EMPIRE AND POST-EMPIRE TELECOMMUNICATIONS IN INDIA: A HISTORY
By Pradeep Ninan Thomas
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2019, pp. 216, Rs.795.00
‘We are off’ was the cryptic concluding line of a telegram two young British Telegraph officers managed to send out from Delhi to Ambala on 11th May, 1857, informing British military authorities there that the mutiny had spread to Delhi. Thus the Revolt of 1857 was the site for the dramatic intervention of the new technology, namely telegraph in disseminating information in the subcontinent. We must though guard against overstating the role of telegraph as a source for the flow of information in 1857 since both Deepkanta Lahiri Choudhury and the book we are discussing here show that telegraph lines during 1857 were mostly redundant as the mutineers extensively destroyed telegraphic poles and lines. There were a host of technical issues too.
Pradeep Ninan Thomas’s book is a fascinating read. The history of telecommunications in the subcontinent began with the introduction of the first telegraph line from Calcutta to Khejuri in 1853. While the story has been superbly documented by Deepkanta Lahiri Choudhury, Thomas adds certain extra elements to the complex and fascinating story of the motives which lay behind the setting up of an intricate telegraphic network, though he neglects to dwell on the formidable technological, topographical and strategic challenges the subcontinent specifically posed to the setting up of a telegraphic network.
Thomas argues that the momentous implications of the Revolt of 1857 impelled the Raj to urgently develop a telegraphic network in the subcontinent. Recalcitrant populations whose motives the Raj failed to comprehend clearly could be better controlled with the help of this novel technology. Thomas adds to Lahiri’s narrative by bringing in the global element and the role diplomacy and big power rivalry played in the way the foundation of various telegraphic networks panned out. For the British saw in the telegraph an opportunity to control the flow of information not only in the subcontinent but throughout the empire and indeed worldwide.
Thomas depicts the intricate negotiation which the British had to conduct with the Ottoman Empire and Persia to lay a telegraph line between India and Britain in the early days of the Telegraph. In the end the Ottoman Sultan successfully outmanouevred the British and ensured that Ottoman interests were ably secured before they consented to the laying and passage of the telegraph line from Britain to India through Ottoman territory. The episode thus proved that while Britain was the preeminent power in the world in the 1860s she could not have her way all the time and other powers could on occasions successfully stymie her efforts. The feeling of gloom was further compounded by the fact that the Red Sea project, as the laying of the telegraphic line to India through Ottoman and Persian territory to India was called, ran into insurmountable technological challenges.
The British as Thomas portrays in his book deployed private capital in their endeavour to develop secure telegraphic networks and fend off challenges from rival powers. While the Ottoman episode was one of these early fiascos the British would also face challenges from other European powers such as the French, Germans and later on the USA in this battle for monopolizing the flow of information. Thomas gives us a vivid picture of the cat and mouse diplomatic games which often played out between the British and rival European powers. In the end the British prevailed on most occasions at least till the early decades of the 20th century for they were prepared to back up their claims with military muscle if push came to shove. For controlling telegraphic routes and consequently the flow of information meant that Britain could face down any challenge to its strategic and economic interests which in any case were intertwined. The long and short of it was that the control of telegraphic routes was assuming a centrality in global power politics.
Thomas posits that Britain was ably assisted in this game by its industrialists who sought to merge their interests and that of the empire. Though there were frequent conflicts between them, these interests were broadly in sync until the closing years of the 19th century when the excessive monopolizing tendencies of private entrepreneurs such as John Pender provoked a reaction from Government. Notwithstanding such flashpoints and the fact that the operation of the telegraph system was nationalized both in Britain and the subcontinent, private companies were extensively used in the establishment of telegraphic routes.
Thomas analyses the role of czars such as John Pender in Britain acquiring till the closing years of the 19th century at least a near global monopoly of telegraphic routes after the arrival of technologically superior oceanic cables in the 1870s. The extensive reach of Britain’s power meant that Pender could give concrete shape to the monopoly rights bestowed on him. The flip side as Thomas shows was that Her Majesty’s Government could effectively deploy British private control in her quest for control of the telegraphic routes. However, German and later American business interests in the Americas would challenge British capital deployed in the laying of cables.
Thomas shows how some of the earliest multinationals were set up in the telegraph sector. However, the ostensibly core area he seeks to focus on i.e., colonial India and telegraph and wireless, later on gets lost somewhere in this complex tale of global power politics and intrigue. His treatment of colonial India and telecommunications is at best cursory. But he does bring in the element of tension the British developed with the Portuguese and French over the control of telegraphic and wireless networks in their territories in the subcontinent. The British had serious issues with the Portuguese when they agreed in 1909 to the laying of a German cable to the Far East which would pass through Portuguese colonial possessions including Goa. They applied serious pressure on the Portuguese government to rescind the permission to the Germans. In the end the Portuguese government succumbed to British pressure.
However, Portuguese Goa was indeed peripheral to the entire affair which really formed part of an increasingly bitter global rivalry between the British and Germans. Similar is the case with the story of wireless which as we learn from Thomas’s narrative developed as a novel technology at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas argues that Guglielmo Marconi who was one of the pioneers of the new technology sought to monopolize it by establishing a company namely the Wireless Telegraphy Company Ltd. The stratagems and tactics employed by Marconi to monopolize the setting up of wireless stations, networks and equipment roughly resembled those of John Pender. Marconi had won a highly contentious battle with Nikolai Tesla over the right to patent the new technology. He now sought to employ this added tool to deadly advantage.
Thomas argues that Marconi like Pender before him ran afoul of the British government apart from sparking resistance from countries such as Germany and USA who promoted their own companies. Again India occupies a secondary space in his narrative.
The story of telegraph and wireless in India was part of a larger global narrative and power-play involving geo-politics and financial interests. Thomas does a fine job of describing the subversive purposes to which the nationalists employed the wireless and radio particularly during the Quit India movement. He also describes the circumstances which led to the founding of All India Radio and its attempts to counter the propaganda of the Indian nationalists of various hues during the Second World War.
Thomas’s account of the native response to the telegraph stands out in stark contrast to his attempts to delve into the native responses to the telegraph apart from the destructive attitude of the mutineers in 1857. He does mention certain categories of Indian merchants trying to take advantage of the telegraph but adds that many avoided it because of the high rates as was the case in England where rates were similarly high. Thomas makes some efforts to document the complex native response to the introduction of the telegraph but again the discussion is not as detailed and nuanced as his depiction of the Indian reaction to the wireless.
It is in the section dealing with Telecommunications in Post-Independence India that Thomas does real justice to the title of his book. He does a fine job of narrating the evolution of the telecommunication industry in India from its nationalized beginnings to the early attempts at liberalization during the Rajiv Gandhi era to the large-scale privatization and deregulation of the telecommunication sector starting from the 1990s and gaining particular momentum from the Vajpayee era. While the Government sought to control information during the nationalized era Thomas skilfully shows how governments still seek to do the same in the post-liberalization era. These attempts, as Thomas argues, are partially countered by civil society groups which have gained greater currency in the post-liberalization era.
Sabyasachi Dasgupta is Assistant Professor at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, West Bengal.