It was December 1909. In Lahore, the 24th session of the Indian National Congress was underway with Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya delivering the presidential address. “The Presidentship of the Congress is the highest honour that can come to any Indian,” he said, commenting that he felt unworthy of occupying the chair filled in the past by eminent men. As he began the proceedings, he offered tributes to two past Presidents ~ Mr Lalmohan Ghose and Mr Romesh Chandra Dutt. “To Mr Ghose will always belong the credit of having been the first Indian who made a strenuous endeavour to get admission into the great Parliament of England… To Mr Dutt a passionate lover of his country who united to a noble pride and deep reverence for its glorious past, a boundless faith in the possibilities of its future,” he said.
It is February 2023 and in the 85th session of the Indian National Congress in Chhattisgarh, there is no remembrance or homage to past presidents of the stature of Pt. Madan Mohan Malaviya who was a four-time President: in 1909, 1918, 1932 and 1933. Pandit Nehru referred to him as a ‘Mahapurush’ who “ever since Congress was started, had been a unique symbol of our political movements. Malaviyaji had a big role in its inception, in its making and its growth.” In its present phase, Congress is ignoring, marginalizing its unique legacies and contributions made towards nation-building over the last 137 years.
When a young Madan Mohan Malaviya attended the Calcutta session of Congress in 1886, Dadabhai Naoroji was its President. The 25-year-old youth from Allahabad spoke passionately during a session on Indian Representation and it caught attention of the stalwart President who remarked “the voice of Bharat Ma has been reflected in the voice of this youth”.
Raja Rampal Singh of Kalakankar was impressed by the young man’s oratory and clarity of thought; he offered Madan Mohan the post of editor of ‘Hindostan’, a daily newspaper being published by him. From 1887- 1889, as editor he wrote prolifically, rousing readers to take up national causes. From 1889 to 1892, Madan Mohan completed his law studies and began his practice, first at the district court and by 1893 he had moved to Allahabad High Court.
A lesser-known facet of Pt Malaviya’s life is his commitment to journalism and ability to write on subjects of national and international importance. Even when his legal practice grew, he continued editing dailies and contributing to magazines. In 1907, the publication of ‘Abhyuday’ commenced, followed by ‘Leader’ in 1909.
With the Indian National Congress, Pt Malaviya’s association grew with every passing year. In 1901, he was chosen as the Vice Chairman of Allahabad Municipality; in 1903, he was appointed member of the Provincial Council (a post he held until 1912). Though he was raising issues concerning freedom and rights of Indian public, his firm opinions were not opposed even by British officials.
By 1904, Pt. Malaviya was working on his dream project ~ the establishment of a Hindu University. He presented his plans to Kashi Naresh Prabhu Narayan Singh and by January 1906, the proposal for the establishment was approved in a convention of the Sanatana Dharma Sabha.
In 1910, he was chosen as a member of the Imperial Legislative Council, the august body where he remained till 1920 working alongside some of the richest, wealthiest, and most powerful Indians of the time. In 1911, with the formation of the Hindu University Society in November, Pt. Malaviya quit his legal practice and devoted himself to the project of establishing the Banaras Hindu University. It became his life’s mission, and despite his involvement in political agitations like the Home Rule Movement, the foundation stone of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was laid on 4 February 1916.
To make his dream project a reality, Pt. Malaviya spared no efforts; he utilized his network to reach out to heads of Princely States, wealthy traders and businessmen, landowners, and common people of India to contribute towards the establishment of the ‘Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya’. He brought Dr. Annie Besant, the great freedomfighter, on board, along with Raja Rameshwar Singh, several Maharajas, including the Nizam of Hyderabad and Maharana of Udaipur, who contributed handsomely to the cause of education, nationalism and national pride which Pt. Malaviya had roused through this project.
Sir Harcourt Butler introduced the Banaras Hindu University Bill in March 1915. Pt. Malaviya, in his address, said, “It (the University) will not promote narrow sectarianism but a broad liberation of mind and a religious spirit which will promote brotherly feeling between man and man. Unfortunately, we are all aware that the absence of sectarian religious Universities, the absence of any compulsory religious education in our State Universities, has not prevented the growth of sectarian feeling in the country. 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.” Around this time Pt. Malaviya was reverentially addressed as ‘Mahamana’, a man with a big generous heart, by both Gurudev Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
In 2023, visitors to BHU can benefit from a large exhibition at the Malaviya Centre for Ethics and Human Values highlighting the glorious history of BHU. The exhibition is utilizing visual resources, documents, and letters of the Pt. Malaviya Archives. Said Dr Dhrub Kumar Singh of the Department of History, “we want students from all disciplines to be aware of BHU’s history and the contribution of the Mahamana.” The exhibition will travel across the sprawling campus giving students and visitors a glimpse of BHU’s past and how the modern progressive vision of the Mahamana became a reality in a city considered to be the oldest, most ancient in the world. Adding new perspectives to timelines of history is Dr Ajay Pratap of Department of History. An ethno-archaeologist he has, since 2009, been leading teams of archaeologists, ethnographers, social anthropologists into Mirzapur district and Sone Bhadra valley. Dr Pratap revealed, “We have been studying, documenting pre-historic painted rock art in the north Vindhyan region. It takes us back to 10,000 BCE or 13,000 BCE,” he explained, “along rivers, streams and waterfalls, innumerable human settlements were present here. The painted rock art is a unique source of history not merely the origins of art as practiced by our pre-historic brethren.”
Across scrublands and rocky landscapes, human life evolved; a pastoral economy grew and spread across the alluvial plains. Till date in villages and urban centres of the Gangetic plain one can witness rearing of cows, buffaloes, cattle, living off forest resources, fishing and hunting.
These became a way of life, seemingly unchanging and timeless. Allahabad University and BHU archaeologists, historians have spent decades unearthing, discovering origins of agriculture and pastoral life in a vast region covering several districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand.
Dr Pratap and his team are raising awareness on preserving these distinctive pre-historic sites of world heritage spread across the Vindhya ranges. Just as the Mahamana laid foundations of modern education in age-old Varanasi to decisively shape India’s future, the preservation of pre-historic human settlements holds a similar promise: of bridging our globalizing future to an ancient past, adding immense value to our knowledge of human evolution. When political classes demonstrate their inability to respect the past, heritage often seems to be losing its edge.
When the iconic status of the Mahamana, his pioneering work and contributions to humanity are not acknowledged, it could be pessimistically read as a national loss. A redemption of sorts was found in the words of a security guard at the Malaviya Bhavan on BHU campus, when he said to a visitor, “Come at any time, we live here to serve Malaviya ji.”
Undoubtedly, cultural-social legacies of Mahamana Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya continue to live, at the grassroot levels where he worked, and at the highest echelons of academia whose foundations he laid 107 years ago.
(The writer is a researcher on history and heritage, and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya)