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Empire of wires

Introduced by the British,the telegraph was also used against them

Introduced by the British,the telegraph was also used against them

NewS that telegram-delivery services will end on July 15 does more than close a 160-year chapter in the history of communications in India. It also marks the end of an era of Indian political and social history. The telegraph began life as an instrument of colonial communications. The first fully operational line — from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour — was constructed by W. B. O’Shaughnessy and opened in 1851. By 1856 there were more than 4,000 miles of lines and 46 receiving stations,linking Calcutta to Bombay,Agra,Peshawar and Madras. Lord Dalhousie,India’s governor-general,saw the value of the telegraph (alongside railways and a regular postal service) in speeding up government business and promoting the security and efficiency of colonial rule.

The telegraph’s utility was soon tested. In May 1857,one of the first intimations of the outbreak of the rebellion at Meerut came from two telegrams sent to Agra on the day the uprising erupted. The second began: “The 3rd Cavalry have broken out in mutiny,and are killing all Europeans they meet”,then ended abruptly: “We are.” Telegraphic communication enabled the British to re-establish control over Punjab and rebel-held Lucknow,causing John Lawrence,Punjab’s chief commissioner to declare that “the telegraph saved India”.

The importance of the telegraph has often been overshadowed by the railways,which certainly demanded greater engineering skills and had a more evident impact on the Indian economy. But the significance of the telegraph should not be underestimated. It helped spread technological innovation,appealing as much to Indian as European users. It made safe running of the railways possible and provided a means of relaying vital information from one end of the country to another. Reports of war,famine and insurrection sped along the wires,providing copy for journalists and data for merchants and investors. The rise of Bombay from the 1860s owed much to the inflow of telegraphic information about cotton and other commodity prices. The size and location of main telegraph offices on central thoroughfares like Calcutta’s Dalhousie Square and Bombay’s Churchgate made them prominent inner-city landmarks. The telegraph thrust India into a new age of globalised communication. By the 1880s,its leading cities were connected by wire to London and other European capitals,and over 20,000 miles of lines crisscrossed the subcontinent

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The telegraph service was a valued source of employment. As in many other occupations linked to western technological innovation,from train-drivers to women typists,the telegraph was at first considered especially suited to Anglo-Indians. The relationship between race and machine figured in Kipling’s tale,“His Chance in Life” — one of many instances in which telegraphs and telegrams appear in Indian fiction. As Indianisation progressed,however,Anglo-Indian employment fell,sinking from more than 60 per cent in 1902 to barely 40 per cent by 1928. Even so,the telegraph system remained an important source of state patronage and power. An almost daily adjunct to bureaucratic rule in India,the telegram brought India measurably closer to London. One can see evidence of this in the flurry of anxious telegrams that flew between the India Office in London and the viceroy in India,over issues like when or whether to arrest Gandhi during the non-cooperation and civil disobedience movement of 1920-22.

It would be simplistic,though,to see the telegram,as only a measure of imperial power. As with other technologies introduced by the British,telegraph lines were vulnerable to attack — as during the 1857 uprising and Quit India Movement of 1942. But almost any technology the British deployed could be used against them. Telegrams proved their worth in the nationalist struggle,providing a means by which to organise,protest and cajole. Gandhi opposed most modern technology,but he was a master of the telegraphic art. The telegram’s staccato prose suited his personal style of leadership and his economical way with words. He sent telegrams to rally support,to convey sympathy and regret,and to telegraph his intentions. But Gandhi could use the medium rather crushingly too,as when he wired organisers of a proposed sit-in of railway workers at Negapatam in September 1927,stating simply “Satyagraha unlawful in case mentioned”,or when he informed Congress workers in Lucknow in May 1931 “Hunger strike seems wholly unnecessary. Right or wrong everyone should submit [to decision of superior committee”. But the telegram’s enigmatic brevity could also flummox Gandhi as much as anyone else,leading him once to declare: “Conflicting wires confound me”.

More than the telephone,the telegram became an object of everyday life in India,if only among the middle classes. The telegram had a gift for intimacy — communicating news of births and deaths,personal triumphs and family tragedies. It is not surprising that,like the typewriter,the departing technology of the telegram should evoke technological nostalgia. Even if the time of the telegram is passing,it will live on in popular memory and the fading forms in official archives and family memorabilia.


The writer is Emeritus Professor in the Department of History,University of Warwick,UK. His most recent book is ‘Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity’

First published on: 01-07-2013 at 11:19:18 pm
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