Digital India: ‘Stronger than death-dealing war-ships…’

Digital India’s Narendra Modis will talk to every illiterate farmer more than his actual, flesh-and-blood neighbors. When that happens, the idea that India’s racial and linguistic diversity should be taken into account in India’s political system will be all but dead. If the different parts of India cannot communicate with the Centre at break-neck speed, the case for more regional autonomy becomes all the more clear as time rolls on. But with the kind of communication links Digital India is expected to bring in, the case is weakened. Or so the Centre thinks.

In 1887, a British MP by name Sir John Henniker Heaton told the Royal Colonial Institute something remarkable. It’s worth revisiting it amidst all the Digital India noise today:

Stronger than death-dealing war-ships, stronger than the might of devoted legions, stronger than wealth and genius of administration, stronger than even unswerving justice of Queen Victoria’s rule, are the scraps of paper that are borne in myriads over the seas, and the two or three slender wires that connect the scattered parts of her realm.

Heaton’s argument was that ‘in the postal and telegraphic services the Empire of our Queen possesses a cohesive force which was utterly lacking’ in ‘the Greek, the Roman, the Spanish, the Napoleonic Empires’. While these other empires collapsed, the British Empire would continue on and on because of the cohesive force of the post and telegraph system introduced in India.

What were the ‘parts’ that came together due to this cohesive force? Very clearly, Heaton meant the British imperial officers spread all over India. They could now communicate as fast as possible with higher-ups in the British Raj, going all the way up to the Governor General.

The quotes above are from The Tentacles of Progress by Daniel R. Headrick. He makes my point here better than I could:

The lines of communication that hold empires together never seem strong enough to those whose power and security depend on them.

That is, the post and telegraph system was basically intended to increase the power and security of the Indian Empire. Perhaps no more proof is required for this than this exclamation by John Lawrence, Chief Commissioner of Punjab:

The telegraph saved India.

For whom? For Britain, of course. From whom? From Indians! Sounds confusing?

Lawrence observed this after the British had successfully used telegraph “to re-establish control over Punjab and rebel-held Lucknow” during the Rebellion of 1857-58 (also called India’s First War of Independence).

I rest my case that fast communication is used by the political and economic powers-that-be to increase their own power and security.

Digital India is the latest example of this ancient secret, and we have a new and improved version of Lord Dalhousie at the helm of affairs now. “Look ma, no wires!”

Using this flagship project, the Government of India wants to link up all its departments in a tight communication link so that communication can happen lightning fast. So that those at the apex of the pyramid of corruption in this Aryan nation can appear like neighbors to everyone all over India.

Digital India’s Narendra Modis will talk to every illiterate farmer more than his actual, flesh-and-blood neighbors. When that happens, the idea that India’s racial and linguistic diversity should be taken into account in India’s political system will be all but dead.

If the different parts of India cannot communicate with the Centre at break-neck speed, the case for more regional autonomy becomes all the more clear as time rolls on. But with the kind of communication links Digital India is expected to bring in, the case is weakened.

Or so the Centre thinks.

In actual fact, a Gujarati or Hindi speaking politician in New Delhi doesn’t suddenly become a local in Bengaluru or Chennai or Guwahati or Mumbai just because there’s a fast communication link.

The farmer in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu or Assam realizes, sooner or later, that Digital India’s Narendra Modis aren’t doing him any good in the real sense of the term.

It will strike him, sooner or later, that everyone who is on a fast communication link with him isn’t his friend. It will strike him, too, that he’s not doing any of the talking. And then, regional autonomy shall rain.

I only hope it’s not the kind that India achieved in 1947.