On July 15 India will send its last telegram, drawing a line under the nation’s British Raj past and its silicon chip-driven future.
Since the time when the Subcontinent’s first telegram was transmitted 163 years ago – about 50 km from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour – the nation has gained independence, become the world’s largest democracy, and seen its economy explode as it transforms into an information technology giant. As of 2011, government-owned telecom powerhouse BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd) was suffering losses of Rs. 300 – 400 crore from its telegraph service.
“The growing use of mobile phones and Internet has led to steep decline in the usage of the telegraphic service…it has become financially unviable,” a BSNL official told The Hindu. “After stopping telegram service for overseas communication earlier this year, we have now decided to discontinue it for the domestic market from July 15.”
The move is inextricably tied up with the advent of mobile phones and the Internet – now accessible to 800,000 and 150 million Indians, respectively. Interestingly, rather than cease use of the technology, BSNL upgraded its telegram service – taar in Hindi – to include web-based messaging as recently as 2010. It follows logically that BSNL employees once assigned to telegraphy are being transferred to mobile, landline and broadband services over the next three months.
Present-day Indians use these newfangled technologies for essentially the same purposes as the beloved telegraph machine that was once the lynchpin of the country’s communications network.
“Currently, we send only about 5,000 telegrams per day,” a BSNL official told The Telegraph, which notes that telegrams are still available as retro-greeting cards in the UK, Germany, Canada and Russia. “That’s down from several hundred thousand a day before the advent of the fax machine.”
“In recent years, out of the 5,000 telegrams sent daily 95 percent were used by government departments and remaining 5 percent by people from rural India. The ages of senders have not been an important factor,” Pradip Jain, chairman of communications at the Bihar Chamber of Commerce, told The Diplomat.
Use of telegrams in India began with the Raj when William O’Shaughnessy, a surgeon and inventor, was commissioned by Indian Governor Lord Dalhousie to build a 27-mile line near Calcutta. By 1856, the lines had become a complex network that spanned some 4,000 miles of the British Empire. By connecting important hubs like Mumbai (then Bombay), Agra, Peshawar and Madras, the British East India Company took control of the vast swathe of terrain.
Over the next 90-plus years, telegrams carried messages that defined the nation’s history, from its use by the British to put down the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to Jawaharlal Nehru’s message to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, in which the first Indian prime minister requested help from London when Pakistani troops invaded Kashmir.
“We have received urgent appeal for assistance from Kashmir government,” Nehru wrote in a famous, 163-word message. “We would be disposed to give favourable consideration to such request from any friendly state.”
Jain added to this list the message that bore then news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, whose image was later emblazoned on the stamps that later covered telegrams (see images attached).
While telegrams lost the urgency they once had, people have still frequented the nation’s telegraph offices in recent decades to send news of births, deaths, marriages and other news of consequence to family across the country or among the diaspora.
“Birthdays, grieving, condolences, interviews, bank statements – I have sent everything,” VL Meena told The Independent.
“There are several places where mobile phone services haven’t reached,” Satish Kumar, a telegraph clerk in New Delhi, told NDTV. “In places like Siachen, lots of soldiers still communicate to their family through telegrams. Plus navy recruitments are still sent through telegram.”
What’s most amazing of all to consider is that India has held onto this antiquated piece of technology this long. For some, the answer is purely practical. Jain in Bihar said, “I would not say that nostalgia held the delay in shutting the telegraph facility. It was more due to lack of cheaper mode of fast communication and huge losses mounted by BSNL to the tune of $4 billion.”
Yet, for others the technology was more than the sum of its parts and they feel a nostalgia for its passing.
“The postman fishing out a telegram from his satchel is an abiding image in many of our earlier movies, at least for those of us of a certain age,” an editorial in The Hindustan Times reads. “The recipient would tear it open with trembling hands, for there was always an element of urgency about a telegram.”
The Indian Express writes: “Tersely worded, printed out in capital letters, sentences ending with the dramatic ‘STOP’, nothing can bring it home like a telegram.”