WHAT SORT OF ‘Satya’—truth— might Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861–1946) have had in mind when he championed ‘Satyamev Jayate’ as India’s motto at a 1918 Congress session held in Delhi some two years after he set up Banaras Hindu University (BHU)? That it’s an Upanishadic mantra, this maxim on the triumph of truth, has always been clear; ‘Na anritam’—‘not falsehood’— is what follows in the original Sanskrit text. That Mahamana (as his honorific goes) had probably meant ‘truth’ as something eternal makes itself slowly apparent in shades of haze as I marvel at the expanse of the Ganga in monsoon spate from a fifth floor balcony overlooking Assi Ghat, where the holy river of Sanatan Dharma (his preferred term) curves into its so-called dhanush (bow) or chandrakaar (crescent) towards Raj Ghat further downstream. Time, I have been warned, can go cosmic or acrobatic at short notice around here, and my quest could be at threat of being overwhelmed by whiffs of faith. In saffron-inflected times such as these, it’s all the more easy to go with the flow, as they say.
Yet, it’s unclear how fair it is to think of the founder of BHU and stalwart of India’s freedom struggle as an early Hindu nationalist. What clues could this ancient city of Kashi, his chosen site for the university, have to offer? And what could the memories of his own progeny tell us?
Some 200 km upstream lies the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna, the sangam of Allahabad, the city of Malaviya’s birth. It is also the hometown of his grandson, Justice Giridhar Malaviya, 82, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court whose father Govind Malaviya was the youngest of the patriarch’s four sons, a freedom fighter who spent several years in jail, a member of the Constituent Assembly, a Congress MP, and also vice-chancellor of BHU. As an eight-year-old, says the former judge, “My father told me, ‘Son, you’ll not be able to add any feather to the cap of your grandfather, but I’ll be only too happy if you would not in any way tarnish the image of your grandfather’.” It left him struck, he says, “And I decided to conduct my life by his principles.” He was all of 10 when his Dadaji died, but remembers him vividly as a soft-spoken person “who never spoke harshly ever in his life” and was “very firm in his determination”. As an editor of Indian Opinion and prime mover of The Leader, a publication he launched with the aid of Motilal Nehru, Malaviya held views resonant enough within the Congress to have him elected the party’s president four times during the Freedom Struggle, but there are stories aplenty of how delicately he dealt with views he disagreed with. The grandson recounts a run-in with Gopal Krishna Gokhale over an Indemnity Bill under the Raj that Malaviya thought would let British oppressors off too lightly. Gokhale, in his telling, came and placed his turban at his grandfather’s feet, pleading with him not to oppose the bill (for tactical reasons) at the Central Legislative Assembly, a gesture so heartfelt that it made him pace about the house all night. At the end, Malaviya had just one question to ask of his colleague. He’d be a traitor to his country, he felt, if he did not go against the bill, so what should he do? Oppose it, or consider himself a traitor? Gokhale had to relent.
And what of Malaviya’s differences with Gandhi? “There was no question of differences!” retorts Giridhar Malaviya. Not even on the anti-Raj protest of Chauri Chaura in 1922 that turned violent and made Gandhi call off the Non-Cooperation Movement? It was Nehru and others, he says, who asked his grandfather— who’d quit his law practice—to get back into his lawyer’s robes to defend the 173 protestors being sent to the gallows for the violence, and he not only saved 143 of them, he so impressed the judge with his argument that the latter bowed to him after the trial in a mark of honour “unknown in the history of the judiciary”.
Though yes, “There were some differences at Congress Working Committee meetings,” he admits, “But [Malaviya] never insisted on his views being followed.”
“If he had been alive, the national interest would be paramount, winning votes would be secondary” – Giridhar Malaviya, 82, grandson of Madan Mohan Malaviya
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Odd as it may sound today, Malaviya wasn’t just a staunch Congressman, he was a stout member of the Hindu Maha- sabha as well. Which of the two he is better remembered as, Giridhar Malaviya won’t say, opting instead to speak of his “slightly different” stance on various issues of that era. He wanted Hindi kept distinct from the Urdu-laden Hindustani that was commonly spoken, for example, and not only expended much effort to revive Devanagri as a script, he campaigned to have it adopted as a court language, thereby ending the dominance of Persianised Urdu in officialdom. On human relations, he adds, Malaviya was all for equality. “‘Untouchability is of recent origin,’ he used to say, ‘It’s wrong.’ ‘There are no two types of people, all must sit together and perform puja’,” he elaborates, referring to his grandfather’s initiative of having Dalits granted a mantra and welcomed into temples as devotees. “He was not dogmatic,” and while he’d be closer to Indian rightists than leftists today, in his estimation, “he was a liberal person” all the same.
