Should we look beyond Gandhiji on our currency notes?

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Photo by Disha Sheta

The currency notes we carry in our pockets have a long, interesting past. It has witnessed a history of inventions, adaptations, and modifications. In the subsequent years after independence, our nation’s currency notes too have evolved in terms of security features and marked many changes in the motifs and appearance.

However, on all the notes that were ever printed, one thing remained the same – the image of our nation’s father – Gandhiji. Now the reason we have Bapu on our banknotes is that he might be the only neutral leader we ever had, as almost every other leader had affiliations with some or the other kind of party, ideology or religion. 

That said, we do owe our independence to other freedom fighters as well. The struggles and sacrifices made by the brave men and women of our country shouldn’t go unrecognised or underappreciated. The freedom fight was a collective effort, and therefore the recognition should also be collective. Which is why, in this article, I try to explain why only Gandhiji adorns our currency notes, who else needs to be up there with him and why? 

The Father of our Nation

Subhash Chandra Bose was the first person to call him as ‘the father of our nation’ and soon that name caught up among the masses. And in no time, the name stuck. The tag had an incredible reach, and soon the world came to know about India’s only global freedom fighter. Years ago, when our Ex-RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan was asked about why there are no historic personalities on our banknotes other than Gandhiji, he said, “There are so many great Indians, but of course Gandhiji stands head and shoulders above everyone else. There are many great Indians that we could get on the notes. But I sense that almost anybody else would be controversial.”

A democratic country like the US too has visuals of leaders of different ideologies on its currencies and things seem to be quite alright there. So why can’t the same happen in India? 

Firstly, the US has a history of almost 250 years of independence. So, with just 70 years behind us, India still has a long way to go to sort out its constitutional and political shortcomings. And secondly, in the US, politics is based on policies and not the ones who make it. There is hardly any personality cult there. A candidate’s public approval rating changes according to the statements they make which proves that Americans vote for the policies; a good charismatic face is just a bonus. 

But in India, things are a bit different. The photos of our leaders are not just photos, they assume greater significance depending on the place and community. The larger than life portrayal of our political leaders goes to an extent that we tend to equate them with Gods. Many political leaders from the north and south have temples built after them. So, considering this political quagmire, it’s easy to understand why our country’s founding fathers decided to have Gandhiji – a person respected by most Indians – as the face of our country’s currency.

Thinking beyond Bapu

If you think that seven decades might be a tad too long for someone to be the face of a country’s currency, then you are not alone. But replacing him is easier said than done. Gandhian philosophy is so deeply ingrained in the world’s history that replacing him with any other freedom fighter would undermine his contributions. After all, he was responsible for inspiring freedom movements in many parts of the world while giving us the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. 

So, let’s say our notes feature leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, or Subhash Chandra Bose, whose political integrity and love for country is unquestionable. A person, regardless of their political or religious ideologies, would never publicly question the contributions of these leaders for our freedom movement.

But since we are looking to revamp the way we look at our currency, why restrict ourselves to political leaders? Why not look beyond them altogether? After all, many famous personalities have brought our country together through their contributions. The reason I say this is simple: representation. The person who is chosen as the face of our banknote stands for something that’s more than symbolic. The face must be the brand ambassador of our nation’s values like unity, harmony, integrity and acceptance. 

I admit that tokenism is inevitable in an exercise like this. There must be a north-south-west-east representation, there must be a fair number of women, science must be hailed, sportsmanship must be championed. Arts must be valued. Cultural heritage should be cherished, and so on. But what’s more important is to consider people that have pushed the nation forward. And something as visible and common as a currency note is a good opportunity for introducing our lesser-known heroes to the world and at the same time, hopefully, inspire and educate the common citizens.

If not Gandhi, then who?

Here are some well-known personalities that I think should be considered to be the face of our country’s currency alongside Gandhiji. Note that the list is a mix of well-known individuals from politics, arts, and science backgrounds. It is not intended to be comprehensive by any means.

  • Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore is best known as a poet, but he was a man of many talents and virtues. On the one hand, he was the first Indian to win a Nobel for literature (for Gitanjali) and on the other, a novelist who wrote and composed an entire genre of stories and songs. He was a philosopher and educationist who established Viswa-Bharati, a university that challenged conventional education.

Tagore was also a painter who played an important role in modernising Bengali art. And he was a nationalist who gave up his knighthood to protest British policies in colonial India after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Many of you might not know this, but it was Rabindranath Tagore who made the historically significant Raksha Bandhan a mainstream national festival by popularising it to oppose the partition of Bengal in 1905.

If that doesn’t convince you then this might. He is the only person whose compositions were adopted as the national anthem of two nations – Jana Gana Mana of India and Amar Shonar Bangla of Bangladesh.

  • APJ Abdul Kalam

If people were asked to name their favourite Indian president, most likely the answer would be Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. That is the positive impact the man had on our minds. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi who got the support of people who believed in non-violence, Dr Kalam is loved by all. He is the ideal person to symbolise our national identity. Above all, he was a phenomenal scientist and spearheaded our country’s missile program. He connected with students wherever he went and inspired people of all ages. The only ‘People’s President’ our country ever had deserves to be honoured.

  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel

The iron man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is considered as the true architect of our nation. He played a big role in our freedom struggle and managed to unify all 562 princely states under one flag. Without him, we would still be scores of small nations, India within India, fighting with each other for territorial and authoritative rights.

Sardar Patel comes with a serious pedigree too. His father is said to have fought alongside the Rani of Jhansi in the famous revolt of 1857. He was also the first national leader to be arrested during the Civil Disobedience Movement. And post-independence, he was appointed as the First Deputy Prime Minister of India. There was a time when a limited edition two-rupee coin bearing Sardar Patel’s image was in circulation. But soon it was taken out of circulation. I hope that our bureaucrats choose to bring him back in the future. 

  • Swami Vivekananda

‘The youngster from India who won over the world’ is one way to describe Swami Vivekananda – all thanks to the electrifying speech he made at the First World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

A disciple of yogi Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda is credited with contributing to a revival of modern Hinduism and inspiring nationalist consciousness during colonial rule. Thanks to his endeavours, Swami Vivekananda inspired our freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sardar Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others who ultimately won us the freedom we enjoy today. But that’s not it. His contributions and ideologies were responsible for the political and cultural liberation of many countries in Asia and Africa. Recognising the contributions of this incredible human being would be the greatest honour our country can do to itself.

  • Dr BR Ambedkar

Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was not only the leader of the downtrodden but was also the architect of modern India – the man who gave our country a direction to follow by authoring the constitution. He is the leader of unprivileged classes and founded the Depressed Classes Institute, Samaj Samata Sangh and People’s Education Society – institutions that are functioning even today and inspiring change across the length and breadth of our country. Dr Ambedkar was the first Law Minister of India and introduced the popular Hindu Code Bill. He was also an unsung economist who had recommended that the Indian currency should be changed every 10 years to tackle the problem of hoarding of black money. Dr Ambedkar genuinely deserves to be on the Indian currency. His pre- and post-independence contributions are that significant.

  • Dadasaheb Phalke

Dadasaheb Phalke was the first motion picture director of our country and is considered as the ‘Father of Indian cinema.’ Phalke was credited with making India’s first indigenous feature film (Raja Harishchandra) which, in the coming decades, would burgeon into the Indian film industry we see today. In a career that spanned 19 years, he made 95 movies and 26 short films. 

The Government of India in 1969 started the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. This prestigious award that recognises an individual’s lifetime contribution to cinema is considered to be one of the highest official recognitions in the country. In 1971, India Post issued a commemorative postage stamp of 20 Paise depicting the portrait of Dadasaheb Phalke in a film strip. Being featured on a stamp is a big honour, and the only way to surpass that recognition is to feature him on something bigger – in this case, a currency note.

