If you are asked about personalities who made biggest contribution for this country, certain names would instantly come to your mind. As we got independence just over six decades back, names of freedom fighters are bound to dominate this conversation. They surely deserve to be remembered and eulogized.
Then, you might remember a few social reformers or historical figures who single-handedly took on the ills and regressive customs prevailing in the society. But what about a list of 10 to 25 persons who made the greatest change in shaping the idea of India? It depends on your perception, the region you belong to and of course your political alignment or the culture you were raised in.
If you are born in Maharashtra or Bengal, you may recall names of the heroes belonging to your region, which is understandable. There was an era when Bengal alone produced dozens of personalities of high intellect [during Renaissance]. One remembers umpteen names ranging from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar from this region alone.
But there are personalities whose work was not made known to people in other parts of the country for long, due to a host of factors. And it’s not just about ignoring certain figures in text books. In an earlier post I had commented on a calendar featuring Indian heroes. It didn't name any Christian or Muslim. Besides, it neglected heroes of medieval India and social reformers but looked back at royals. Frankly, everyone is entitled to his/her ideology and can draw inspiration from them.
But there are certain names on whom you can't disagree much. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was bestowed the title of Father of the Nation. He did dominate the 20th century political and social discourse in the sub-continent.
Dr BR Ambedkar, who framed our constitution and the real champion for the rights of the unprivileged, has the strongest following in modern India. He instilled self-respect among Dalits in the country.
Ambedkar's name inspires a large segment of population. Jyotirao Phule [popularly known as Jyotiba Phule], and his wife Savitri Phule, played a vital role in curbing social evils and spreading education in the 19th century. They were indeed pioneering social reformers.
Jyotiba Phule was formally given the title Mahatma when Gandhi was just a teenaged law student in London. Either it’s the couple's work to educate women or fight untouchability, the Phules laid the foundation stone for building the new social order in Maharashtra.
Phule was a rationalist and made effort to inculcate scientific temper among the people. Savitri Phule [1831-1897] founded the first school for girls in the country. The school was open to girls belong to all castes [that included shudras] and religions. It was a revolutionary step in the conservative society then.
She went on to establish many more schools and also homes for orphans and widows. A pioneering Marathi woman poet, she opened well to the 'untouchables' and passionately worked for widow remarriage. She was also the first woman to light her husband's funeral pyre, way back in 1890.
In fact, her name ought to be written in golden letters in the history of this nation. In the East, Raja Ram Mohan Roy [1772-1833] was a pioneering reformer. The British were now the masters and the Mughal emperor was a mere puppet.
In this era of transition, when Hindus and Muslims were looking at the British with suspicion and hostility, Roy didn't look back towards past glory but instead he focused on future. He took up cudgels to abolish Sati and Child marriage.
I consider Syed Ahmad Khan, another important figure, because he spotted how Muslims had withdrawn after the war of 1857. With British ire more directed at Muslims, the community needed an able advocate and a person who could come to terms with the changing situation and reconcile with the rulers.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan did exactly that. In the process, he received brickbats, the wrath of the mullahs and the abuse of the society. But he remained steadfast to his cause. He succeeded in invigorating the Muslims and managed to draw them towards modern education.
In fact, India has been a land of numerous faiths and religious. Great personalities including Hindu sages and saints were born here.
The founders of three great religions viz. Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism also belong to this land. No wonder, spirituality flourished here throughout the ages including the medieval era.
To begin with, I consider Sufi Saint Moinuddin Chishti, one of the most inspiring and representative figures. Not just because his message brought Hindus and Muslims together, but also for eradicating the social differences of class, caste, religion and even gender.
The Saint preached humanity and love. Ajmer [Rajasthan] remains one of the most venerated shrines in India, frequented by people of all sections. Just like him, Nizamuddin Auliya's hospice in Delhi, became a place of succour for the common folk. Women also sections flocked to the hospice.
