End of an era: India bids adieu to telegram

After 163 years, India bid farewell to a service which had fallen off the radar for most. With new technology – mobiles and emails – taking over the role of instant communication, the telegram had slipped into obscurity, thus prompting the state-run telecommunication agency, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), to shut it down. On 14th July, the telegram service breathed its last, just as thousands queued up at various telegraph offices across the country to pay their obeisance to the remnant of an era gone by.

Serpentine queues were seen at various telegraph offices on July 14 – something not seen in decades – as people sent out souvenir messages to family and friends. Some enterprising youngsters sent out messages to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to end corruption. The message read, “End to corruption, give us freedom.” Some sent out messages to themselves – in order to own a relic of history. “Since I came to know the telegram service is coming to a halt, I thought I should be a part of the legacy, and can show it to my children someday,” said Ashwini Chadda, as he waited in a queue for his turn. One telegraph office in Mumbai sent out over 100 messages on Sunday, perhaps the maximum it had sent in many years. In the end, it was all about cherishing a service which harked back to much simpler times and brought in a flood of nostalgia.

For decades before being nudged out by new technology, telegrams were harbinger of good and bad news. Whether it was to bring important political news during the freedom struggle or informing an army officer in a remote posting or simply conveying the news of lovers eloping, the telegram was an integral part of India for 163 years. But the last few decades put it through difficult times. “We were incurring losses of over $23 million a year because SMS and telegram-2smartphones have rendered this service redundant,” Shamim Akhtar, general manager of BSNL’s telegram services was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor. That’s obvious given that more than 900,000 Indians own mobile phones and 120 million people use the internet — figures that are expected to grow in the coming years. It just made good economic sense to shut down the service.

Started in 1850 on an experimental basis between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour, it was opened for use by the British East India Company. In 1854, the service was made available to the public. In a way the revolutionary means of communication expedited the East India Company’s total commercial dominance over the country.

The telegram services were such an important mode of communication in the British era that revolutionaries used to cut the telegram lines to stop the British from communicating. It was also one of the major reasons for the failure of India’s first independence struggle in 1857 – all means of communication were stopped in the country at that point.telegram-1

Lord Dalhousie, a governor-general of British India, once said that the telegraph saved India.

Decades later, India failed to save the telegraph.