Tracing the designs on currency notes, even as the demand to imprint B.R. Ambedkar’s image on it picks up

From the barter system and Hundies predating 18 century India to the crisp bank notes and smartcards of today, the banking system has come a long way.

The currency note for its part has undergone several transformations to evolve as a reliable financial instrument.

The motifs and designs on currency notes are chosen carefully to reflect a certain philosophy of the era. Over time, the image of Mahatma Gandhi has become a fixture on one side of the note while on the other side the images keep changing from that of the Parliament, the Himalayas, a farm tractor or a collage of animals - a tiger, hippopotamus and elephant.

A section of civil society has questioned this and is demanding that the image of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who drafted the Constitution of India, should also be embossed on currency notes.

One of the earliest images to be used on a currency note was that of a vignette of a female figure reclining on a bench on the quayside. Republic and British India imprinted images of Lords, statues of Mountstuart Elphinstone and John Malcolm and images of governors such as Sir Thomas Munroe, the Governor of Madras.

When the colonisers left the country, symbols for an independent India had to be chosen. “At the outset it was felt that the King's portrait be replaced.” The Lion Capital at Sarnath was chosen through consensus and in 1953 Hindi was displayed prominently on the new notes. In 1969 a commemorative design series in honour of the birth centenary celebrations of Gandhi was issued depicting a seated Gandhi with the Sevagram Ashram as the backdrop. The 1980s saw a completely new set of notes issued. The motifs on these notes marked a departure from the earlier motifs. Emphasis was laid on symbols of science and technology (Aryabhatta on the Rs 2 note), progress (the oil rig on Re 1 and farm mechanisation on Rs 5) and a change in orientation to Indian art forms on the Rs 20 and the Rs 10 notes (Konark wheel, peacock). For a nation obsessed with personalities, it might have been wiser to continue with this series of notes but it was not done so. In 1987, the Rs 500 note was introduced with the portrait of Gandhi while the water mark continued to be the Lion Capital, Ashoka Pillar.

It was only in meetings held in 1993 and 1994, that the recommendations to print the portraits of Gandhi in the water-mark area and on the right side of the banknote were made in terms of resolutions passed by RBI’s Board of Directors. This was then approved by the Finance Ministry and in 1996 a Gandhi series was launched that continues to this day.

The Reserve Bank of India, the only authority to print currency notes in the country, states on its website that its notes reflect the changing socio-cultural ethos and the world-view of the times, “buccaneering mercantilism, colonial consolidation, domineering imperialism, the grandeur of empire, to the symbols of National Independence followed up by allegories of progress and finally in the latest series, reminiscing Gandhian values.”

On September 24, this year -- Poona Pact Day -- a roundtable conference was held in the Capital demanding that Ambedkar’s image also be imprinted on currency notes.

“Throughout the country, statues of Ambedkar are being vandalised. Somewhere they break the hand, sometimes the nose and sometimes the head. But if we print Ambedkar’s face on Rs 1000 note, then nobody will tear it. Like this, we can maintain our dignity,” said Dalit Pandiyan, National Convenor, Dalit Liberation Movement who has been spearheading the movement since few years now.

Leila Passah, General Secretary of YWCA – India said that Ambedkar would have gone beyond putting his image on currency notes but talking of dignity and rights of Dalits, she said the need of the hour was to agitate in whichever way possible.

“People are no longer listening to our dharnas or rallies in Jantar Mantar. The bill or the note is not the main issue here. We are fighting for the values instilled by Ambedkar. He fought for social justice for all regardless of where they come from. The constitution provides safety and dignity to all,” said Leila. Citing the recent cases of violence against Dalit women in the hinterland especially Haryana, she said that Ambedkar had challenged the legal system and turned the wheel of law as far as women were concerned.

A Right to Information query has revealed that there are close to 50 individuals and organisations that have requested that images of other national leaders on currency notes.