Live wire in the nationalist movement

From being a means of enforcing colonial authority to a tool that helped the freedom struggle, the telegraph played a role in India’s history

July 15, 2013 01:37 am | Updated July 18, 2013 02:12 am IST

When >India’s telegraphic network falls silent today (July 15), it will mark the end of an era for a technology that once played a unique role in the nation’s history. The telegraph, of course, was instrumental in helping the British turn the tide of the ‘mutiny’ of 1857. It was perhaps with this fact in mind that, during the Quit India movement in 1942, Congress supporters snapped away at the telegraph lines that bound together outposts of colonial control.

The telegraph was an important symbol of colonial authority: it is no surprise that >telegraph offices have been some of the most stately and imposing buildings in Indian cities. The technology brought the British Indian administration closer under the thumb of London. It also resulted in decreased freedom of manoeuvre for progressive-minded officials who sought to challenge the political status quo . In 1884, for example, Allan Octavian Hume suggested that the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, openly discuss the creation of more representative governing institutions in India. Ripon’s response was telling: “If I had committed myself on this point, I should probably have been recalled [to London] by telegraph.”

Pride of place

But the telegraph was also a valuable tool for Indian nationalists. This is especially true for the early nationalist leaders, who operated in an era when the railways were still branching out across the subcontinent, and the telephone was just catching on in London. As historians such as S.R. Mehrotra and Edward Moulton have pointed out, the telegraph enjoyed pride of place in the discussions that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885. While meeting political leaders in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta in early 1885, Hume floated the idea of an Indian Telegraph Union, a wire service that would transmit Indian news, from an Indian perspective, direct to London. It could thereby break the monopoly that The Times of London and reactionary British Indian papers had on sub-continental reportage. Such a Union would buttress the political activities of the Congress, wiring Indian opinion to the doorstep of the British Parliament and voter.

While the Union quickly collapsed for lack of money, early nationalists eagerly latched on to the telegraph for political coordination. This was especially true for Dadabhai Naoroji who, in the spring of 1886, sailed from Bombay to England in order to try to run for Parliament. Styling himself as a representative of India, he sought to coordinate his campaign with several public demonstrations of support from Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and elsewhere in order to woo the electorate in his chosen constituency of Holborn. However, Naoroji knew that with precious little time in hand he could not orchestrate this plan by sending letters home by sea mail.

In the late-19th century, postal communication between England and India was painfully slow. Letters were collected about once a week and dispatched on ships that took another week or two to reach their destinations. The arrival of ‘the Mail’ — deliberately styled as a formal noun in several letters that I have consulted — was a momentous event for Naoroji and his correspondents. This was an opportunity to quickly catch up on news from the other side of the world and pen responses before the next ship left. But this system was clearly inadequate to try, at less than a month’s notice, to rally political support from India. By the time Naoroji received replies from India to his first letters, the Holborn election would have already become a distant memory.

So Naoroji turned to the telegraph. He dispatched numerous wires to his friend and political right-hand man in Bombay, Behramji Malabari, who in turn fired off telegrams to political associations across the country. The hopes of the Indian political elite, consequently, rose and fell with every new message from London. With less than a week to go before Holborn went to the polls, Naoroji telegraphed Indian supporters that he was ‘fighting a forlorn hope’ in the deeply Conservative constituency. Malabari quickly dictated orders to associates in other cities: “Pray delay not public meetings, Bombay holds last.” The message stirred into action leaders in mofussil and urban centres. Just before the election, Naoroji was able to present constituents in Holborn with messages of support from cities and towns as diverse as Calcutta, Bombay, Agra, Ratnagiri, Karachi, Dhulia, and Dharwar.

Successful run

Naoroji, of course, lost his first attempt to enter Parliament. But he used the telegraph to greater effect in his successful campaign in Central Finsbury. In fact, by piecing together various telegrams in the Naoroji Papers, we can establish the main nodes in the Grand Old Man’s vast network of political contacts. Once again, Malabari served as Naoroji’s principal correspondent in India, telegraphing on behalf of Bombay leaders ‘How fares Finsbury’ during an acrimonious round of candidate-selection in August 1888 (Reuters wired back ‘Malabari undecided’ as a response, mistakenly placing the recipient’s name in the text of the message. “This must have puzzled you a little,” Naoroji acknowledged in a subsequent letter).

After Naoroji finally emerged as the undisputed Liberal Party candidate in June 1892, Malabari coordinated a rousing show of support from India. “London says Liberals now completely united supporting Dadabhai Naoroji’s candidature Central Finsbury,” he wired various political associations. “Great hopes of his success. Pray wire immediately, thro’ Dadabhai or [William] Digby message of cordial thanks to the electors urging them also to carry Dadabhai through for India’s sake.” The shoals of congratulatory telegrams that poured in after Naoroji’s win are testament to how keenly the election was watched across the subcontinent, as well as in Indian diaspora settlements stretching from Shanghai to Johannesburg.

Deciphering and interpreting telegrams — cryptic and shorthand messages on weathered and yellowing paper — pose peculiar challenges to the historian working in the archive. When they were sent, telegrams conveyed an urgency that has either diminished over time (“can you come three today”) or has been obscured and literally lost to history. Early in my research with the Naoroji Papers, for example, I came across a faded telegram slip from 1893 that simply read ‘console Dad’. After a little more digging, it became apparent that this message was in relation to the sudden death of Naoroji’s only son, Ardeshir, in isolated Kutch in October of that year. Naoroji, five-thousand miles away in London, only learned of his son’s death through a series of telegrams dispatched from Mandvi and Bombay. One can imagine the sense of shock, loneliness, and utter helplessness he felt after receiving these brief messages, knowing full well how impossible it was to avail of family support and solace in this time of grief. A telegram reading ‘console Dad’ provided the only fragile link with family members back home in Bombay.

While the telegram was used to convey urgent and oftentimes tragic news, it also provided a unique outlet for personal creativity. For, before the dull anonymity of the telephone number, there was the telegraphic address, a word or series of words chosen freely by the owner. Behramji Malabari’s office address was ‘Uranus’. Hajee Mohamed Hajee Dada, one of the first Indian South Africans to reach out to Naoroji about the increasingly oppressive conditions in the country, had ‘Moon’. Naoroji’s own London address was ‘Incas’; presumably it had something to do with the Indian National Congress, since he shared the address with the Congress’ British Committee. One of my own favourite addresses belonged to the Parsi merchant Jehangir B. Petit, who, buoyed either by personal hubris or civic pride, directed correspondents to wire him at ‘Immortal Bombay’.

Such addresses are long since dead, and soon the entire infrastructure that linked them with the wider world will be assigned to the scrapheap of history in India. In our era of instantaneous communication and media saturation, it is difficult to conceive of a time when people in India’s greatest metropolitan centres would eagerly await the solitary Reuters telegram from London, conveying the latest news from abroad.

Those early nationalists and political reformers who utilised the telegraph, however, proved an important point, something that became instrumental to the success of the Congress as it broadened its scope and reach in the early 20th century. They demonstrated that a technology that was initially deployed to buttress colonial authority, could easily be bent to their favour, enabling quick political coordination across the subcontinent and reducing the distance to the British Parliament and colonial authorities in London to a mere series of dots and dashes.

(Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. scholar in history at Harvard University, where he is completing a dissertation on Dadabhai Naoroji)

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