Choosing The Ten Greatest Indians, Hindustan Times

When, in August 2017, India marked the seventieth year of its freedom from British colonial rule, the Hindustan Times did a series of long stories on seventy of this and seventy of that: the seventy best books written since Independence, the seventy greatest sportspersons since Independence, the seventy finest films since Independence, the seventy most influential politicians since Indepdendence. Such lists have become ever more popular in the India we now live in. In recent years, I have myself participated in juries tasked with choosing the best-ever Indian cricket eleven (in 2002, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of our first Test match) and the sixty greatest Indians since Gandhi (in 2010, on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Republic).

Nor are such exercises limited to anniversaries. Every so often, magazines ask their readers to choose the best Prime Minister we have ever had, the best Prime Minister we have never had, the best Prime Minister we would like to have. The making of lists and the ranking  of leaders is increasingly common in the modern world, and Indians seem more prone to this pastime than others.

But when did we first acquire this habit? Well before Independence, is the answer. In the course of some research in the archives, I came across a poll conducted as far back as 1926. It was organized by the Indian National Herald, a short-lived newspaper whose editor had a most interesting history. His name was B. G. Horniman. Back in 1919, then editor of the Bombay Chronicle, Horniman was deported by the British for his articles and speeches in support of Gandhi’s struggle against the repressive Rowlatt Act.

At the time he was deported, Horniman had lived in this country for more than a decade, working as a newspaperman in Calcutta before moving to Bombay. He loved India and its peoples, and was determined to come back. For five years he lobbied MPs in London to have his deportation order revoked, and when that failed, exploited a loophole in the law to come back via Colombo to Madras. The original order had debarred him from the Bombay Presidency; now, once he was back in India, the British did not want to court bad publicity by throwing him out again.

Horniman returned in triumph to Bombay, and rejoined the Chronicle. However, he now fell out with the newspaper’s Board, resigned, and started a new paper of his own, the aforementioned Indian National Herald. This however folded up in a few years, whereupon he rejoined the Chronicle, later assuming charge of the evening newspaper Bombay Sentinel, which he edited for many years. He died in 1948, but his name lives on in his adopted city, in the form of the Horniman Circle, sited opposte the Asiatic Society in the heart of south Mumbai.

In the brief period he was with the Indian National Herald, B. G. Horniman asked his readers to choose the ten greatest living Indians. This may have been the first such poll ever conducted in India. On the 21st of December 1926, his paper reported the results of his exercise, as reproduced below:


Person         Votes Polled

Gandhi                     9308

Tagore                      7391

J. C. Bose                 5954

Motilal Nehru        4035

Aurobindo Ghose  3907

P. C. Ray                  3524

Sarojini Naidu       3519

M. M. Malaviya     2618

Lajpat Rai              2568

Srinivas Sastri       1516

Accompanying the results of the poll were some paragraphs of text, wherein Horniman (or one of his editorial colleagues) offered short biographies of these ‘ten greatest living Indians’: Tagore the poet, philosopher and interpreter of the East; Aurobindo the patriot and mystic; Sarojini the Nightingale of India; Ray and Bose the country’s leading scientists; and the rest politicians of various persuasions, Congress, Swarajists, liberals. The article concluded by saying that ‘every sphere of life has received its meed’.

This last line was excessively self-congratulatory. For one thing, all ten ‘great Indians’ were upper-caste Hindus, of which at least five were Brahmins. There was only one woman. There was no Muslim, and no Christian, Sikh, or Parsi either. It is also striking that there were as many five Bengalis in the list, a reflection of the prominence in national life that the province then enjoyed but has since lost.

As a student of the freedom movement, I was very impressed by how high Aurobindo Ghose was ranked. He had been out of public life for more than a decade, living quietly in exile in Pondicherry. Yet apparently many middle-class Indians yearned for him to abandon spirituality and return to politics.

Had this poll been conducted ten years earlier, in 1916, Tilak would have ranked very high; had it been conducted in 1936, the Bose on the list would have been Subhas not Jagadish Chandra, the Nehru being praised Jawaharlal not Motilal.

What if a similar poll was to be conducted now? Who would be the ten greatest Indians of 2018? Perhaps this newspaper should organize such a poll among its readers. It would be interesting to see who is chosen and who is left out. It is possible that there will still be a Hindu bias, although surely not five Brahmins would figure (and that would unequivocally be a good thing). I suspect that politics would not dominate as entirely as in 1926, when seven of the ten were active politicians. Such a list constructed in 2018 would without question have both a film star and a cricketer. But it is unlikely that there will be any writers or scientists, whereas the Horniman-inspired list of 1926 had three such: Tagore, P.C. Ray, and J. C. Bose.



Ramachandra Guha

(first published in Hindustan Times, 8th April 2018)

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