In some respects, the awarding of the Bharat Ratna to Madan Mohan Malaviya is an anachronism. Posthumous awards are always anachronisms and a bit of a delayed acknowledgement – too late some would say. In the case of Malaviya, who died in 1946, he has been awarded with the highest honour of the Republic of India, which was inaugurated well after he passed away.
Having said that commemorating Malaviya in some manner is well worth the effort. He was born in 1861, the same year as Rabindranath Tagore and Motilal Nehru. A scholar and lawyer, among the earliest members of the Indian National Congress, a pioneering newspaperman (he chaired the board of Hindustan Times), a social reformer who fought caste discrimination, and above all an educationist – there was so much to the man. His everlasting achievement was the Banaras Hindu University (BHU).
It says something for the reductionism and lazy labelling of our times that we seek to limit our heroes. When Narendra Modi invoked Malaviya in the run up to the Lok Sabha election of 2014, there were several reasons for him to do so. He was making a political point in recalling forgotten stalwarts from outside the Nehru-Gandhi lineage. He was also urging Banaras to rediscover its heritage as a knowledge hub. Yet, there were critics who argued Malaviya was a “Brahmin leader” and Modi was using his name to win upper caste votes in Uttar Pradesh!
Similarly, a newspaper recently described Malaviya as a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, choosing to forget he was twice president of the Congress and far from regarded as merely a sectional and parochial figure, as was being implied. That was a different epoch, when it was possible to be a member of the Mahasabha (or the Muslim League for that matter) and simultaneously be a member of the Congress. Indeed, Mahasabha and Congress meetings were sometimes held in the same city, within days of each other, to make it convenient for common members to attend.
BHU was Malaviya’s greatest child. He saw it as both a nationalist and a civilisational mission, bringing modern education to one of India’s iconic cities and centres of scholarship. In the years to come BHU grew into the premier educational institution in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It remains a showpiece of what individual and philanthropic initiative can achieve in India, especially in the field of higher education.
Like the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, it serves as an example of how well-to-do but public-spirited Indians were once happy to give money to an institutional builder of credibility and did not necessarily see higher education as almost exclusively the domain of the government, as it became after Independence.
Among those who donated to the cause of BHU, and helped Malaviya in his effort to build a university with “Hindu” in its name, was the then Nizam of Hyderabad, the richest Muslim in the country. Perhaps he was persuaded by Malaviya; perhaps he was just convinced of the cause. Today both the Nizam and Malaviya – and the creation of BHU – would have got embroiled in some silly, vacuous debate about “secularism” and “communalism”. One must be grateful Madan Mohan Malaviya didn’t live to see this age. Appositely, he would have considered himself an anachronism.