Home >opinion >online-views >‘Mahamana’: A forgotten visionary

With some anguish I would like to remind you of a personality who doesn’t find the prominent place in many people’s memories that he deserves. I am talking about Madan Mohan Malaviya. It’s his birth anniversary today.

Ideally a good essayist shouldn’t turn his writings into a diary of historical events. But it is necessary in Malaviya’s case. Without that it is impossible to describe his multifaceted persona.

Born in 19th century colonized India, this visionary had anticipated that political independence will become meaningful only when we mould a generation of progressive and cultured young people. For this, a world-class university was the need of the hour. How could this dream come true? A small incident will give you an idea of the kind of efforts he made to accomplish this. The Nizam of Hyderabad was renowned to be tight-fisted. Getting him to make a donation was perceived next to impossible. Armed with a steely determination, Malaviya managed to extract such a large donation from the Nizam that even today there is a Nizam Hyderabad Colony in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) where dozens of teachers and their families reside. In my eyes, the place deserves more respect than Hyderabad House in New Delhi.

In the same manner—through a mix of fighting, cajoling and persuasion—Malaviya laid the foundation of BHU. Along with donors to the university, Malaviya had to use his persuasive powers on the tallest intellectuals of India and the world. It was a unique campus where in one classroom professors from overseas taught engineering or science wearing neckties, even as their colleagues in the ancient history department donned Indian attire. Even in those days Malaviya did not forget to establish a women’s college. He had envisioned a number of women scholars such as Apala and Gargi in India’s future generations.

It wasn’t that he forgot everything else when he got busy with setting up the university. Malaviya became president of the Indian National Congress as many as four times. And he also founded the Hindu Mahasabha. That Mahasabha was very different from the Mahasabha of today. Mahatma Gandhi considered him to be his conscience-keeper and called him his elder brother on public platforms. Still, Malaviya didn’t hesitate in disagreeing with the Mahatma when it came to principles. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, when Bapu asked students to boycott schools, Malaviya publicly expressed his displeasure. Boycotting educational institutes was something Malaviya considered antithetical to the nation’s interests. “If children don’t study, how can they prepare for running the country," was Malaviya’s reasoning.

Don’t you think that callous politicians have hurt independent India more than anybody else?

Malaviya realised that Bhimrao Ambedkar was emerging as a big power in Indian politics. And his differences with Gandhi were growing. That is why the Poona Pact, signed on 24 September 1932, was modified to placate Ambedkar. Even Malaviya put his signatures on the agreement signed between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar. Had this not been signed, the British would have sowed some more seeds of conflict in the name of Dalits. Therefore, Malaviya was a real visionary.

Very few people are aware that 172 people were sentenced to be hung in the Chauri Chaura case. By then Malaviya had left legal practice owing to politics and social work. Still, he fought the case on their behalf and managed to get 153 people acquitted. He even appealed to the viceroy to stop Bhagat Singh’s death sentence. If his appeal had been accepted, it would have changed the course of politics in the country.

While we are on the subject, let me tell you about his association with the publication of Hindustan Times in Delhi along with The Leader and Abhyudaya in Allahabad. If you read about him, you’ll discover that Malaviya was aware of subjects as diverse as gender parity, a society free of discrimination, media, justice and the importance of education for a person’s awakening. And he did his bit in each of these spheres. No wonder Rabindranath Tagore honoured him with the encomium ‘Mahamana’ (a luminous mind and magnanimous heart).

Let me recount a personal experience. After studying at BHU, I began working as a journalist and was transferred to Allahabad in 1982. The city is Malaviya’s place of birth. I was surprised to note that even as ‘Mahamana’ was revered in Varanasi, most conversations in Allahabad began with the Nehru family. Was it because after Jawaharlal Nehru, his descendants stayed active in politics even as Malaviya’s children chose to pursue other professions?

Whatever might be the case, it cannot be denied that despite his immense contributions, history didn’t give ‘Mahamana’ the place that he deserved. All of us are to blame for this.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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