The British East India Company built the Indian telegraph system. William O’Shaughnessy, who had come to India in 1833 as a 24-year-old assistant surgeon with the Company, is said to have devised the telegraph. He soon started experimenting with electricity, and went on to invent an electric motor and a silver chloride battery. In 1839, he set up a 13½-mile-long demonstration telegraph system near Calcutta. His work did not draw much attention from his bosses, until James Andrew Broun-Ramsay became the governor general and understood its true potential. By 1856, it connected Calcutta, Agra, Bombay, Peshawar and Madras. Well before the British Raj took charge, the telegraph, among other technology, helped tighten the colonial noose over India. It is said to have played a part in helping the British put down Ghadar in 1857. “There is the accursed string that strangles us,” a captured rebel cried, pointing at a telegraph line as he was being led to his death by the British.
The immense power that comes from controlling telecommunications is clear to most governments. If anything, this power has grown exponentially. This is precisely what the draft Indian Telecommunication Bill, 2022 attempts to capitalise on. The explanatory note to the bill points out that 117 crore subscribers make India “the world’s second largest telecommunication ecosystem.” The sector employs over four million people and, according to the government, contributes to about eight percent of India’s gross domestic product. There are three acts that the telecom bill seeks to replace—the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1933 and the Telegraph Wires (Unlawful Possession) Act, 1950. The union government has stated it wants to update the sector since the “nature of telecommunication, its usage and technologies have undergone a massive change since the era of ‘telegraph’.” That is hard to disagree with, but we must ask what the nature of the changes being proposed is.
In some ways, all the stages of India’s many telecommunication revolutions have seen expansions since the 1980s from the Sam Pitroda STD-PCO moment to the advent of the cell phone. Smartphones and cheap data in the 2010s, to Jio’s entry in the sector have further made data accessible and cheap. The direction has typically been to allow the fruits of technology to flow unfettered. The telecom bill, however, signals a breaking point, warning of a sharp constriction in basic freedoms that Indian citizens have taken for granted.