Tirur: Wagon Tragedy mural removed following complaints

Tirur: Wagon Tragedy mural removed following complaints

The mural was drawn as part of the beautification of railway station under Palakkad division

Murals of Thunchath Ezhuthachan, father of the Malayalam language and a depiction of the 'wagon tragedy' were painted on the walls of the station as decided by the divisional engineer of Palakkad division. (Image credit: Facebook/Prem Koolath)

As part of a beautification programme, Palakkad Division officials of the Indian railways had decided to paint murals portraying the local culture, history and tourist attraction on the walls of four buildings including Tirur railway station. 

Artist Prem Kumar

The railway engineer had given the contract to artist Prem Kumar, who is based in Edappal, a town in Malappuram district.

Murals of Thunchath Ezhuthachan, father of the Malayalam language and a depiction of the 'wagon tragedy' were painted on the walls of the station as decided by the divisional engineer of Palakkad division.

However, following complaints from Sangh Parivar outfits, the higher-ups in the Railway ministry directed local authorities to erase the murals in Tirur that depict the 'wagon tragedy'. The groups claim that the tragedy is not even a part of the Indian struggle for Independence and thus, did not warrant a spot under the 'historical' section of murals. 

The British government had sent around 100 rebels in a freight wagon to Podanur Central Jail near Coimbatore from Tirur Railway station on 20 November 1921, after the quelling a rebellion in the south Malabar taluks of Kerala.

When the jail was found full, the train returned back to Tirur. On the return journey, 67 people died due to lack of oxygen in the wagon. This incident is known as the 'wagon tragedy', which exposed the inhuman treatment meted out by the British.

The Wagon tragedy mural, drawn on the wall of Tirur railway station building.

Some Hindutva outfits created a ruckus even before Prem Kumar had finished the mural. The artist said that he and his team thought that the ruckus was unwarranted and even shared a laugh at the fact that the outfits thought 'wagon tragedy was not a part of the history of independence'.

"At that moment, we hadn't expected any controversy," said Prem Kumar.

However, officials from the station erased the murals the next day by applying a fresh coat of paint as directed by the Division office. It is learnt that officials from the Railway Ministry instructed the division to wipe out the murals after they received complaints from local BJP and RSS workers.

Local BJP leaders confirmed that they had complained to the Railways against the murals in Tirur.

 BJP Tirur Legislative Constituency President Pradeep Kumar told DH, that they had lodged their complaints to top leaders in the party as well as Ministry of Railways.  "Our top leaders intervened in this issue to pressure the Railways to erase the murals," Pradeep said. 

Prem Kumar says the divisional engineer contacted him and requested him to cover up the mural the day after it was completed.

"The officers in Palakkad division and Tirur station told me that they received calls from Ministry of Railways," Prem Kumar told DH.

 "It was Railways plan and they had approved the designs. But, when I finished the drawing, they asked me to wipe it off. As an artist, it was a painful experience," rued the 28-year-old art teacher.

As Prem could not turn up to erase the mural, station officials themselves applied a coat of paint over the murals.

The Division officials claimed that they removed the mural due to its gory depiction.

 The wall after painting over the murals. (Facebook/Prem Koolath)

 "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,” PRO of Palakkad Division was quoted as saying to The News Minute.

Insult to the Freedom struggle: Chief minister

 Responding to the incident, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Wednesday accused RSS of forcing the Railways to remove the mural from the station. He said it was an insult to the freedom struggle.

 "The decision of Railway to erase the mural work of Wagon tragedy, which was recently painted at the Tirur railway station, is a heinous one. Wagon tragedy is an important chapter of our freedom struggle. The decision to remove the mural amounts to insulting the struggle," Chief Minister said on Facebook.

 "It is not difficult to understand the opposition of RSS to this painting. RSS is in general allergic to the memories of the Indian Independence struggle. They had no role in that struggle and it is no wonder that they hate the golden chapters. By capitalizing on their power in Central & state governments, they are now on a history-rewriting spree," he added.

 He also said, Railways, a public sector undertaking, accepting demands from RSS is unbecoming.

 "This is nothing short of being an anti-national move. Attempts to erase the memory of Independence movement must be condemned," he concludes his post.

'Image to create communal polarisation'

"For Hindus in Malappuram district, 1921 is a reminder of a horrific event since the fanatic Mappilas exterminated several Hindus during the riot. Depicting a gory image of wagon tragedy on the major station of the district is directly rousing the sentiments of the Hindus, which is not acceptable for BJP," said Pradeep Kumar.

Pradeep says they had spoken to the station master about this and asked him to portray other incidents too including 'Tuvvur Well', where apparently several Hindus were murdered by the mutineers and dumped into a well. "The station master refused to listen to our protest and he went ahead despite our warnings," Pradeep, a college teacher, told DH.

"BJP considers this move (drawing Wagon Tragedy mural) is a polarising effort. The Hindus are already worried about the recent slogans like '1921 will repeat' etc from some fundamental Islamic groups," he said.

Municipality allows mural to be drawn on Townhall

Tirur Municipality has decided to give space to the wagon tragedy mural on the wall of the town hall. They requested the artist Prem Kumar to draw the same mural.

Kamalsy Najmal speaks during the protest against the removal of the mural in Tirur railway station, on Thursday (Image credit: Akmal Akku)

"We are meeting Municipality chairman tomorrow and will discuss further plans," Prem Kumar told DH.

For the question about the Municipality's decision, Pradeep said BJP has not taken any stand so far, but we demand that the painting of 'Tuvvur Well' should also be painted along with 'wagon tragedy'.

Protest gathering

 A group of activists on Thursday staged a protest against the removal of the mural in front of the railway station. They demanded the Railways to restore the murals. 

Activist Kamalsy Najmal, Ganesh Vadery, Dr Jawaharlal and others spoke in the protest. They said the removal of the mural is part of Modi government's attempt to rewrite the history of India.