Commemorative coins: How Indian currency has served as a publicity tool

India issued its first commemorative coin series back in 1964 in the honour of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the same year of Nehru’s passing away. Over the last 53 years, commemorative coins have been issued for various reasons--some as uncirculated collectors items and others for mass circulation.

Written by Kanishka Singh | New Delhi | Published:September 13, 2017 7:16 pm
Narendra Modi also released a commemorative coin in the honour of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. (Source: Express Photo by Ravi Kanojia)

Novelty never fails to draw the attention of the masses. And this holds true especially in the cases of the government issuing commemorative coins. The government has decided to issue commemorative coins of Rs 100 and Rs 5 denomination in the honour of iconic Indian actor and politician Late MG Ramachandran, and of denominations Rs 100 and Rs 10 in the honour of Carnatic singer MS Subbalakshmi. The limited edition coins will go for a premium and will be up for purchase directly from the RBI.

While the Centre regularly releases commemorative coins with messages of its own choosing, often the decision to mint the coins are on the request of third parties. In this case, the request was placed by Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha for the MS Subbalakshmi commemorative coins and by the Tamil Nadu government for the MG Ramachandran commemorative coins.

The first commemorative coin series was issued back in 1964 in the honour of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the same year when Nehru passed away. Over the last 53 years, commemorative coins have been issued for various reasons–some as uncirculated collector items and others for mass circulation. One could wonder how they came to be the preferred choices to bear the commemoration messages.

Similarly, the makeup and constitution of those coins differed. Since 1964, these coins have come out in the denominations also–from as small as 5 paise to as high as Rs 1,000. But, one of the prime aspects that scholars and numismatologists have studied in currency coins, including Indian, is the use of coins for propaganda and as publicity tools.

The practice of using titles, legends and messages on coins stretches back to the Roman empire era and formed a key part of the Roman political and economic expansion strategies. The very fact that coins reached the hands of the masses coupled with its use in daily transactions made it ideal for the rulers to communicate messages, carry out propaganda and advertise their plans.

Various governments released different commemorative coins over the past decades pushing for government schemes, appeals, raising morale, remembrance etc. For instance, in 1973 during the emergency, the government of India introduced a coin with the theme and legend ‘Grow More Food’. The next year, the commemorative coin was ‘Planned Family’ and in subsequent years, the coins were brought with themes like ‘Food and Work For All’ and ‘Save for Development’. In 1978, the year after the emergency, the coin bore ‘Food and Shelter for All’. These were incidentally the prevalent social, economic and political issues of the times.

Remembrance could be observed in coin series issued in 1969 celebrating the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi or a series in 2011 that celebrated 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore or those celebrating BR Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Lala Lajpat Rai, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, Jayprakash Narayan. In 1985 and 1992, the government released commemorative coins for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, respectively, a year each after the assassination of both leaders. Some coins commemorated not individuals but institutions as well like the State Bank of India, RBI, Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, Comptroller and Auditor General of India etc.

Noted scholar Thomas R Martin has analysed how the propaganda and spread of messages through coins started and how it assumed relevance in his study ‘Sulla Imperator Iterum: the Samnites and Roman Republican coin propaganda’. According to Martin, “The most conspicuous publicity was generated by inscriptions placed on public monuments; the most widely circulated publicity, however, was generated by the inscriptions and small relief sculptures which appeared on coins. Since people at all levels of society handled coins in their everyday lives, they were constantly exposed to the messages that coins could be made to bear.”

In the modern context, sustained publicity through conventional channels is often more expensive and difficult as the messages have to be designed in different languages for different sections of the population and the publicity material itself is perishable and dated. Use of iconographic messages conveyed via coinage is easier in comparison.

Martin contends that it is safe to say that the mobility of coins and its durable nature makes it one of the most desirable tools of publicity. The freedom to decide messages vested with the government, as the RBI only issues coins, gives endless opportunities for ‘coin propaganda’, a phenomenon acknowledged by scholars and numismatologists for centuries.

As Martin puts it, it was anyone’s guess how effective coin propaganda was during Roman times (no tangible method for measuring the success of coin propaganda has come yet). But the fact that it has continued for over two millennia indicates a degree of success in some cases which governments of the day strive to emulate.

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