That it was a BJP government that accorded Malaviya the country’s top honour, the Bharat Ratna (in 2015), doesn’t surprise Giridhar Malaviya, who was among the proposers of Narendra Modi’s name as the BJP candidate for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat in the last General Election. “Except one family, all other families that contributed to the Freedom Struggle have been sidelined,” he says, convinced that BJP is the real inheritor of Malaviya’s legacy. “He insisted that we abide by our culture… [But] the present Congress has made a departure from that.” “It has shifted,” in his view, “from its original stand on culture and minorities.” The latter were favoured by the British, he believes, while Malaviya wanted fraternity among followers of all faiths based on equal status with no privilege for anyone. Today, he doesn’t see why being “soft on minorities”, as he puts it, should be considered a “definition of democracy”. Not that he is entirely satisfied with the BJP, though: for one, the party has persisted with caste reservations, and for another, it has retained parts of the SC/ST Atrocities Act that he thinks need to be struck off. “Mahamana would never have compromised on it,” he thinks, “If he had been alive, the national interest would be paramount, winning votes would be secondary.”
“A soul is a soul is a soul, he would insist. He was against casteism and religious divides” – Rajeev Malaviya, 75, great-grandson of Madan Mohan Malaviya
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MUDDLED SOMEWHAT by what Malaviya has come to mean and riveted somehow by the Ganga’s evening hues, thoughts of the man’s other descendants leap to my aid.
Premdhar Malaviya, a former director general of police who lives in Bhopal, is another grandson. Contacted by phone, he brusquely says he wouldn’t be able to help me. But then, great-grandson Rajeev Malaviya, 75, who lives in Delhi, seems especially keen to rescue his ancestor’s memory from distortions. His father, Sridhar Malaviya—whose life was cut short by medical negligence in prison after his arrest for a Quit India protest—was the eldest son of Mahamana’s own eldest son, Ramakant Malaviya. A PhD in International Relations, Rajeev Malaviya had a long career at National Fertilizers Ltd, but says he never let anyone know of his lineage. Modesty came in the way. By the traditional line of descent, however, he is a direct heir. “My father was the executor of Mahamana’s will,” he says, displaying a copy as proof, and his mother Saraswati Malaviya, who died last year at 95, was meant to have been the sole recipient of the Bharat Ratna at first; his two uncles and an aunt were invited later, and he reveals some displeasure at what he took as Giridhar Malaviya’s pushy conduct at the ceremony. “We refused to join politics,” offers Rajeev Malaviya, though Indira Gandhi had once wanted his mother to contest the Phulpur seat in UP and him to join the party. She turned the offer down. “Feroze was a close friend of my father,” he says, showing me a family heirloom, an autograph book that has an early 40s’ signature of ‘Indira Nehru’ in Hindi.
According to Rajeev Malaviya, the role of his great-grandfather in the making of modern India can be judged by the fact that Gandhiji himself saw him as a guiding force in his life. Annie Besant, an admirer, had described Malaviya as ‘the purest specimen of classical Hinduism’; Sarojini Naidu was emphatic that he ‘did not recognise divisions between human clans and classes’; and Mahamana always lived by those ideals, says Rajeev Malaviya, touching upon how he’d gone out of his way for a Jagjivan Ram faced with caste prejudice as a student (“He asked him to stay at his house”). A soul is a soul is a soul, he would insist. “He was against casteism and religious divides,” says his great grandson, “He was not a kattar Hindu, but his legacy has been hijacked by the extreme right of Hindu society.” As for his place on the political spectrum, “He was neither a rightist nor a leftist. [Alongwith Sanskrit and other subjects] he also had Urdu and Persian taught at BHU, and the Nizam of Hyderabad also donated money for the university. Mahamana’s philosophy was to unite Indians of all religions.”
On the evidence of Malaviya’s leadership record, he was no less steadfast than Gandhi and Nehru in his idea of India as an inclusive country. “India belongs to Hindus, Muhammadans, Sikhs, Parsis and others,” he said in his call for unity at a 1913 Congress session in Kolkata, “No single community can run [roughshod] over the rest. Your hand has five fingers. If you cut off the thumb, the power of your hand will be reduced to one-tenth of its original power.” By this speech alone, one could perhaps count ‘unity in diversity’ as a crucial aspect of the truth that Malaviya envisioned for the country.
