Indians Great Greater Greatest?, The Hindu


Nations need heroes, but the construction of a national pantheon is rarely straightforward or uncontested. Consider the debate in the United States about which faces should adorn the national currency. The founding figures of American Independence—Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Franklin—are all represented on the dollar bill, albeit on different denominations. So are the 19th century Presidents Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.

In recent years, right-wing Americans have campaigned for their hero, Ronald Reagan, to be represented on the national currency. This, it is said, is necessary to bring it in line with contemporary sentiments. Of 20th century Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is represented on the dime, and John F. Kennedy on the dollar. Both were Democrats. Republicans now demand that the pantheon feature one of their ilk. In 2010, a Congressman from North Carolina, Patrick McHenry, canvassed for a law mandating that Ulysses S. Grant be replaced on the fifty dollar bill by Ronald Reagan. ‘Every generation needs its own heroes’, said McHenry. The American hero he was anointing for our times was Reagan, ‘a modern day statesman, whose presidency transformed our nation’s political and economic thinking’.

Turn now to that other large, complex, cacophonous, democracy—our own. After India became independent, the national pantheon offered to its citizens was massively dominated by leaders of the Congress Party. Mahatma Gandhi was positioned first, with Jawaharlal Nehru only a short distance behind. Both had played important roles in the freeing of the country from colonial rule. Both were truly great Indians. That said, the popular perception of both was helped by the fact that the party to which they belonged was in power for the crucial decades after Independence. Newspapers, the radio, and school textbooks all played their role in the construction of a narrative in which Gandhi was the Father of the Nation and Nehru its Guide and Mentor in the first, formative years of the Republic’s existence.

Until the 1960s, the dominance of Nehru and Gandhi in the national imagination was colossal. When, in that decade, the American scholar Eleanor Zelliot wrote a brilliant dissertation on B. R. Ambedkar and the Mahar movement in Maharashtra, she was unable to find a publisher. But then the Congress started to lose power in the States. In 1977 it lost power for the first time in the Centre. The rise of new political parties led naturally to revisionist interpretations of the past. New heroes began to be offered for inclusion in the nation’s pantheon, their virtues extolled (and sometimes magnified) in print, in Parliament, and, in time, in school textbooks as well.

The Indian who, in subsequent decades, has benefited most from this revaluation is B. R. Ambedkar. A scholar, legal expert, institution builder and agitator, Ambedkar played a heroic (the word is inescapable) role in bringing the problems of the Untouchable castes to wider attention. He forced Gandhi to take a more serious, focused, interest in the plight of the depressed classes, and himself started schools, colleges and a political party to advance their interests.

Ambedkar died in December 1956, a political failure. The party he founded scarcely made a dent in Congress hegemony, and he was unable to win a Lok Sabha seat himself. But his memory was revived in the 1970s and beyond. His works began to be read more widely. He was the central, sometimes sole, inspiration for a new generation of Dalit activists and scholars. Obscure at the time of his death in 1956, condescenced to by the academic community until the 1980s (at least), Ambedkar is today the only genuinely all-India political figure, worshipped in Dalit homes across the land. Notably, he is not a Dalit hero alone, his achievements recognized among large sections of the Indian middle class. No one now seeking to write a book on Ambedkar would have a problem finding a publisher.

The (belated) incorporation of Ambedkar into the national pantheon is a consequence largely of the political rise of the subaltern classes. Meanwhile, the pantheon has been expanded from the right by the inclusion of Vallabhbhai Patel. Paradoxically, while Patel was himself a lifelong Congressman, the case for his greatness has been made most vigorously by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP leaders and ideologues speak of Patel as the Other, in all respects, of Jawaharlal Nehru. They claim that if Patel had become Prime Minister, Kashmir would have been fully integrated into India. Under Patel the country would have followed a more pragmatic (i.e. market-oriented) economic policy, while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Western democracies against Godless Communism. Nor, if Patel had been in charge, would there have been (it is claimed) any appeasement of the minorities.

The BJP reading of history is tendentious, not least because Patel and Nehru were, in practice, collaborators and colleagues rather than rivals or adversaries. To be sure, they had their disagreements, but, to their everlasting credit, they submerged these differences in the greater task of national consolidation. Theirs was a willed, deliberate, division of labour and responsibilities. Nehru knew that Patel, and not he, had the patience and acumen to supervise the integration of the princely states and build up administrative capacity. On the other side, as Rajmohan Gandhi demonstrates in his biography of Patel, the man had no intention or desire to become Prime Minister. For Patel knew that only Nehru had the character and personality to take the Congress credo to women, minorities, and the South, and to represent India to the world.

That the BJP has to make the case for Patel is a consequence of the Congress’s capture by a single family determined to inflate its own contributions to the nation’s past, present, and future. Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party recognizes that a pantheon cannot consist of only two names; however, in their bid to make it more capacious, Congressmen place Indira and Rajiv alongside Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Thus the ubiquitous and apparently never-ending naming of sarkari schemes, airports, buildings, and stadia, after the one or the other.

