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America Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is For Harriet Tubman. Can We Do It For Ambedkar?

11/05/2016 8:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Indian street vendors display portraits of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, wearing the glasses, on his death anniversary in Mumbai, India, Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. Ambedkar, an untouchable, or dalit, and a prominent Indian freedom fighter, was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on caste. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Finally, after four years of deliberations, Harriet Tubman will be the first woman to appear on a US banknote!

Harriet Tubman was born in slavery, and once she escaped the dreadful existence, conducted a systematic solo campaign to free others from slavery, making 13 missions and rescuing more than 70 slaves. Famous American historian Howard Zinn describes these daring missions in great detail in his book A People's History of the United States--they sound no less thrilling than Second World War escape movies.

During her rescue missions, Tubman would return to the south in disguise and stay in only select places to avoid being detected, possibly on the basis of a tip-off by a treacherous fellow African-American. Her escape route network which was known as the "Underground Railroad" was dotted with safe houses of sympathizers and abolitionists, many of whom were white folks. Harriet's brief to escaping members was simple: "liberation at any cost". Each member carried a poison pill just in case they got caught. Her planning skills could rival that of any secret service agent today. No wonder, the aphorism was, that "Moses" (as she was called) "never lost a passenger".

It would be a fitting tribute for us Indians to adorn our currency notes with Ambedkar's iconic presence.

Last month, it was announced that Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the $20 bill, replacing former President Andrew Jackson, who, incidentally, owned slaves.

In a way, a place on a bank note is a tiny gesture for towering personalities like Harriet. However, it signifies the importance of the cause she fought for. Its symbolic value cannot be denied.

American slavery is just one form of subjugation of the oppressed ones by the dominant class-- or to use the terms of the political theorist Antonio Gramsci, the subaltern have always been oppressed under the hegemony of the ruling class. These power equations have existed everywhere, whether you look at the aboriginals of Australia or the Native Americans in Canada or the Dalits in India.

While history cannot be rewritten, symbolism can play a part in scripting a better future.

I understand that the Reserve Bank of India has been, for a while now, considering a proposal to put national icons on Indian currency notes. With Babasaheb Ambedkar's 125th birth anniversary having just been observed, it would be a fitting tribute for us Indians to adorn our currency notes with Ambedkar's iconic presence. Like the Americans have done, we will be extolling the life, struggles and teachings of another Mahatma or Mahamanav as some may like to address him , who first time voiced the oppression and inhuman treatment meted out to one of humanity's longest suffering subaltern communities.

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