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The intriguing politics of postage stamps

Postal department to stop printing stamps of Indira and Rajiv. New stamps to depict Sangh icons and 'forgotten' Congress leaders

Archis Mohan  |  New Delhi 

There is a clarification at the end of this article

stamps depicting former Prime Ministers Gandhi and her son are to be phased out.

Instead, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government wants to popularise stamps that depict several other prominent freedom fighters, including Sangh Parivar icons like and

The Department of Posts releases two kinds of stamps – commoemorative and definitive. Commoemorative stamps are limited edition stamps released on special occasions while definitive stamps are those printed for daily use.

IT and Communications Minister says only the Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated the bouquet of definitive stamps issued since independence. The Department of Posts has now decided to discontinue definitive stamps on and

It will continue with definitive stamps depicting the Mahatma as well as Jawaharlal Nehru but also introduce such stamps on Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sangh icons Upadhyaya and Mookerjee, Ram Manohar Lohia, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Chhattrapati Shivaji, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharati.

It will also issue definitive stamps on four exponents of Indian classical music who have been conferred the Bharat Ratna – Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan and MS Subbalakshmi.

Prasad is trying to correct what the believes to be a historical wrong.

A cursory view of all the ‘definitive’ stamps released since Independence somewhat bears out Prasad’s grouse. For the first 30-years after independence, definitive stamps depicted such themes as old temples, monuments, as well as dams and industries that Nehru used to call ‘temples of modern India’. Stamps in this era also featured pisciculture, family planning, agriculture, cotton farming, etc.

The first ever definitive depicting an individual was issued during the Emergency. The postal department issued a 25 paise on Nehru on his birth anniversary on May 27, 1976. In this, the Mahatma followed his protégé with a definitive on him issued four months later on his birth anniversary on October 2, 1976. This again was priced at 25 paise.

Matters rested there for another quarter century until the Atal Behari Vajpayee government issued a definitive stamp on Sardar Patel in the year 2000 and followed it up with definitive stamps on Subhas Chandra Bose and BR Ambedkar in the subsequent year.

In 2008, the Congress-led UPA 1 added filmmaker Satyajit Ray, industrialist JRD Tata, scientist Homi Jehangir Bhabha, Mother Teresa and also and to the list. In 2009, the father of the Dravidian movement EV Ramasamy ‘Periyar’, scientist CV Raman and danseuse Rukmini Devi Arundale were added to the list.

Commoemorative stamps

Minister Prasad says he has also agreed to a request by the Communist Party of India (CPI) to release a commoemorative stamp on the occasion of the birth centenary of their leader Bhupesh Gupta.

A look at the list of commoemorative stamps released since 1947 indicates how such political courtesies weren’t unknown in the past but have been more a characteristic of coalition era politics.

Commoemorative stamps were issued of Mahatma Gandhi (1948), Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1956), Madan Mohan Malaviya and Motilal Nehru on their respective birth centenaries in 1961 and also of educationist Asutosh Mookerjee, father of Sangh icon Syama Prasad, on his centenary in 1964.

The first stamp on Subhas Chandra Bose was issued on the occasion of his 67 th birth anniversary in 1964. In 1965, with Lal Bahadur Shastri as the Prime Minister, the postal department issued a commoemorative stamp on Sardar Patel, who had passed away in 1950. Abul Kalam Azad, who had died in 1958, was similarly honoured in 1966.

BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, had a commoemortive stamp depicting him released in 1967 (Ambedkar had passed away in 1956). That year, the Indira Gandhi government also issued stamps depicting Maharana Pratap, Guru Gobind Singh and social reformers Basaveswara and Narayan Guru.

The year 1970 was interesting with commoemorative stamps on freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, reformer Swami Shraddhanand as also to mark the birth centenary of Vladimir Illyich Lenin.

In 1977, the Janata Party government, the first non-government at the Centre, issued a stamp to commoemorate socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia who had passed away in 1967. The 1978 list included Dravidian leader Periyar and Sangh icons Mookerjee and Upadhyay. The Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, was a major constituent of the Janata Party.

In what was rare poltiical courtesy, the subsequent Indira Gandhi government issued a stamp to commoemorate Jayaprakash Narayan. ‘JP’ had led the protests against the Indira government in 1974.

Some of the stamps issued in 1985 reflected the political pressures facing the then Rajiv Gandhi government. It released stamps on 18 th century Sikh leader Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Master Tara Singh – months after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and when the Rajiv government was fighting the insurgency in Punjab. In 1988, the and Farooq Abdullah-led National Conference alliance in Jammu and Kashmir brought about a postage stamp on Sheikh Abdullah.

The VP Singh government of 1990, supported by the left parties, issued a stamp on communist leader AK Gopalan, former PM Chaudhary Charan Singh and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. The Chandra Shekhar government commoemroated former Bihar CM Karpoori Thakur and former Deputy PM Babu Jagjivan Ram. The United Front government of 1996 to 1998 honoured such leaders as socialists Nath Pai, NG Goray and Madhu Limaye as well as former PM Morarji.

In 1999, the Vajapyee government released a stamp on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder KB Hedgewar. The next year it honoured former Andhra Pradesh leader NT Rama Rao and in 2001 the BJP-led government released a stamp on CPI (M) founder EMS Namboodiripad as well.

In 2005, the Manmohan Singh government issued a stamp on former Punjab CM Pratap Singh Kairon. In her biography of her parents Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur, Daman Singh has written that her father was a “great admirer” of Kairon.

In another instance of political courtesy, the Congress-led UPA 1 released a stamp depicting Raj Narain in 2007. It was Narain’s petition that had led to the setting aside of Indira Gandhi’s election on charges of electoral malpractices on 12 June, 1975. Two weeks later, the Indira government had imposed the Emergency.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Babu Jagjivan Ram as the former Prime Minister of India. He was the former Deputy Prime Minister. The error is regretted.

First Published: Sun, August 02 2015. 10:19 IST