that the punishment has fallen on the guilty and that no lesser chastisement would have sufficed to bring the misguided and fanatical rebel community to their senses. 'The terrible Moplah outbreak,' according to the official report on the moral and material progress of India for the year 1922, 'brought home to many people the ultimate dependence of law and order upon the military arm.'

In a forthcoming article, we will study RH Hitchock, the person. 2nd secretary Evans continued to administer the region and was subsequently involved in the tussles over the tenancy bill. Perhaps he always had a grudge against the Koya brothers, owners of the East Hill Collectors Bungalow, never kept it in good condition and haggled till it was finally acquired by the British using the land Acquisition act,  in 1921 for Rs 36, 357. And another day we will talk about Manjeri Rama Iyer.


The Wagon Tragedy of 1921 (S Indian History congress annual conference 1981) G. Hudson Retnaraj
The Moplah Rebellion 1921 – C Gopalan Nair
Khilafat Smaranakal- Brahmadattan Nambudiri
Jividhakatha –Moyarath Sankaran Nambiar
Malabar Kalapam – Madhavan nair
MP Narayana Menon – MPS Menon
Peasant revolt in Malabar: a history of the Malabar rebellion, 1921– RH Hitchcock
List of thedead and other details (In Malayalam)
P Anima’s story on the East hill Bungalow

1. Previous transportation cases - To carry the prisoners from Malabar to the jails the British officials used goods wagons. In September 1921 a goods wagon was used to take twenty prisoners, including Ali Mussaliar, the prominent rebel leader, from Tirur to Coimbatore. In total 2,600 prisoners were transported on 32 trips in such a fashion.

However it should also be noted that Sgt Andrews had previous experience in this kind of transportation and had transported 112 people once in a luggage wagon without problems. In this case the air vents were painted over and that was the reason for the deaths.

2. Mr Premnath Murkoth provides following additional details about Dr T Raman who treated the sick victims at Coimbatore.

My grand father Dr.T.Raman headed the medical team to render aid to the hapless Mophala victims-in the wagon at Podanur. I have pleasure in attaching along with this his [Dr.Raman ] photograph and his certificate given by the Madras medical College in 1895


  1. Nothin

    Very interesting article . The laws of Karma seems to have worked here.

  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    "who got the wagon door finally opened, at Podanur. The doctor who treated the survivors at Coimbatore was K Raman Nair."
    I wish to correct this statement.My grand father Dr.T.Raman [Thayyan my initials also] who was attached to the Coimbatore Dist Hospital was the person who went to Podanur Rly.station to see the causalities of the wagon. The scene there was dismaying, even though he was wearing a gloves for long time he used fork and knife to have food.He could not understand the cruelty meted out

  1. Maddy

    thanks Soorya narayan..
    Glad you enjoyed this

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Premnath..
    That is an interesting input, I will certainly correct it right away. The information I had came from from Retnaraj's paper on the subject. Subsequently I got a copy of the detailed Knapp report, but I decided not to make this longer than it is...

    I can imagine the horror experienced by Dr Raman.

  1. Unknown

    Very good insight on the Wagon tragedy. I had watched a Malayalam movie named 1921 . This article had bought back images of that.

  1. Sreevalsan

    Good info. But in the last paragraph you missed to mention the number of innocent people killed by rebels which prompted tough action by the British Govt.

  1. Maddy

    Any kind of violence is non-condonable! In the recent article I penned on the VK Haji, the overall build-up is discussed in more detail. I have provided there, links to other articles of mine where more statistics can be picked up.