The preceding discussion makes clear that political parties and social movements play a crucial role in how the national past is conveyed to citizens in the present. Indians admired by parties and movements, such as Ambedkar and Patel, have had their achievements more widely recognized than might otherwise have been the case. By the same token, great Indians whose lives are incapable of capture by special interests or sects have suffered from the enormous condescension of posterity.

Consider, in this regard, the current invisibility from the national discourse of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Married to a man chosen by her family, she was widowed early, and then married a left-wing actor from another part of India. She joined the freedom movement, persuading Gandhi to allow women to court arrest during the Salt March and after.

After coming out of jail, Kamaladevi became active in trade union work, and travelled to the United States, where she explained the relevance of civil disobedience to black activists (her turn in the South is compellingly described in Nico Slate’s recent book Colored Cosmopolitanism). After independence and Partition, Kamaladevi supervised the resettlement of refugees; still later, she set up an all-India network of artisanal co-operatives, and established a national crafts museum as well as a national academy for music and dance.

Tragically, because her work cannot be seen through an exclusively political lens, and because her versatility cannot be captured by a sect or special interest, Kamaladevi is a forgotten figure today. Yet, from this historian’s point of view, she has strong claims to being regarded as the greatest Indian woman of modern times.


Earlier this year, I was invited to be part of a jury to select the ‘Greatest Indian Since Gandhi’. The organizers did me the favour of showing me a list of hundred names beforehand. Many of the names were unexceptionable, but some strongly reflected the perceptions (and prejudices) of the present. For example, Kiran Bedi was in this list, but Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay wasn’t, a reflection only of the fact that the latter did not live in an age of television. There was also a regional bias: compiled in Delhi, the preliminary list did not include such extraordinary modern Indians as Shivarama Karanth, C. Rajagopalachari, and E. V. Ramaswami ‘Periyar’. There was also a marked urban bias: not one Indian who came from a farming background was represented, not even the former Prime Minister Charan Singh or the former Agriculture Minister (and Green Revolution architect) C. Subramaniam. Nor was a single adivasi on the list, not even the Jharkhand leader Jaipal Singh.

Since this was a provisional list, the organizers were gracious enough to accommodate some of these names at my request. The revised list was then offered to a jury composed of actors, writers, sportspersons and entrepreneurs, men and women of moderate (in some cases, considerable) distinction in their field. Based on the jury’s recommendations, the hundred names were then brought down to fifty.

The names of these fifty ‘great’ Indians were then further reduced to ten, in a three-way process in which the votes of the jury were given equal weightage with views canvassed via an on-line poll and a market survey respectively. The results revealed two striking (and interconnected) features: the strong imprint of the present in how we view the past, and the wide variation between how the ‘greatness’ of an individual is assessed by the aam admi and by the expert.

Here are some illustrations of this divergence. In the jury vote, B. R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru tied for first place; each had twenty-one votes. The online poll also placed Ambedkar in first place, but ranked Nehru as low as fifteenth, lower than Vallabhbhai Patel, Indira Gandhi, and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Even Sachin Tendulkar, A. R. Rahman, and Rajnikanth were ranked higher than Nehru by Net voters.

In the jury vote, the industrialist J. R. D. Tata and the social worker Mother Teresa were ranked immediately below Ambedkar and Nehru. Vallabhbhai Patel was ranked fifth by the jury, but an impressive third by Net voters. This suggests that like Ambedkar, Patel has a strong appeal among the young, albeit among a different section, those driven by the desire to see a strong state rather than the wish to achieve social justice. Nehru, on the other hand, is a figure of disinterest and derision in India today, his reputation damaged in good part by the misdeeds of his geneological successors.

The most remarkable, not to say bizarre, discrepancy between the expert and the aam admi was revealed in the case of the former President of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. Only two (out of twenty-eight) jury members voted for Kalam to be one of the short-list of ten. They placed him in joint thirty-first place. On the other hand, Kalam was ranked first by those surveyed by market research, and second in the online polls.

What explains this massive variation in perception? The jury was motivated perhaps by the facts—the hard, undeniable, if not so widely advertised facts—that Kalam has not made any original contributions to scientific or scholarly research. Homi Bhabha, M. S. Swaminathan, and Amartya Sen, who have, were thus ranked far higher than the former President. Nor has Kalam done important technological work—recognizing this, the jury ranked the Delhi Metro and Konkan Railway pioneer E. Sreedharan above him.

In the popular imagination, Kalam has been credited both with overseeing our space programme and the nuclear tests of 1998. In truth, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U. R. Rao and K. Kasturirangan did far more to advance India’s journey into space. Kalam was an excellent and industrious manager; a devoted organization man who was rewarded by being made the scientific adviser to the Government of India. It was in this capacity that he was captured in military uniform at Pokharan, despite not being a nuclear specialist of any kind.

