As another Bhim Jayanti passes us by, a look at how stamps have depicted Dr. Ambedkar, tracing his journey from enfant terrible to revered Babasaheb in the official imagination
In 1966, on his 75th birth anniversary, and a decade following his death, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was honoured by the Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department with a commemorative stamp. The stamp carries a portrait of a solemn, bespectacled, middle-aged Ambedkar in a suit, an image that recurred in most of his subsequent philatelic representations. He is described as an “authority on Constitutional Law” in the information brochure released alongside the stamp. While the brochure acknowledges “his patriotism”, “the role he played during India’s transition from a colony to a republic” and the “leading part” he played “in the framing of the Indian Constitution,” it describes him as a leader who “often appeared” to take “extreme positions on social and political matters.” His involvement in social movements for the upliftment of the “Harijans” (a term not used in subsequent brochures) is briefly noted, but his conversion to Buddhism is not mentioned. This stamp marks the modest and tentative entry of Ambedkar into the philatelic world.
In the 25th year of Independence, in 1973, the Posts and Telegraphs Department issued another commemorative stamp that addresses him as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. This stamp shows Parliament in the background to Ambedkar’s image. The brochure describes him variously as a “fervent nationalist,” “the Great Emancipator of the Oppressed,” one among “progressive social thinkers” such as Raja Rammohan Roy and Mahatma Phule, “the first revolutionary leader to emerge from the down-trodden untouchables in the last twenty five hundred years,” and an “eminent Constitutional Lawyer.”
Both the brochure and the cachet of the first day cover (FDC) carry quotations from Ambedkar. The cachet quotes from his November 26, 1949 speech in the Constituent Assembly: “We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well.” The brochure also carries Nehru’s tribute that recognises Ambedkar’s “very important role in the making of the Constitution of India and the Hindu Law Reform.” The brochure notes the Chowdar Tank Struggle (Mahad, 1927) and the Kalaram Temple Entry Agitation (Nashik, 1930) launched by Ambedkar, and refers briefly to his three-decade-long journey toward Buddhism.
Between 1966 and 1973, Ambedkar had transformed from a “leading” contributor to the Constitution into its “architect.” The 1973 stamp also marks the broadening of the philatelic imagination of Ambedkar that now associated him with not only the Constitution, but also Parliament. However, the “enfant terrible of Indian politics” was not yet fully acceptable in the philatelic space, as reflected in Nehru’s tribute that terms him “a highly controversial figure.”
The third commemorative stamp on Ambedkar was issued in 1991, on his birth centenary, and a year after he was honoured with the Bharat Ratna and a commemorative coin. The stamp shows a middle-aged Ambedkar in the foreground, while in the background is his younger, dhoti-clad self “leading the satyagraha for liberation of Chowdar Tank”. The cachet of the FDC shows a statue of Ambedkar standing on a pedestal with the index finger of his right hand pointing toward the sky, and the Constitution in his left hand. The brochure describes him as “the chief architect of the Indian Constitution” and a champion of “human rights and social justice” and “rights of the workers.” For the first time, he is addressed as “Baba Saheb” in the postal material. In the following years, quotes attributed to Ambedkar began to appear on postcards and inland letter cards.
Ambedkar had to wait for another decade, though, before being formally admitted into the postal pantheon of figures honoured with definitive stamps, which unlike commemoratives are printed on a very large scale for regular use. In 2001, the government issued special definitives on Ambedkar along with Sardar Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose, an honour that was until then reserved for Gandhi and Nehru. Two other definitives on Ambedkar were issued in 2009 and 2016.
The next commemorative stamp, released in 2013, depicts a smiling Ambedkar with Chaitya Bhoomi, where his last rites were performed in Mumbai, in the background. Along with the familiar biographical details, the brochure borrows a sentence from the 1966 stamp’s brochure to emphasise that Ambedkar was a patriot who “stood for a united self-governing community of Indians with special constitutional safeguards for the depressed classes” and offers glimpses of the last days of his life.
