Updated: January 4, 2022 1:00:58 pm
Written by Jagannath Srinivasan
The grandeur of the Rashtrapati Bhavan makes it easy to overlook the fact that it is an office too, and quite a busy one at that. Its records, reaching back to colonial times, afford a glimpse into the evolution of the government in India. And occasionally, the telegram peeks out from notes and letters, bearing testimony to its once pivotal role in moving the wheels of the government.
Governments are command and control structures and colonial governments, more so. The advent of the electric telegraph allowed its nerve centre, the governor general, to overcome the limitations imposed by physical modes of communication, cutting down to hours what took days to communicate. William O’Shaughnessy, who joined the East India Company (EIC) army as a surgeon in 1833, had experimented with the telegraph in Bengal but it needed Lord Dalhousie to make the parsimonious Court of Directors of the East India Company — reluctant imperialists but active colonialists who were always averse to incurring any expenditure in the usual course — to approve the introduction of the electric telegraph in India. Dalhousie understood the criticality of communications for the empire he was extending and commissioned O’Shaughnessy to work on the telegraph.
From its beginning in Diamond Harbour in 1851, the telegraph grew like a chain, syncing with the military needs of the empire. It moved from Calcutta to Lucknow to Attock, connecting the newly acquired territories. Agra was linked to Bombay and from there to Madras. The transformation of the communication system was electrifying. For instance, a request for troops for the Crimean War (1853-56), which was received in Bombay by ship, was transmitted to Calcutta in six hours. It would have taken at least a week but for the telegraph.
The EIC was to better appreciate the significance of the telegraph during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, when an official noted that “Under providence, the electric telegraph saved us”. Freedom fighters, on the other hand, felt they were “strangled by that damned wire”.
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Telegraphic information, however, didn’t always give a complete picture. “All well in Oude,” one of the first messages received by Lord Canning when he became governor general in 1856, optimistically missed the powder keg of 1857 lurking around the corner — to quote the sender General Outram somewhat out of context.
After the Uprising, connectivity between India and England was established, initially by overland telegraph across the Ottoman Empire and Europe and, later, by the undersea cable to the Suez. This telegraphic connection shifted the nerve centre of the empire to England. Students of history would recall that, before the Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive had been ordered to return to Madras. His reply refusing to do so took a month to reach England, by which time he had put the Company on the path to empire building. The telegraph in Clive’s time would definitely have proved providential for India!
Telegrams soon became an integral part of government communications. They would cover the routine and the strategic — from the appointment of Major Strachey as the comptroller of the Viceroys Household in 1903 to the secretary of state for India’s queries on the impact of the Rowlatt Act, 1919, and questions on whether the Andaman and Nicobar islands should remain with free India. Lord Dufferin in 1887 had got approval for the creation of the Intelligence Bureau through a telegram from the secretary of state for India. Churchill’s infamously peevish remarks during Mahatma Gandhi’s fast in 1943, asking the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, to confirm if Gandhi took glucose in his water when he fasted, and Linlithgow calling Gandhi the “world’s most successful humbug” were conveyed through telegraphic dots and dashes.
Unlike letters, telegrams needed to be transcribed and transmitted by signallers, who had to perforce read the message. To ensure secrecy, the use of the cypher was common, which in the early days of the telegraph was a source of complaints, as the coded messages weren’t comprehensible to the signallers. For a colonial government, dealing with a growing nationalist movement (whose leaders were, ironically, major users of the public telegraph), coding was sacrosanct, with the Cypher Rules being strictly followed. A note from 1928 underlines how serious the secrecy of communications was considered. HG Haig, secretary to the Home Department, remarked on a reply from George Cunningham, private secretary to the viceroy (PSV), Lord Irwin, “PSV should not have replied en clair to a telegraph sent to him in cypher.”
This sin aside, the PSV’s office was quite efficient in getting the draft telegrams received from various departments every day approved by the viceroy, encoding and dispatching them. Cunningham, however, records the difficulties faced while the viceroy was in Shimla or on tour with his “cypher clerks being always busy”. The viceroy being the fulcrum of government and telegrams having become the main mode of communicating the urgent business of governance, Cunningham initiated the Home Department to issue an order in 1930, detailing a procedure to reduce the burden on the PSV’s office while on tour or in Shimla.
The flow of information was also aided by news agencies. In the 1860s, Reuters had opened offices in Bombay and Calcutta, and regularly supplied news to the India Office in London. It was a Reuters cable, received at 10 am on December 23, 1912, which informed the India Office of the attack on Lord Hardinge. The official telegram reporting the occurrence in detail, with a medical report on the viceroy’s condition, reached the India Office only at 3.30 pm. As is required with all government communications, the competent authority (in this case the Viceroy’s Council) had to approve the draft of the telegram. Since the Delhi Durbar had continued in spite of the attack, this approval got delayed.
Telegrams received in the same office after Independence would have caused an imperialist like Dalhousie to wince — especially when Hungarian Prime Minister István Dobi’s telegram to India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, on December 22, 1961, said that the liberation of Goa gave encouragement to people still languishing under colonial slavery elsewhere, or when Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa’s telegram to former president S Radhakrishnan lamented Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise and noted how his wise counsel would be missed in international affairs, or the time Chairman Mao, who founded Communist China, congratulated India on becoming a republic.
After playing a prominent role in weaving Indian history for over a century, the telegraph was superseded by other modes of communication. The Rashtrapati Bhavan Museum symbolically preserves its legacy in a facsimile copy of the telegram from US President Harry S Truman to Rajendra Prasad on January 26, 1950, greeting him on India becoming a republic — an ode to a technological marvel of a bygone era.
(Jagannath Srinivasan is Officer on Special Duty with the President’s Secretariat)
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