Emperors resented him because of his influence on the people but failed to act because of his popularity. The phrase 'Hunooz Dilli Dur Ast' tells how Ghayasuddin Tughlaq was on his way back to Delhi. The King had warned the mystic and asked him to leave the City before his (King's) return.
But the Saint's words proved prophetic. Delhi remained far for Tughlaq who died when the gate of a newly built structure fell on him, just outside the capital. Among the socio-religious reformers, Guru Ravidas [also Raidas] has influenced a large number of people.
With time, his message his spread further. Another important name is Kabir. There are many legends about Kabir's birth as well as his death. Hindus and Muslims claimed him as their own for ages. Then, a new religious sect Kabirpanthi was formed by his followers. The weaver-poet is a unique figure in medieval India.
Tipu Sultan gave the toughest challenge to British ambition in India. While the Nizams and Peshwas would make and break treaties with the British, Tipu took a bold stance against the East India Company forces and defeated them convincingly.
Though, he could have saved himself but he didn't submit to the British authority. The innovator of rocket technology, he was also a just ruler. Among kings of the numerous princely states in India, the Sher-i-Mysore was one who was feared by British and earned their respect for his valour.
Tipu Sultan tried hard to form alliance of Indian states and didn't yearn to secure privileges for his own state. This was the strength of his character. Unlike his father Hyder Ali, Tipu was not an able judge of people's character and it was this weakness which also cost him dearly.
The brave warrior-king was outdone by the Company's cunning [as also his own men's treachery] and lost in the fourth battle of Mysore against the joint forces of Nizam and British. It was his philosophy that a Tiger's life for a day is better than a jackal's long life.
Birsa Munda [1875-1900] is a hero and an inspiration figure for tribals [Scheduled Tribes] or Adiwasis--the indigenous people. He died when he was just 25. Birsa Munda who was born in Bihar [today's Jharkhand] fought against the British, opposing the 'lagaan' [or land tax].
Armed with bows and arrows, Birsa Munda and his men who led the munda rebellion had become a thorn in the flesh of the British. The Mundas defeated the British in a war in 1898. He was arrested two years later and died in mysterious circumstances. Today he is revered in the entire tribal belt stretching from Bengal to Chhota Nagpur [Jharkhand], Orissa, Kodagu region [Karnataka], Maharashtra and in MP-Chhattisgarh.
Jawaharlal Nehru [1889-1864] was our first prime minister. Nehru was one of the most popular leaders in India then. You may question certain decisions Nehru made as Prime Minister or you may like Subhas Chandra Bose more than him, but the fact remains that Nehru laid foundation for a modern, industrial country, and took the fledgling nation on a secular path.
For this we must be thankful to him. It was his personality that was instrumental in instilling secular ideals instilled in the administration in the formative years of Republic. He had the authority to subdue the powerful regressive lobbies within the Congress.
Lovingly called, 'Pandit Ji', he was a statesman, a world leader, historian, author and free from orthodoxy. He was inclusive, a quality, which India needed at that juncture, soon after independence. Nehru has to be in this list without any doubt.
Bhagat Singh [1907-1931] has inspired youths for several generations now. He was hanged when he was just 24. Born in a Sikh family in Punjab, he is one of the most charismatic faces of Indian freedom movement. Bhagat Singh died young but his vision and maturity of his thought are truly astonishing.
In South, especially Tamil Nadu, the role of EV Ramasamy Naikar 'Periyar' [1879-1973] in the political and social awakening among Dravidians in 20th century is matchless. He was born in a Kannada speaking family in Madras presidency.
Periyar is remembered for the self-respect movement, which made a strong attack on caste based discrimination. His philosophy had deep impact on Tamil society. Mother Teresa' who made Calcutta her home, brought the attention of the world towards the plight of the poor and the destitute.
Her dedication and lifelong work make her worthy of inclusion in any such compilation of greatest Indians. The list represents personalities representing different regions, eras and almost all religious communities. It has 14 names. You have every right to differ.