In 2015, to mark his 125th birth year, Ambedkar was honoured with a coin as well as a stamp. The stamp shows Parliament in the background, which is reminiscent of the 1973 stamp, but places it underneath the Preamble to the Constitution. This marks the closure of the philatelic imagination of Ambedkar in relation to the Constitution and Parliament. The brochure of this stamp uniquely refers to the Poona Pact, 1932, between Ambedkar and Gandhi, and Ambedkar’s resignation from Nehru’s cabinet due to differences over the Hindu Code Bill. This, however, was not the first time Ambedkar and Gandhi had found themselves together in postal material.
In 2000, a stamp ‘50 Years of the Republic of India: Father of the Nation’ was released with an elegant and evocative sketch of Gandhi. While the brochure pays tribute to Ambedkar and other founding fathers of the republic and reproduces a fuller version of the quote carried on the 1973 cachet, the beautifully designed cachet of the FDC carries an image of Ambedkar and his signature in the foreground of the Preamble. Later in the year, Ambedkar appeared in the background of another stamp on R. Srinivasan, “a great leader of the depressed classes in the erstwhile province of Madras.”
In 2017, Ambedkar figured on a se-tenant stamp, where a pair of conjoined stamps share an image, for the first time. It shows him with a statue of Buddha on his right and Deekshabhoomi, where he embraced Buddhism, on his left. The brochure is entirely devoted to locating Ambedkar in the Buddhist universe stretching back in time to Emperor Ashoka. Citizens no longer needed to be reminded of his academic qualifications or contribution to the making of modern India. We were for the first time given a tour through Ambedkar’s turn to Buddhism, which was only briefly referred to in the 1973 brochure. The brochure also gives a glimpse of the banal ways in which the state co-opts what began as “controversial”, when it informs us that the Maharashtra government had granted the status of Grade-A pilgrimage centre to Deekshabhoomi. The cachet of the FDC of the Nagpur Tercentenary stamp issued in 2002 also depicts Deekshabhoomi.
So far, all the stamps on Ambedkar had been released on his birth anniversary. But in a first, another stamp was issued in 2017, a week after the occasion. This stamp on the Bharat Ratna Bhimrao Ambedkar Institute of Telecom Training, Jabalpur also happens to be the first Ambedkar-related commemorative stamp to be issued in the form of a miniature sheet as well. The most recent stamp featuring Ambedkar was released on the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. This se-tenant depicts the seven-member drafting committee including Ambedkar seated at the table, the Constitution, the national emblem and Parliament.
Outsider no more
When Ambedkar was admitted into the philatelic world on April 14, 1966, the postal department introduced him as an erudite person notwithstanding “the accident of this birth as an ‘untouchable’” and showcased him as a nationalist and patriot, while papering over his differences with the founding fathers. This stamp appeared a decade after his death, whereas D.K. Karve (1958), M. Visvesvaraya (1960) and Rajendra Prasad (1962) had been previously honoured with a stamp while they were alive and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan received the same honour in 1967. The barebones information brochure of the 1966 stamp pales in comparison to the elegant eight-page booklet with a foreword by Vice President Zakir Husain issued along with the stamp on Sarojini Naidu. Interestingly, neither this nor the subsequent brochures on Ambedkar (except the 2015 brochure that mentions his last book) refer to his scholarly career, which seem to be overshadowed by his role in framing the Constitution.
Over the next three decades, Ambedkar transformed from a disruptive outsider into an endearing and revered Baba Saheb, the patron saint of the Indian Constitution and its progressive moorings. By the mid-2010s, his academic qualifications acquired at prominent Western universities ceased to matter, while his role in constitution-making was securely established and did not need to be belaboured. Today, Ambedkar is the third most important philatelic figure in the country after Gandhi and Nehru but ahead of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Indira Gandhi.
The writer teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics
Source : The Hindu: 17th April 2021