Newly independent India issued elegantly designed postage stamps to celebrate its rich heritage and broadcast its self-image as a developmental state. In the late 1960s, the Indira Gandhi government made more room for personalities in the country’s philatelic space. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, the Sangh Parivar, though, did not feature on stamps until the late 1970s when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) joined the Janata government. The philatelic output of governments involving the BJS and the BJP holds a mirror to the Parivar’s internal conflicts, its relationship with competing organisations, its understanding of the country’s diversity, and its selective appropriation of the founding fathers.
In 1978, the Janata government released a commemorative stamp on BJS leader Deendayal Upadhyaya. The stamp’s information brochure notes that Upadhyaya joined the RSS while he was studying in Kanpur. Later that year, BJS founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee was commemorated on his 77th birth anniversary. The brochure extols his sacrifice to uphold the country’s territorial integrity.
The Parivar’s competitors have not been among the philatelic favourites of the BJS and BJP governments. The exclusion of V.D. Savarkar is a case in point. The tenures of the BJS and BJP governments did not overlap with any of Savarkar’s major anniversaries, but most stamps on the Parivar were not issued on anniversaries either. The brochure of the 1978 stamp on Mookerjee highlighted his estrangement from the Hindu Mahasabha. Interestingly, in 1970, the Indira Gandhi government commemorated Savarkar on the unusual occasion of his 87th birth anniversary. The stamp’s brochure refers to the author of “First War of Independence” (actual title of the book is The Indian War of Independence, 1857) as “Veer Savarkar” and mentions his association with the Mahasabha in the context of the “removal of untouchability”.
While Mookerjee and Upadhyaya returned on stamps only after the BJP came to power, Savarkar’s footprint continued to expand until the late 1990s.
He was mentioned in the stamp brochures of Fergusson College, Pune (1985), Shyamji Krishna Varma (1989), Madan Lal Dhingra (1992), and Dinanath Mangeshkar (1993) and singled out for special treatment in the brochure of Cellular Jail (1997). Under BJP governments, he found mention in a brochure once and there was no definitive stamp in his name. Also, unlike Vajpayee’s coalition government, the Modi government has commemorated very few non-Parivar leaders, even as it accommodated some of them in an expanded definitive series.
The Parivar has not been uniformly kind to its own flock either. Vajpayee ignored Upadhyaya, while Modi limited Mookerjee to one stamp. Several past presidents of the BJS and the BJP have not been commemorated. Notable omissions under Modi include the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Ashok Singhal and the BJP’s Sikander Bakht. RSS sarsangchalaks M.S. Golwalkar and Balasaheb Deoras, the Vivekananda Kendra founder Eknath Ranade, and the BJP’s K.R. Malkani have also not been commemorated. The most glaring omission, though, is that of women leaders of the Parivar and, more generally, under the Modi government it is that of women who earned a name in modern spaces and roles.
Other organisations and religious figures who received the BJP’s philatelic affection were not national competitors of the Parivar. The stamps on Yogi Adityanath’s mentor Mahant Avaidyanath (2015) and the Swaminarayan sect’s Pramukh Swami Maharaj (2016) issued within a year of their deaths and the stamp on the centenary of Jagadguru Sri Shivarathri Rajendra Swamy (2016) are cases in point. Other examples include Prabodhankar Thackeray (2002), Acharya Vimal Sagar (2016), Shirdi Sai Baba (2017), Auroville International Township (2018), and Pranami Sampradaya’s Mahamati Prannath (2019). However, Aurobindo’s sesquicentennial (2022) and the Ramakrishna Mission’s quasquicentennial (2022) were not commemorated.
Among those who featured on stamps in recent times were Kakaji & Pappaji of the Swaminarayan sect (2018), Rajyogini Dadi Janki of the Brahmakumaris (2021), the Gayatri Teerth, Haridwar (2021), and the Ramrajya Parishad’s Karpatri Maharaj (2022).
The Vajpayee government issued a commemorative stamp on Mookerjee’s birth centenary (2001). It also commemorated Vijaya Raje Scindia (2001), who combined “in her personality the intrepid courage of Rani Laxmibai and the sacrifice and religiosity of Rajamata Ahilyabai”, soon after her death.
Kailashpati Mishra (2016) and Nanaji Deshmukh (2017) were the first RSS leaders commemorated by the Modi government. Mishra, the Bhishma Pitamaha of the Bihar BJP, joined the RSS in 1944 and was jailed after Gandhi’s assassination. The brochure on Nanaji highlights his relationship with RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar, Jayaprakash Narayan, Vinoba Bhave, Upadhyaya, and Vajpayee, but Mookerjee is omitted even though Nanaji’s association with the BJS is mentioned.
