Every Freedom movement around the world has produced outstanding leaders, but it would be safe to say that the sheer number, stature and outstanding quality of the leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement are unique. If we set aside for the moment the 1857 uprising, which we now call the First Indian War of Independence, and begin from the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885, we will see a whole series of towering personalities representing various shades of ideology. The early stalwarts included Dadabhai Naoroji, Ferozshah Mehta, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and M.G.Ranade as the moderate wing, and such charismatic personalities as Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurbindo, Lala Lajpat Rai and Bipin Chandra as leaders of the radical wing. When Gandhiji came into the picture he gathered around himself many outstanding figures, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and C.Rajagopalachari. All of these are well known in history. But there is one outstanding name that seems to have largely neglected by historians; that of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya.
This Year we are celebrating the 150th birth Anniversary of Malaviyaji under the guidance of a National Commission headed by the Prime Minister. Malaviyaji was indeed a many faceted and multi-talented person. He was a social reformer, a powerful writer, a riveting orator, a leading lawyer, an outstanding political leader having been elected President of the Indian National Congress on four different occasions and, of course, a visionary intellectual and educationist. Just because he was devout Hindu, it appears that our generally left-oriented and liberal historians have tended to overlook his remarkable achievements. In fact Malaviyaji was a strong proponent of social reform, worked tirelessly for the reduction of caste barriers in temples and was in the forefront of the movement for Dalit entry into Hindu Shrines. He was also one of the first leaders to announce ‘India belongs to the Hindus, the Mohammedans, the Sikhs, the Parsees and others.” No single community can rub over the rest. It was in this spirit he opposed the Communal award, and the Congress finally accepted this point. A more holistic approach to his life should place him in a historical perspective, not rush to easy, if misleading conclusions.
Malaviyaji was associated with the Indian National Congress for 60 years from its inception in 1886 right up to 1946. Despite difference of approach, Gandhiji held Malaviyaji in very high esteem. He wrote at one place,
The name of Malaviyaji is magical for the people. Since I arrived in India I have had an intimate contact with him. I have lots of interaction with him and I have known him very well. His views for this society are full of compassion and love. We love each other more than real brothers. I do not consider anyone a greater patriot than Malaviyaji. I always worship him. I don’t see anyone among the present Indians who serves the country better than him.
Such glowing tributes from the Father of the Nation make it very clear that Malaviyaji was a major and influential figure in the freedom movement. It is not possible in an article to detail his many achievements. His role with Annie Besant and Pandit Motilal Nehru in the Home Rule Movement – nevertheless was a significant factor in defining the contours of our freedom movement. It is often forgotten how the Home Rule League brought into public life early on one of India’s finest sons – the young Jawaharlal Nehru.
Basically, his political ideology was moderate. He continued to believe in his initial views that he had formed in his first three decades of his political career. That is why he participated enthusiastically in State and Central Assemblies, gave long speeches and tried to influence the British Government. When the National Movement changed its form in the Gandhian Era, he didn’t hesitate to work accordingly. He was fully committed to the Civil Disobedience Movement. By the end of the Dandi March, he left the Indian Legislative Assembly and tried his best to make the movement a success, and in its first place also went to jail. After the Gandhi-Irvin Pact, he went to London to take part in the Round Table Conference. Sir Tej Bhahadur Sapru, in his memoirs writes, ‘No other Indian in the conference commanded as much respect from British politicians as he. In second Phase of the movement, he played an active role to guide the mass struggle.’
Born in fairly humble circumstances in Allahabad on Christmas Day in 1861, Malaviyaji was a very bright student in the Government High School but was unable to study for the M.A. Examination due to lack of resources. He began earning as a high school teacher at a salary of Rs. 40 per month in his alma mater. As a result of his brilliance and indefatigable energy he rose to play an outstanding role in several fields, including politics, social reform, law journalism and education. He was an outstanding orator with equal command over Hindi, English and Sanskrit. His crowning achievements, however, was the founding of the great Banaras Hindu University (BHU) at Varanasi in 1916 of which he remained Vice-chancellor for twenty years from 1919-1938. This was the first National University to be created in India, the earlier ones in the four metros having been set up the British. Almost single-handedly he raised resources to build the great campus, which still remains one of the finest in the country, and stands as a permanent monument to the remarkable vision, patriotism and dynamism of Mahamana Malaviya. It is difficult to conceive of anyone else who could have brought together, on one platform, the traditional literati and new intelligentsia with the princes, land owners and business in this august enterprise.
His Life’s work, particularly the founding of the Banaras Hindu University which will celebrate its centenary in 2016, will be long remembered by his grateful countrymen as tens of thousands of students have passed through its portals, in which Malaviyaji sought to combine ancient wisdom with modern technology. The BHU Engineering College, now renamed the IIT (BHU), Varanasi, was one of the finest in India. He sought to combine best of the East and West, so as to make BHU the ‘Sarva Vidya ki Rajdhani’. In his own words, ‘ A University should preserve the noblest traditions of the past and breaking away from there, where necessary, adapt itself to the requirements of the present and of the future. I have had the honour of being Chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University for over a decade from 1960-66 and again from 2006 to the present day. Each Time I visit BHU, I am overwhelmed at Malaviyaji’s Vision for having created, almost a century ago, a magnificent campus combining humanities and technology, or to use the Upanishadic phrase, the Para Vidya and the Apara Vidya.
Most important of all, Malaviyaji stood for certain moral and spiritual values and for ethics in public life, which, regretfully, are conspicuous by their absence in our current scene. The epitome of simple living and high thinking, Malaviyaji with his white turban, became a symbol of alternative lifestyle, which was neither ascetic nor hedonistic but was based firmly upon our ancient cultural heritage, particularly the Upanishads. His memory and his work will continue to be honoured for generations to come. His 150th birth anniversary is a good occasion for us to rediscover and reassess the contribution that this remarkable man has made to the development of India’s cultural profile.