In 1937, Lord Baden-Powell, the father of the international Scouting and Guiding movement, visited India. It was always going to be a somewhat controversial visit. Baden-Powell had a history of opposing Indian membership of the movement.

And when this was officially sanctioned, begrudgingly, Baden-Powell strove to keep the groups of boys segregated. This had led to the sprouting and growth of many unofficial and unsanctioned scouting organizations in India. And by the time he visited in 1937, the unofficial scouts substantially outnumbered Baden-Powell’s official “troops".

And then he made things worse. During his trip he suggested that scouting was not completely suited to India as, apparently, there was no Hindustani equivalent for the word “honour".

“I asked 2 or 3 other men what was the Hindustani for ‘Honour’ and they could only suggest ‘Izzut’," he said. But izzut, he countered, only meant prestige.

Baden-Powell could often be what many modern social scientists today call a douchebag. Obviously, numerous Indian scouts were outraged and defected from the official organization. Many were then welcomed into a new “Hindustan Scouts Association" under the aegis of one of the first home-grown scouting outfits: the Sewa Samiti Scout Association headquartered in Allahabad.

The formidable Sewa Samiti, established in 1918, was an inspired, yet pragmatic combination: the finest concepts of Indian nationalism melded with the highest ideals of the scouting movement. Its membership ran into several thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and the scouts did some of their finest work during Kumbh Mela and other pilgrimages to Allahabad. In many ways it was the perfect “denominational but not sectarian" institution so loved by the remarkable man behind its founding: Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Scouting might seem like a frivolous thing for a freedom fighter to be involved in. But Madan Mohan Malaviya appears to have been that sort of person: a most peculiar polymath.

All this week I’ve been browsing through a few books and articles about this most recent recipient of the Bharat Ratna. And my initial thoughts are as follows: Boss, we are all screwed.

If there is such a thing as karmic balance in the cosmos, then India has used up several generations worth of political leadership, intellectual sophistication and meaningful political rhetoric in the run-up to Indian independence. We exhausted dozens of intellectual titans through the first half of the 19th century at a slow rate of burn, and then used up the rest in a blazing conflagration of wisdom and nuance during the constitutional debates. And now we’re left with “baith jaayiye" and “haraam zaadon". Perhaps a fresh quota of political wisdom will be due in 2100 or so.

The writings and speeches of Malaviya, and I have only glanced through them, are quite exceptional. In this week’s column, I’d like to focus on three pieces.

The first comes in the form of a dissent note at the end of the report of the Indian Industrial Commission 1916-1918. Malaviya was part of the 10-member commission asked to suggest ways in which “Government can usefully give direct encouragement to industrial development". In 63 pages of references and precise prose, Malaviya covers the history of Indian industry, its decline through the colonial period and areas for urgent reform. The note covers areas as diverse as shipping, technical education, banking and land acquisition. There is a section on the “Direction of Chemical Research".

Here in this one line Malaviya encapsulates India’s eternal opportunity: “Raw materials and labour abound, capital exists and only wants organising, the home market is extensive, the machinery and the expert can be imported, the profits to the Government and the people will be considerable; all that is needed is that the Government, should wholeheartedly lend and assist Indian capital in organising the industries".

That is Malaviya’s analytical brain.

Malaviya could also effortlessly wear a “socio-political" turban, as it were, with rousing effect. In 1915, when the Banaras Hindu University Bill was introduced, he said: “I believe, my Lord, instruction in the truths of religion, whether it be Hindus or Mussalmans, whether it be imparted to the students of the Benares Hindu University or of the Aligarh Moslem University, will tend to produce men who, if they are true to their religion, will be true to their God, their king and their country. And I look forward to the time when the students who will pass out of such universities, will meet each other in a closer embrace as sons of the same motherland than they do at present."

Splendid. Now it is traditional for column writers to include a message in their year-ending piece. In order to sign off with good cheer. I will let Madan Mohan Malaviya do the honours for me this year.

In his closing words at the 1909 Congress presidential address, he wished that “under the guidance of a benign providence feelings of patriotism and brotherliness will continue to increase among Hindus, Mahomedans, Christians and Farsees, until they shall flow like a smooth but mighty river welding the people of all communities into a great and united nation, which shall realise a glorious future for India and secure to it a place of honour among the nations of the world."

Happy New Year to all readers.

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