In 2020, Manikchandra Vajpayee, convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and secretary of the BJS in central India, was commemorated. He is introduced as an RSS pracharak, journalist, and author of books on Partition, the Emergency, and Kashmir. Veteran pracharaks Chaman Lal and Dattopant Thengadi were commemorated in 2021. Chaman Lal took the RSS to Indians abroad. Thengadi, a BJS Sangathan Mantri, was instrumental in establishing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
One of the most important stamps released by the Vajpayee government featured Hedgewar. The postal department commemorated the “patriot, seer, organizer and founder [of the RSS]” in 1999, a year that is not associated with any anniversary of Hedgewar. The stamp shows an elderly Hedgewar rising like a sun through clouds above an outline of the subcontinent, which is filled with a uniform shade of saffron and located on a fragment of the globe. The design ingeniously obviates the need to demarcate international land borders and alludes to ‘Akhand Bharat’. The stamp’s brochure suggests that Mahatma Gandhi visited an RSS camp and praised the organisation’s fight against untouchability
The Modi government has catapulted Upadhyaya among the leaders who have featured on at least five stamps. It has issued a definitive stamp (2015), a commemorative stamp (2016), and joint issues with South Africa (2018) and Iran (2018) featuring Upadhyaya. Unlike in 1978, the 2016 brochure refers to Upadhyaya as Pandit Deendayal Upadhaya and introduces him as an RSS pracharak, emphasises his association with Hedgewar, offers glimpses of the RSS organisation, and draws attention to his novels Samrat Chandragupt and Jagadguru Shankaracharya. The brochure of the stamp on Haryana’s golden jubilee (2016) highlights the state government’s commitment to Upadhyaya’s vision of “Antyodaya.” The Deen Dayal Scholarship for Promotion of Aptitude & Research in Stamps as a Hobby (SPARSH) for children, too, foregrounds Upadhyaya.
Honoured with a definitive stamp soon after his death in 2018, Vajpayee is the third member of the Parivar’s philatelic pantheon. The Atal Tunnel featured on the First Day Cover (FDC) cachet of the stamp on “50 Years of full Statehood of Himachal Pradesh” (2021).
Vajpayee is also mentioned in the brochures of Murasoli Maran (2004), Nanaji Deshmukh (2017), and Chaman Lal (2021) and joint issues with Iran (2004), Mongolia (2006), and Cyprus (2006). He is the only swayamsevak to find mention in postal releases of non-BJP governments and to have debuted in the philatelic space before his death.
The promotion of cultural nationalism and national unity are among the priorities of the Parivar. Vajpayee sought to achieve this through commemoration of personalities. Modi has relied on thematic issues — on headgears, monuments, and natural heritage — which treat the country as an assortment of objects awaiting cataloguing rather than as a living whole made up of diverse parts.
The miniature sheets on Surya Namaskar (2016), Ramayana (2017), Mahabharata (2017), and the joint issue with ASEAN (2018) reflect the turn to cultural nationalism, which is exemplified by the stamp on Haryana’s golden jubilee. Unlike the silver jubilee issue (1992), which showcased both the cultural identity and economic aspirations of Haryana, the golden jubilee stamp (2016) focussed exclusively on cultural and cartographic identities.
The promotion of national unity involves engaging social and geographical margins, including the north-eastern States and Jammu and hitherto lesser-known figures or figures ignored in the philatelic space such as Chandragupta, Prithviraj Chauhan, Jhalkari Bai, Suheldev, Brigadier Rajinder Singh, Hijam Irawat Singh, and Gopinath Bordoloi.
The marginalisation of the Nehru-Gandhis is a priority. Only Jawaharlal Nehru has featured on a stamp under the BJP. The brochures of Mookerjee (1978), Scindia (2001), B.R. Ambedkar (2015), and Subhas Chandra Bose (2021) highlighted their differences with Nehru and the Congress.
More importantly, Nehru no longer features alongside Gandhi on stamps. The appropriation of Gandhi and leaders neglected during Nehru’s tenure is another priority. Vajpayee ushered Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Ambedkar into the postal pantheon of figures honoured with special definitive stamps, hitherto restricted to Gandhi and Nehru. The Parivar is appropriating those ignored by the Congress to undercut the established hierarchy and make room for their own icons.
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The Modi government has carried forward Vajpayee’s initiative and has already issued more stamps on both Gandhi and Ambedkar than any other government. There are key differences though. Unlike the Vajpayee government that also commemorated other Gandhian and Dalit leaders, the Modi government presents Gandhi and Ambedkar as standalone figures and has quietly detached them from their commitment to communal harmony and eradication of caste oppression.
Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University and is the co-author of Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
- The Parivar’s competitors have not been among the philatelic favourites of the BJS and BJP governments.
- The most glaring omission in stamps is that of women leaders of the Parivar.
- The Modi government has carried forward Vajpayee’s initiative and has already issued more stamps on both Gandhi and Ambedkar than any other government.
- The Parivar is appropriating the leaders ignored by the Congress to undercut the established hierarchy.