A key reason for Abdul Kalam’s rise in public esteem is that he is perceived by as a Muslim who stands by his motherland. In the 1990s, as there was a polarization of religious sentiment across India, Kalam was seen by many Hindus as the Other of the mafia don Dawood Ibrahim. Dawood was the Bad Muslim who took refuge in Pakistan and planned the bombing of his native Bombay; Kalam the Good Muslim who stood by India and swore to bomb Pakistan if circumstances so demanded.

This was the context in which Kalam was picked up and elevated to the highest office of the land by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP wanted, even if symbolically, to reach out to the minorites they had long mistrusted (and sometimes persecuted). In this rebranding exercise, the fisherman’s son from Rameshwaram proved willing and able.

A second reason that Kalam is so admired is that he is an upright and accessible public servant in an age characterised by arrogant and corrupt politicians. As President, Kalam stayed admirably non-partisan while reaching out to a wide cross-section of society. He made a particular point of interacting with the young, speaking in schools and colleges across the land, impressing upon the students the role technology could play in building a more prosperous and secure India.

A. P. J. Kalam is a decent man, a man of integrity. He is undeniably a good Indian, but not a great Indian, still less (as the popular vote would have us believe) the second greatest Indian since Gandhi. Notably, the Net voters who ranked Kalam second also ranked Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay fiftieth, or last. At the risk of sounding elitist, I have to say that in both cases the aam admi got it spectacularly wrong.


A nation’s pantheon is inevitably dominated by men and women in public affairs, those who fought for independence against colonial rule, and thereafter ran governments and crafted new laws that reshaped society. One of the appealing things about the exercise I was part of was that it did not choose only to honour politicians. The long-list of fifty had actors, singers, sportspersons, scientists, and social workers on it. Commendably, in their own selection of Ten Great Indians since Gandhi, expert as well as aam admi sought to have a variety of fields represented.

Collating the votes, a final list of ten was arrived at, which, in alphabetical order read: B. R. Ambedkar; Indira Gandhi; A. P. J. Abdul Kalam; Lata Mangeshkar; Jawaharlal Nehru; Vallabhbhai Patel; J. R. D. Tata; Sachin Tendulkar; Mother Teresa; A. B. Vajpayee.

Reacting both as citizen and historian, I have to say that six of these ten choices should be relatively uncontroversial. Ambedkar, Nehru and Patel are the three towering figures of our modern political history. J. R. D. Tata was that rare Indian capitalist who promoted technological innovation and generously funded initiatives in the arts. Although in sporting terms Viswanathan Anand is as great as Sachin Tendulkar, given the mass popularity of cricket the latter has had to carry a far heavier social burden. Likewise, although a case can be made for M. S. Subbulakshmi, Satyajit Ray or Pandit Ravi Shankar to represent the field of ‘culture’, given what the Hindi film means to us as a nation, Lata had to be given the nod ahead of them.

It is with the remaining four names that I must issue a dissenting note. Taken in the round, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s achievements are of more lasting value than Indira Gandhi’s. If one wanted a non-Congress political figure apart from Ambedkar, then Jayaprakash Narayan or C. Rajagopalachari must be considered more original thinkers than A. B. Vajpayee. Mr Vajpayee’s long association with sectarian politics must also be a disqualification (likewise Indira Gandhi’s promulgation of the Emergency).

As for Mother Teresa, she was a noble, saintly, figure, but I would rather have chosen a social worker—such as Ela Bhatt—who enabled and emancipated Indians from disadvantaged backgrounds rather than simply dispensed charity. My caveats about Abdul Kalam have been entered already. In the intellectual/scientist category, strong arguments can be made in favour of the physicist Homi Bhabha and the agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan. Although I wouldn’t object to either name, there is also Amartya Sen, acknowledged by his peers as one of the world’s great economists and economic philosophers, and who despite his extended residence abroad has contributed creatively to public debates in his homeland.

To choose fifty and then ten Great Indians was an educative exercise. One was forced to consider the comparative value of different professions, and the claims and pressures of different generations and interest groups. However, I was less comfortable with the further call to choose a single Greatest Indian. For it is only in autocracies—such as Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea and Bashir Assad’s Syria—that One Supreme Leader is said to embody the collective will of the nation and its people.

This anointing of the Singular and Unique goes against the plural ethos of a democratic Republic. To be sure, one may accept that politics is more important than sports. Sachin Tendulkar may be the Greatest Indian Cricketer but he cannot ever be the Greatest Indian. But how does one judge Ambedkar’s work for the Dalits and his piloting of the Indian Constitution against Nehru’s promotion of multi-party democracy based on adult franchise and his determination not to make India a Hindu Pakistan? And would there have been an India at all if Patel had not made the princes and nawabs join the Union?

In his famous last speech to the Constitutent Assembly, Ambedkar warned of the dangers of hero-worship in politics. In a less known passage from that same speech he allowed that a nation must have its heroes. That is to say, one can appreciate and admire those who nurtured Indian democracy and nationhood without venerating them like Gods. In that spirit, one might choose hundred great Indians, or fifty, or ten, or even, as I have ended by doing here, three. But not just One.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Hindu, 21st July 2012)

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