Last month the government shut down its telegraph service. The government’s postal service of course continues to be used by millions of our compatriots who still communicate through non-electronic forms. The Department of Posts however no longer has the importance it once did in the day-to-day lives of many Indians like me who now not only use email, social media, and mobile phones but also private, courier services. In fact, I can’t even recall the last time I licked a stamp.
Curiosity and a bit of nostalgia led me to the philately section of India Post’s website. I learnt that over three thousand stamps have been issued by the postal department since Independence. These stamps attempt to chronicle and celebrate the achievements of modern India. The range is epic, and the artwork often brilliant. The stamps of course tell the story of India in a particular way. The perspectives they present can be contested. I can’t resist commenting on two stamps (out of the thousands) that I saw.
The first is this stamp issued in 1967. It shows Nehru as tribal chieftain, leading a group of Nagas. The stamp reminded me of Nehru’s disastrous visit to Kohima in 1951. The Naga insurgency was the first serious challenge to the idea of India. Nehru’s vision was multicultural and his concern for the welfare of tribals was genuine, if paternalistic. But the call by the Naga National Council (NNC) for separation made Nehru less sympathetic. During his visit to Kohima, a public meeting was scheduled to welcome him. NNC leaders, who were determined to attain independence from India, wanted to give him a petition reiterating their demand. However, the local authorities refused to let more than three persons meet Nehru. They also wanted the petition to be submitted after the public meeting. When Nehru arrived at the venue (along with a guest, the Burmese prime minister U Nu), the Nagas left en masse, smacking their bottoms. This is the account Nirmal Nibedon gives in Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas. According to Ramchandra Guha in India After Gandhi, the Nagas bared their bottoms. There was a crackdown after this. NNC leaders went underground, and Nehru never visited the Naga Hills again.
The stamp gives no hint of Nehru’s actual relationship with the Nagas and vice versa. It shows Nehru dressed in his usual attire but wearing a Naga head-dress and carrying a spear. The Nagas appear in full tribal regalia. At first they look like stereotypical war-like Nagas but their demeanour is docile rather than hostile as they tamely follow Nehru, the prime minister of a new nation.
Today, half a century later, ‘the Naga problem’ still awaits a solution that is acceptable to both sides. In contrast, the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986 and is generally acknowledged to have been successful. A stamp issued in 1999 commemorates the accord. If the first stamp made me smile, this one gave me a small jolt. The stamp focuses on a handshake between two persons, one presumably a representative of the Indian state and the other of the Mizo National Front (MNF). In the background are a communications tower – and a passenger plane. By including these symbols of development, the artist was probably trying to convey the message that the Mizos had joined the national mainstream and had come closer to India and the world. Some time back I saw a news conference on TV in which P C Chidambaram, the then Home Minister, explained patiently to a journalist, who had asked if the government was considering using helicopter gunships against the Naxalites, that you do not machine gun or bomb your own people. But in 1966 the IAF did both: jet fighters strafed MNF targets and carried out air raids on Aizawl and surrounding villages. That is why I found the aircraft jarring, even though I know it is a domestic airliner and not a fighter plane.
I never took up stamp collecting in my school days. This had something to do with the fact that our teachers urged us to do so. Stamps taught you history, they said, making it sound less of a pleasurable hobby and more of an academic exercise. That stamps do indeed teach you history but in deeply ideological ways was something I came to understand much later.