India signs off on telegram service after 163 years of typing STOP

An Irish inventor helped establish the country’s vast messaging system

Surjeet Kaur, 77, displays a telegram which was sent by her husband on her birthday in 1955. Photograph: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

Surjeet Kaur, 77, displays a telegram which was sent by her husband on her birthday in 1955. Photograph: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

Tue, Jul 16, 2013, 01:00

India’s last telegram went out at the weekend, marking the end of a 163-year-old colourful era of messaging that was launched by an Irishman working for the British East India Company.

Thousand of people thronged the 75 surviving telegraph offices across the country on Sunday to send their last messages to friends or family as a keepsake.

“Your name is a part of history, Mom STOP” read the telegram Shalini Manchanda (47) sent to her smartphone-addicted daughter. At the central telegraph office in central Delhi, she said: “I grew up at the time when telegrams were an important part of our lives and I wanted my daughter to share that experience.”

“The day they stopped the telegram,” wrote Aman Malik, in his first ever telegram that he sent to his grandmother in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal 200km east of New Delhi. Keep it well, he advised her.

The state-owned BSNL, which operates the telegram service – known locally as Taar or wire – has decided that in the era of internet and mobile phones it is uneconomical to continue with the service, having registered losses of more than €2.34 billion in recent years.

BSNL’s telegraph department employed 22,000 personnel until 2008; yesterday only 980 remained. Telegram traffic, too, had dropped to about 5,000, a day, down from several hundred thousand before the arrival of fax machines and then the internet.

India, however, remained the last country in the world to still send telegrams on such a large scale. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish surgeon and inventor who had joined the British East India Company army in Calcutta, was asked by Governor General Lord Dalhousie to lay the first telegraph line from the city to Diamond Harbour, some 13 miles away.

In 1850 he successfully transmitted his first message and within a few years this network of copper wires atop iron rods supported by bamboos extended some 4,000 miles across India.

It criss-crossed its way through thick jungles, across roaring rivers and snow- capped Himalayan mountains, its communications pathways joining up the country. Along with the railway system, the telegraph network further established the sway of the British empire.

In 1857 the company army used the telegraph to help defeat Indian troops who had rebelled in a move that almost ended British colonial ambitions in the country.

In the years after, innumerable important messages were delivered by telegram.

In October 1947, for instance, two months after independence, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched a 163-word telegram to Clement Atlee, his British counterpart in London, informing him that the northern kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir had been invaded by Pakistan.

But for R D Ram, who has spent 38 years reading and typing telegrams at Delhi’s Central Telegraph Office, cables sent by eloping couples informing their parents about their runaway marriage were by far the most poignant.

Ram believes that the telegram remains the most secure and reliable form of communication despite advances in technology, especially in light of the ongoing revelations that the US National Security Agency and other foreign intelligence agencies monitor the emails of millions of people.

“Receiving a telegram was always a scary thing because you never knew what it would contain. It was always certain that it was important,” said Usha Gautam, who has been sending telegrams since 1980 and retires in October.

The end of the telegram, he added, brings to a close the oldest marker of modern India.