Elections are a great time to stop and take stock of life and politics across the vast expanse of India, and trains are a great place to start doing that.

Over the next two weeks, Scroll.in’s Supriya Sharma will be travelling from Guwahati to Jammu, hopping on and off trains, talking to the people about things that matter.

She’ll cover more than 2,500 kms across seven states, starting with Assam in the north east, passing through Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, and ending her journey in Jammu and Kashmir.

From refugee camps in Bodoland, to tea estates in north Bengal, the villages of Bihar, the ghats of Benaras, the dhabas of Punjab, she will bring you a slice of life in the time of elections, and tell you what’s on the minds of the people she meets.

As for finding out where the political wind is blowing, let’s just say this: she’s going to try her best to catch a window seat on the trains.

Here is her first dispatch from Guwahati.

Busy fisherfolk at the banks, snuggling couples in the garden, vegetable vendors on the steps. There was enough riverside activity at Uzaan Bazaar ghat, and yet the Brahmaputra looked weary and melancholic under the grey morning sky.

Bhupen Hazarika, the bard of Assam, wrote a song about the river Luit, or Lohit, as the Brahmaputra is called in Assamese, which means “red”.

Unlike other river songs, ‘Bistirno Parore’ talks not of beauty, but of inhumanity, mocking the river for being a silent witness to it.

A mob by the side; the banks far and wide

Yelled and cried ,”Speechless ever, old man river, o thou…

Why do you flow?”

Moral ethics got diminished, Human values got perished…

”Shameless forever, why do you flow?”

(Translation by Kamaljyoti Borah)


The roads in central Guwahati had turned muddy after a spell of overnight rain.

I made my way up to the settlement of thatched huts clinging to a hillside, to look for Naren Tumung, a young auto-rickshaw driver who had been paralysed by the 2008 Guwahati bombings.

A month before ten gunmen held Mumbai to siege, a series of explosions had ripped through Guwahati and lower Assam. A hundred people were killed and more than twice the number injured.

In Mumbai, the lone surviving gunman, Ajmal Kasab, was swiftly tried by the courts and sentenced to death.

In Assam, the man suspected of planning the terror attacks, Ranjan Daimary, was arrested, but swiftly released on bail.

Daimary is the leader of a faction of the insurgent Bodo group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. Bodos are indigenous tribal people who live in lower Assam. Since the mid-eighties, armed Bodo groups have been fighting for demands ranging from statehood to secession. So have other indigenous groups like the Karbis and the Dimasas, who live in upper Assam, as well as the United Liberation Front of Assam, which has long waged a secessionist movement on behalf of Assamese-speaking people.

Several of these groups are currently in ceasefire mode. The levels of violence have come down. Keen to savour the relative peace, most people in Assam avoid talking about bloodshed. Most have moved on, except those like Tumung, whom I found sitting outside his thatched hut.

“The left side of my body was fully paralysed,” he said. “While some movement has returned to my arm, I still can’t feel my leg.”

The 28-year-old is dependent on his old mother. Belonging to the indigenous Karbi community, they do not have much to fall back on. The government compensation of Rs 1.5 lakhs long ran out. The promises that politicians made – treatment in a hospital outside Assam, a government job – are yet to be fulfilled.

“I had saved money to build a house. What house, now we cannot even afford to eat,” said his mother, Gulabi, in a manner both direct and eloquent. “My health is not good. I have been trying to get the government to employ him as an office peon, or anything. I don’t need the money. I just want a future for him.”

They met a minister, Akon Bora, several times but nothing moved.

“What’s the point in voting for these people in elections?” Gulabi asked. “They released Ranjan Daimary. Our people are so angry they want to chop him off.”


Not just poets, but even the Indian Railways has paid tributes to the river.

The Lohit Express runs from Guwahati to Jammu on Mondays.

The Brahmaputra Mail runs from Dibrugarh to Delhi everyday. It’s notorious for delays, but on Wednesday, it was running on time.

The man seated next to me turned out to be a CRPF soldier in civilian clothes. He had boarded the train in Dimapur, Nagaland, with his wife and two kids. “I’m going to drop them home for the holidays,” he said. Home was in Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh.

“What about you?” he asked me.

“I’m going to Kokrajhar, Bodoland.”

“Oh, that’s a disturbed area. Some companies of our battalion were posted there.”

“What about Dimapur?”

“There is trouble in the villages, but the city is fine. I have been posted outside a bank to keep it protected. There is a lot of money there. Big Marwari businessmen. The Centre is flooding the state with funds.”

As the train pulled out of the station, I pulled out the newspaper. “2 cops hurt in NDFB(S) ambush,” said a headline. I jotted it down in my notebook.

“Look at aunty, she writes such good English,” the CRPF man turned to his daughter, Shweta, a six-year old.

Then, turning back to me, he said, “I’ve got her admitted to an English-medium school. Of course, the teachers lapse into Naga while teaching  – they are Nagas, you see  – but they also speak with the kids in English.”

“She must have also picked up Naga.”

“Yes, a little bit.”

“Have you?”

“No, why do I need to,” he shot back, looking slightly annoyed. “We have nothing to do with local people.”

They may be decent people and doting fathers. But they are trained to see local people as potential enemies. Sent to defuse an insurgency, government soldiers often end up deepening it.


The train crossed Baksa, one of the four districts administered by an autonomous Bodoland Territorial Council. A youthful-looking short-man entered the compartment, carrying a camouflage-print rucksack with Indian Army etched on it. He had tribal features.

“Are you in the army?”

“No,” he smiled. He was in the Central Industrial Security Force. A Bodo boy, he had come home for a holiday, and was returning to Delhi, where he was posted at Rajghat.

“You must have seen all big leaders. Sonia Gandhi and all,” the CRPF jawan asked his counterpart in the CISF.

“Not yet. It’s only been two months in this posting.”

“What do you think of the demand for a separate Bodoland?”

“It doesn’t matter to me. But people in the village want it. They think more government jobs would be created. And there might be better chances of getting a job in the army, once there is a separate Bodo Regiment, on the lines of Assam Regiment.”

While some young Bodos fight the Indian army, other young Bodos want to join it.


In the next coach, I walked past an old man who was immersed in a palm-sized book: Naya Niyam or New Testament, printed by the New Bible Society.

The man, Ram Ugra, turned out be a soldier of the India Reserve Battalion. Posted in Manipur for more than three decades, he was three years short of retirement. “I am going home to my village in Aurangabad, Bihar,” he said, in a gentle and mellow voice.

“Are you a believer in Christ?”

“Well, I have been living in Manipur for so long, and the place has so many churches…”

“Is it true that the armed forces enter villages and kill innocents?”

“Yes, they do, and they even take money from people. They are so shameless that they don’t even spare their own people.”

He had misunderstood my question.

“I am not asking about the insurgent groups. I am asking about Indian government’s army and police forces. Do they make mistakes?”

“Oh yes,” he said, nodding his head. “And then, later in life, you look for salvation.”

Naren Tumung, who was badly injured in the 2008 Guwahati blasts, and his mother.


Click here to read all the stories Supriya Sharma has filed about her 2,500-km rail journey from Guwahati to Jammu to listen to India’s conversations about the forthcoming elections -- and life.

Click here to see the photographs Supriya took during her visit to Guwahati.