The extinction of the Telegram

Firstpost reports that the Telegraph service in India will be discontinued from July 15, 2013, 160 years after the service was started in India. While telegrams have really become a relic, a service that people hardly use anymore, the growth and advent of telegraphs in India parallels the growth and spread of the British empire in India.


As per a fantastic article in the Telegraph, telegraphs “expedited the East India Company’s total commercial dominance of the country”. The telegraph’s use in India was “pioneered by William O’Shaughnessy, a surgeon and inventor”. Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor General of India recognized its potential, and asked for the first telegraph line in India to be built near Calcutta. In 1857, telegrams proved decisive in the British victory over the Indians in the Revolt of 1857.

“…with one captured Indian soldier, on his way to the gallows, reportedly pointing at the telegram device and stating: “There is the accursed string that strangles us.”…” (Telegraph, linked above)


In 1947, Nehru sent a telegram to British Prime Minister Clement Atlee of an important development about Kashmir:

“A 230-word message sent in October 1947 by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru informed his counterpart in London, Clement Attlee, that the disputed state of Kashmir had been invaded by Pakistani forces. “We have received urgent appeal for assistance from Kashmir government,” he wrote. “We would be disposed to give favourable consideration to such request from any friendly state.” (Sourced from The Independent, here)


Today, the BSNL sends only about 5,000 telegrams a day, down from several lakhs decades earlier. This is obviously because of the rise and spread of landline telephony, and now mobile telephony and internet. India is however, one of the few countries in the world to keep up and use telegrams on a large-scale in this day and age. The maintenance of this infrastructure, has according to Firstpost (linked above), become too expensive.

“Faced with declining revenues, the government had in May 2011, revised the telegram charges after a gap of 60 years. The telegram charges for inland services was hiked to Rs. 27/50 from Rs. 3/50, 4/50 earlier.””


Telegrams however, still have a role to play: apparently, for soldiers requesting leave, or a court requesting certified information, a stamped telegram is still the only document accepted (The Independent, cited above). As a lawyer, I find the latter assertion a little suspicious, but would not be surprised if it were true, given the archaic nature of some of our laws and judicial infrastructure!

P.s. Yes, this post has nothing to do with new and important policy developments in this country everyday. But extinction is at least as interesting as evolution. Thanks to Shubho Roy for giving me this idea.


John F. Kennedy used to joke during his 1960 presidential campaign that he had just received a telegram from his father. “Dear Jack: Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I pay for a landslide.”

(The Telegraph, sourced from here)


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