Bring back Shakuntala

Bring back Shakuntala

A narrow gauge rail track in remote rural Vidarbha has turned into a rallying point for supporters of a heritage railway that dates back to British rule. 64-year-old farmer-activist Vijay Vilhekar stands at the center of the Satyagraha, demanding the resumption of the Shakuntala Express. His new year started with this resolution – to keep the train alive in public consciousness.

On January 1, he celebrated the 109th birthday of the Shakuntala locomotive at Murtijapur, where spare parts are lying in a shed. He has been a part of similar celebrations throughout the month in 100 villages (one bordering Nanded in Marathwada) that en route to Shakuntala, including his hometown of Dariyapur. In fact, the bizarre 28 railway stops—Lasina, Chamak and Kapustalani—have come to life due to the revived Shakuntala movement.
This Republic Day, Wilhekar will organize commemorative programs at Shakuntala’s railway stations, which have been decorated for a special flag hoisting, followed by chanting of newly written hymns dedicated to Shakuntala’s cultural heritage. Incidentally, Shakuntala Express has inspired two books – one by Wilhekar and the other by a Delhi-based railway officer.

Activist Vijay Vilhekar, 64, is leading satyagraha meetings in 100 villages on the route of the Shakuntala Express, demanding the resumption of their services.

Wilhekar’s hymn underlines the constitutionally given right to an economical means of transport. The Shakuntala Express Railway, from its inception in 1913 till 2019, has been a preferred carrier for the lower middle class population living around the 188-km-long track between Yavatmal and Achalpur – mainly the tribal/cotton growers of Vidarbha. Vilhekar’s childhood memories are of his serpentine natural journey from Daryapur to Anjangaon, where his elder sister was married. “Farmer families stay away from this train. Our harvest was carried over the train. Our brides were brought home by Shakuntala. People from our college used to study in his train coaches.”

The activist says that there is not only sentimental value in restarting the train, but also business sense. Shakuntala rail network – track, platform, bogie, engine, technical details – is in good condition. “Why kill the existing system and lobby for broad gauge costly projects, which are a burden on the economy in post-COVID times?” As for Shakuntala’s fans, who feel that keeping the narrow gauge route oiled will help in modernization later. He insists that Shakuntala be a perfect living Make-in-India example; It was bought from a British company and was run by Indian Railways experts. Actually, he is in touch with retired employees running narrow gauge trains. He has also assisted research teams that have recently studied the state of the ballast beneath wood ties. The tracks may have required minimal repairs, but no damage to the public has been reported in the interim period. Similarly, the seven river bridges on which the train runs are also in useful condition. To clarify Shakuntala’s ownership position, Wilhekar is currently drafting a PIL in which he is assisting three visually impaired vendors who earned a living by selling food and drinks on Shakuntala Marg and re-running the train. Seeking legal clarity on starting from

A follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Wilhakar is dedicated to many causes for the upliftment of the underprivileged sections of the society.

Wilhekar aggressively objected to Shakuntala’s locomotives being displayed as relics in railway exhibitions and old corners in Akola and Nagpur. “Why treat engines like showpieces when they are functional? Isn’t that like turning a living person into a statue?” Wilhekar as part of his Republic Day Charter. “Republic means ‘tantra’, which vests supreme power in the people. If this is our accepted reference, why can’t the villagers of Vidarbha reclaim cheap rail transport?

Shakuntala Wilhakar’s current obsession is; The hours of his day and night are devoted to his resurrection. But his life till now has always revolved around one reason or the other. He started out as the youngest of five children. While the family belonged to the Khatik (Butcher) community, the father was a Gandhian follower, due to which he decided to run a flour mill instead of selling mutton. The father encouraged higher education and sent the youngest to Amravati around 1974 – a time when socialist India was preparing for a total revolution. As the youth came in contact with the followers of Vijay Jayaprakash Narayan, he decided to leave the college for the political movements of the day. “We were told to tear or burn our degree papers. I did not have one, so my work immediately started with Yuva Sangharsh Vahini,” he recalls.

Subsequently, Wilhekar adopted a variety of disadvantaged sections, be it the tribals of Melghat or rural poor students living in government city hostels or mahua producers facing livelihood crisis. Because of his sense of fulfillment from the extensive relationship, he never wanted to get married. Once he rejected a prospective bride because of her fair complexion. “As an ardent follower of Babasaheb Ambedkar, I loved his fair skin. To my idealistic mind, fairness was a sign of a British or upper class presence,” he joked, adding that he later married the girl after her father threatened to die.

Around 1980, Wilhecker entered another obsessive phase. He joined the furious foreign-returned peasant leader Sharad Joshi. In fact, he was active in all the Shetkari Sangathan movements, road blockades, rallies under Joshi’s leadership. Wilhekar’s book Fakiriche Vaibhav is a biographical account of a grassroots activist of a movement for the economic independence of the farmers. The title fakir (monk) lives up to the state of mind that supports Vilhekar. Interestingly, they are known to have another character trait – they celebrate the birthdays of old trees as a mark of respect to the environment.

At this point, Wilhecker is a super nomadic soul. He has been a part of Satyagraha meetings for much of Shakuntala’s life. The family of his friends is moving far beyond the periphery of the railway; The movement has gained momentum on prime time television channels. Vilhekar’s pro-Shakuntala slogans have resonated with railway passenger groups, including unions, in Mumbai. As Wilhekar says: Shakuntala is so precious that she cannot be neglected. It has brought forward Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Gadge Baba at various important junctures.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of subtext. You can contact her at



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