Rajeev Malaviya agrees. “All these divides are absurd!” he exclaims as he watches my eyes wander from an image of Lord Krishna that adorns his living room to settle in slight-if-needless surprise on an Arabic inscription of the Islamic Kalma above the mantelpiece (gifted by a friend “for peace in the house”).
On the evidence of Malaviya’s leadership record, he was no less steadfast than Gandhi and Nehru in his idea of India as an inclusive country
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IT TAKES A minor expedition to locate the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Banaras, the Shivling of which Malaviya had demanded all be allowed to worship (Dalits included). It’s a short walk away from Dashashwamedha Ghat—which hosts a Ganga Aarti every sundown mounted on the scale of a rock show, complete with saffron-clad devotees in raptures amid clangs of bells and cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’—and looks like the most fortified part of town. The path to Lord Shiva’s sanctum is flanked by surly cops on one side and thick vertical bars on the other as it winds round yet another ‘disputed site’ of sacred strife, the 17th century Gyanvapi Mosque now encaged for its own safety. It shouldn’t be difficult to sigh and move on, but my curiosity of the esteem in which the devout hold Malaviya stands ever more piqued.
By legend, one of Malaviya’s favourite shlokas as a Sanskrit scholar was a prayer not to die in Banaras, for that would imply Moksha, while rebirth—rather than a release from its cycle—would let him return and help people in pain. Alas, Malaviya eventually did breathe his last in this city, and the room in which he did so is now an ‘upaasna griha’ (adoration chamber) that’s part of a large memorial called Malaviya Bhawan on the BHU campus. With a plaque of the said shloka on display, it houses a yoga centre and Gita Studies hall, apart from the university museum. The aims of BHU listed include the study of Hindu Shastras and Sanskrit literature along with science and arts, the advancement of scientific research and knowledge, and character inculcation ‘by making religion and ethics an integral part of education’. In Malaviya’s own words: ‘[BHU] will not promote narrow sectarianism but broad liberation of the mind and a religious spirit which will promote brotherly feeling among man and man…. Instruction in the truth of religion, whether it be Hindu or Mussalman, whether it be imparted to students of [BHU or AMU], will tend to produce men, who, if they are true to their religion, will be true to their God, their kind, and their country.’
Upendra Pandey, 55, a Sanskrit professor who has been Malaviya Bhawan’s honorary director since 2016, offers a far more expansive story of BHU’s conception and purpose. Speaking in shudh Hindi, he describes Malaviya as an “avatarik purush ”, a divine incarnation who must have picked Kashi as his site for BHU after many years of “manthan chintan” (churnful cogitation). As Pandey sees it, BHU is a blessing from above, no less, an “Eeshwar dwaara prapt vardaan”, an institution ordained to be located at the Assi-Raj Ghat ‘bow’ for a good ‘aatmik arrow’ of the soul to be aimed at the ‘evil of kalyug’. Destiny has now assigned Modi that task, he drones on, virtually casting the Prime Minister as a yatha-yatha-yug-yug saviour by dropping a hint of that verse from the Gita. “Yeh koi vyakti nahin kar raha hai,” he assures me, “Yeh swayam prakriti kar rahi hai.” So it’s no man at work here, it’s creation itself. Just as Arjun was told by Krishna, he adds, as my eyeballs strain not to ascend. Rapt it must’ve made me look, for Pandey takes it as a cue to launch into a full-fledged sermon on our common aatma.
THE GREAT UNSEEN of Banaras is no patch on that soul. The internet. Whether or not airwave connectivity features on the Har Har Maha-development agenda of this city, nobody seems to know. My phone’s network bars blink on and off like a graphic equaliser’s, and while the local wi-fi offers respite enough for a brief webscan of what else Malaviya might have said, it’s now merely a matter of yielding to the realisation that much of what’s unknown is unknowable.
Or vice-versa, maybe—in the spirit of those wondrous words in affirmation of the truth and rejection of what’s false.
Awakening to the sound of a riverside raga rousing all of Assi Ghat up at dawn, my grasp of Malaviya’s interpretation of India’s motto remains exasperatingly nebulous—except that it’s meant to be universal, the truth.