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When Telegraph Triumphed

In Wiring the Nation, Mann tells the story of India’s war for Independence through the newspapers that covered it

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The telling of history can take many forms. There are the memoirs of the dramatis personae. Or historians with their tomes of meticulous research. Then there are the biographies of those who influenced the event; and sometimes, for the much more casual reader, there are even works of semi-fiction that closely mirror events, that serve as a, perhaps non-authentic, account of what happened when.

In Wiring The Nation, Michael Mann, a professor of South Asian studies at Humboldt University, Berlin, takes yet another approach. Telling the story of India’s war for Independence through the newspapers that covered it, and by telling that, tracing the history of how telecommunication came of age in India, even as it was yet to spread beyond the Americas and Europe.

Written as an academic would write, parts of the book are not easy on the mind. But when it gets into interesting territory, such as the evolution of the Indian journalism landscape, it comes up with interesting nuggets that give fresh perspective on the happenings of those days. For example, the Hindustan Times was launched in 1924, and ran the masthead, ‘The Only Nationalist Paper in North India’ — a revelation in the current ultra-nationalist discourse, but quite reasonable in those days, since it was launched by the Swarajists, and in 1933, was saved by funding from Ganshyam Das Birla (who’s family continues to own it), who was a strong supporter of Mahatma Gandhi.

Another interesting tale is that of the growth of the international wire-agencies. Reuters had an office in Bombay before the rest of Asia, and did so by establishing a direct connection with the British government in India — The Governor General would get news from Reuters first-hand, and, in exchange, Reuters obtained early intelligence from the government’s official news office. It appears that the Associated Press of India paid a then moderate annual sum of Rs 40 to gain access to and report on the activities of the Indian National Congress. One can’t imagine today’s media having to pay for access.

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Abraham C Mathews

The author is an Advocate, practicing in Delhi, and a Chartered Accountant

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