When, in August 2017, India marked the 70th year of its freedom from British colonial rule, Hindustan Times did a series of long stories on 70 of this and 70 of that: the 70 best books written since Independence, the 70 greatest sportspersons since Independence, the 70 finest films since Independence, the 70 most influential politicians since Independence. 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 11 (in 2002, on the 75th anniversary of our first Test match) and the 60 greatest Indians since Gandhi (in 2010, on the 60th 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 organised by the Indian National Herald, a short-lived newspaper whose editor had a most interesting history. His name was BG 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 opposite the Asiatic Society in the heart of south Mumbai.
In the brief period he was with the Indian National Herald, Horniman asked his readers to choose the 10 greatest living Indians. This may have been the first such poll ever conducted in India. On December 21, 1926, his paper reported the results of his exercise, as reproduced below:
Ten greatest Indians in 1926 (Person/Votes Polled) – (Gandhi/9308), (Tagore/7391), (JC Bose/5954), (Motilal Nehru/4035), (Aurobindo Ghose/3907), (PC Ray/3524), (Sarojini Naiupper-caste du/3519), (MM Malaviya/2618), (Lajpat Rai/2568), and; (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 10 ‘great Indians’ were Hindus, of which at least five were Brahmin. 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 as 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 middleclass Indians yearned for him to abandon spirituality and return to politics.
Had this poll been conducted 10 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 10 greatest Indians of 2018? Perhaps the newspaper should organise 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 10 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, PC Ray, and JC Bose.