  • Sarojini Naidu

If we want to change things for Indian women, especially in the rural parts of the country, there may be no single magical solution. But maybe highlighting the work of renowned Indian women, who left their mark on our society would be a good beginning. I think we should hold their lives up as role models for our current generation of women to look up to. And what better way to achieve this, than to put these inspirational faces on a common everyday object, like a currency note. 

And if I were to pick one such person to adorn our currency notes, it’d be the immensely respected Nightingale of India – Sarojini Naidu. She played an important role in India’s freedom struggle and was the second woman to be the President of the Indian National Congress. She was also a fierce promoter of women’s rights. Mrs Naidu actively took part in the independence movement alongside Gopalkrishna Gokhale and Mahatma Gandhi. As a consequence of her contributions to the Indian freedom struggle, she was appointed as the first woman governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in 1947. Apart from her contributions to the nation, Sarojini Naidu was a well-known poet too. Her literary works are popular all over the world.

  • Srinivasa Ramanujan

Srinivasa Ramanujan was a genius mathematician who is known for his infinite series for Pi. He made important contributions to the mathematical world through his successes on game theory, complex analysis, and partition function. 

Ramanujan continued his work, without employment and living in the poorest circumstances and finally got a break when he was invited to the University of Cambridge by English mathematician G.H. Hardy. Together they compiled over 3,900 results including identities and equations. His papers were published in English and European journals, and in 1918 he was elected to the Royal Society of London. Ramanujan left behind three notebooks containing many unpublished results that mathematicians continued to verify long after his death. This genius from Tamil Nadu is considered to be the greatest mathematician of this century and a person of his calibre should definitely be featured on a currency note.

But… will all this ever happen?

Although the demand to introduce more personalities on Indian currency is gaining steam, it is unclear as to when or how it will reach fruition. The new series of notes that were launched post-demonetisation have raised some hopes. For instance, the 2000-rupee note features the Mars Orbiter aka Mangalyaan; the Rs 500 note has the Red Fort while the motif of Hampi with chariot finds its way to the Rs 50 note. It’s a good step in the right direction, but still lacks representation of our leaders apart from Mahatma Gandhi. 

D Udaya Kumar, who won the nationwide competition to design the rupee symbol points out that, there has never been a similar competition conducted to design the Indian currency. There’s no shortage of talent in our country to offer a fresh design perspective to our notes. 

Inspiration from around the world

If we look around, there’s sufficient inspiration to be found. In 2007, Nepal replaced the portrait of its ruler with that of Mount Everest to mark its transition from a kingdom to a republic. In 2016, there was a nationwide campaign in the UK to add the evergreen author Jane Austen on its £10 note. The campaign found success, and in 2017, currency notes featuring Jane Austen were introduced and went into circulation. There is also an ongoing campaign in the UK to include a person of colour on their £50 note. Even the US currency notes feature presidents from different political ideologies on its banknotes. 

All these campaigns had one thing in common. They proved the importance of having diversity on banknotes because it says a lot about the country they are issued for. Our currency represents how we see ourselves, our history and our culture. Although we have done a remarkable job of highlighting the cultural part of India through our banknotes, the history part needs some work.

The bottom line

It’s true that India’s cultural and political history cannot be attributed to one single person. Although Gandhiji has played a major role in our country’s history, there are many other great personalities who dedicated their entire lives for India. And in order to represent our country’s celebrated motto ‘Unity in Diversity’, there needs to be more representation, and this can be achieved by making space for more national icons. 

It should be done in such a way that it doesn’t hurt the sentiments of any group or individual. After all, depicting different personalities on different notes might lead to chaos. Since, in terms of value, a Rs 1000 note is greater than Rs 500, people may start connecting non-existent dots by implying Gandhi is greater than Ambedkar, or vice versa.

So, to maintain the balance, we could try representing multiple personalities for one denomination. For example, a series of Rs 100 notes that include Gandhiji, Abdul Kalam, Sarojini Naidu, Ambedkar etc. The possibilities are endless. In Gandhi’s idea of a model state, power should never be concentrated in a few hands. And if he were alive today, he would never have approved of monopolising our wallets with just his image.

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