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Death of the Telegraph

June 17, 2013

The telegram service is to be discontinued in India by BSNL in the middle of July. The telex service already having been discontinued a few years ago, one more of modern inventions has become redundant.

One can mouth inanities like the over-worked phrase “the old order changeth…” And take solace in the manner of the telegraph/telegram’s demise, that old soldiers but fade away.

The growth of technology after the start of the industrial revolution is exponential, and Moore’s Law may also get swept away soon. But my aim is not to pontificate on how matter, after it started in its human-agglomerated-form to contemplate its environs and itself, does not know where the contemplation will take it to.

My aim is only to pontifcate on what might have been, if the East India Company had not introduced the latest technology like railways and telegraph into India at what in those days prior to the telegraph and radio and what else, was lightning speed. It took less time for the telegraph to come to India in the nineteenth century than the common-rail diesel engine took in the twentieth. Was the difference the powers that be, for the time being? The Company was the de-facto emperor of most of India by the middle of the nineteenth century. Who was the de-facto emperor in the latter half of the twentieth century in India? Don’t tell me it was “we, the people”,

Well, what might have been?

It may not be widely appreciated that the rising of 1857 was put down by the telegraph, that villain, that stooge of commercial imperialism. More than to take stock of its wares in “factories” and godowns all over India, more than to improve its logistics in operation, the Company’s directors must have recognised the role of the telegraph in ensuring the security of the trade and its margins. To wit, to be master of whatever added environs helped create its margins.

So when the rag-tag armies of a few score disgruntled local rulers added renegades and victims of bigotry from here and there, and marched aimlessly over parts of north and central-east India, and a vainglorious poet-dissolute-rump of a dynasty thought he would be emperor again in Delhi, the Company’s wires dot-dash-dotted intelligence and instructions to its cantonments. From Calcutta to Cawnpore to Delhi to Meerut to… I know I will be crucified about 1 billion times for saying this, once by every Indian, fed as we are on the theory of the War of Independence in 1857. (But all of them will not read this, the readership of my blog can be represented by a single digit, base 10 system). My early political education also shared this view. I have since seen documented histories that show sepoys being motivated by a promised pay of 15 annas a month to change sides, among other things.

So the superior intelligence, planning, training, availability of ammunition and commercial motivation won. Not that there were not several genuine patriots in the midst of the unorganised rising. But technology won, and in this case, the telegraph, introduced but a few years earlier, did it.

So what might have been if the telegraph did not come to India in the 1850’s? Instead of the few months it took the Company, supported by various indigenous vilains vying for patronage, it would have been years before they could re-establish their commerce, re-establish their ascendancy. Perhaps, the hundreds of chieftains would have regained their territories, and gone on fighting each other…


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  1. Induchoodan permalink

    I think if the British were defeated in the 1857 uprising, the southern and middle India would have been controlled by the Marathas while the north would have been controlled by the descendants of the Mugal dynasty. Of course, the Khalsa would carved out a small kingdom for themselves in Punjab. In other words, we would had two major forces vying for ascendancy. Not much different from what we have today. May be the death toll of partition could have been avoided. But then the modernizing forces would have been much weaker. For all that we know, we might have been conversing in Marathi instead of English.

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