The true test of a man’s character is not in the accolades that he has won but in the calamities that he has endured. In Netflix’s The Railway Men, Iftekaar Siddiqui (played by K.K. Menon) is one such character who fought against all odds, not because he wanted to become a hero but because he wanted to do what was necessary. In fiction, we do have plenty of examples like that. But what’s really remarkable in this case is the fact that Iftekaar’s character is inspired by a real-life unsung hero, Ghulam Dastagir, who was a deputy stationmaster at Bhopal Junction during the tragic man-made disaster. But what really made Ghulam Dastagir stand out?
In the face of a calamity, our first instinct is to run away to save our own lives or save our family from the impending doom. Very few of us think about a third person because we want to secure ourselves before doing “the humanitarian service.” Perhaps it was the selfless act of Mr. Dastagir that made him different from the other employees present at the Bhopal Station on the day Union Carbide brought about misery on the entire city due to their negligence.
On the night of December 2, 1984, hours after the tragic gas leak from the pesticide plant, the entire station had turned into a horrific graveyard, with bodies lying wherever the eyes could go. As seen in Netflix’s The Railway Men series, Mr. Dastagir didn’t come into contact with the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas until late at 1 a.m., as he was inside his office attending to some important paperwork. However, as the deputy station master came out of his office on Platform 1 to check on the incoming Gorakhpur-Bombay Express, he felt the effect of toxic gas in his body. The stationmaster quickly ran towards the main office, only to find that around 23 of the station employees had already been put to death by MIC. Even his senior, Station Superintendent Harish Dhurve, became the victim of the tragic gas leak, because of which Ghulam Dastagir had to step in and take charge of the Bhopal Junction to stop any further casualties. Iftekaar’s character was shown to be the station master, but in reality, he might’ve been the amalgamation of both the station master, Harish, and the deputy station master, Dastagir; two people who gave it their all on that fateful night.
The Railway Men series introduced a past trauma of Iftekaar Siddiqui’s character that became the foundation of his selfless act during the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. As shown in the series, Iftekaar failed to save a young boy’s life during a train accident because he prioritized saving his own. As a consequence, the boy fell into the water and died—a death that Iftekaar could never really move on from and never forgave himself for. Throughout the runtime of the series, he had nightmares about that tragic train accident, and that made us certain that the station master would die before repeating the same mistake twice, and evidently, that was what happened.
Due to its chemical composition, the poisonous gas was heavier than air and therefore remained close to ground level for a longer period of time, thereby increasing its effect twofold. In the midst of such a catastrophe, Mr. Dastagir quickly contacted the nearby stations and alerted them about the ongoing crisis. He requested that they cancel all trains directed towards Bhopal Junction, but there was no way to stop the Gorakhpur-Bombay Express. The train had already passed Sukhi Sewaniya station, as seen in the series, because of which there wasn’t any way to contact the driver. The station master decided to act on his instincts and instructed his remaining staff to let the Express pass without any halt at the junction. Most of his staff suggested that he wait for their senior’s order, but only Mr. Dastagir knew what horrors would take place if he followed bureaucracy during such a crisis. The train had more than 1000 passengers on board, and if Mr. Dastagir hadn’t intervened in time, all those innocent lives would have faced a tragic fate.
But the problem didn’t end there, nor did Mr. Dastagir’s duty towards his station. As seen in the Netflix series, a large crowd of people had turned up at the Bhopal Junction in order to flee from the city, which had turned into a toxic gas chamber. Iftekaar Siddiqui, who was about to leave the Bhopal Junction on the Cargo Train decided to stay back at the station so that he could help the new arrivals who were slowly falling to their deaths. In real life too, Mr. Dastagir sent an emergency message to the nearby stations asking for immediate evacuation and medical care for these passengers. In the meantime, he attended to the bodies falling on the platform due to the effects of the toxic gas, even when the man himself wasn’t able to stand properly and was slowly perishing away. It is true that the General Manager of the Northern Railways, Gauri Shanker (known as Rati Pandey in the series), turned up for a surprise inspection in Jhansi when he heard of the Bhopal Incident. He tried to establish communication with the Bhopal Junction, but when he received no response, he rushed to their aid against the orders of his superior. The entire incident shown in the series is completely true. R. Madhavan’s character is based on the real-life Gauri Shanker, who arrived at the Bhopal Junction on his special inspection to help the grieving victims.
In Ghulam Dastagir’s personal life, he had two sons who lived with him in the same city. The stationmaster might have saved hundreds of lives on that tragic night, but he failed to save one of his sons, who fell victim to the toxic gas. The second son, on the other hand, developed an untreatable skin infection. Mr. Dastagir himself developed a severe throat infection because of the prolonged exposure to MIC. Though there is no evidence to support this story, it could be speculated that he probably fainted on one of the platforms and was considered dead. According to the series, he later woke up in the mortuary and continued to live for two more decades before taking his last breath in 2003. In the Netflix’s series, Iftekaar Siddiqui was in a way able to redeem himself, and he got rid of the ghosts of his past life that haunted him. Netflix’s series doesn’t mention the real name of the stationmaster who saved hundreds of lives that day, but we really think that they should have given it so the general public (of today) would have been able to know about the endeavor of such a great hero in Indian history.