On the Bharat Ratna, a question

If Madan Mohan Malviya can get the honour, why not Sir Syed Ahmad Khan?

Written by Rahul Ramagundam , MASROOR | Updated: December 27, 2014 12:56 pm
Madan Mohan Malviya, who will get the Bharat Ratna, was an educationist with a vision. Madan Mohan Malviya, who will get the Bharat Ratna, was an educationist with a vision.

Madan Mohan Malviya (1861-1946) has got the Bharat Ratna almost 69 years after his death. From “Mahamana” he has become a “Bharat Ratna”. Did he get India’s prestigious postcolonial civilian honour for being a proponent of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political organisation founded in 1915 to espouse the Hindu political cause, or did he get it for building an educational institution called the Banaras Hindu University (BHU)? The university was founded a year later, in 1916. There is no clarity yet from the Union cabinet’s resolution.

If “Mahamana” Malviya has been honoured for being a founding member of the Hindu Mahasabha, the government should have first chosen A.O. Hume, who founded the Indian National Congress as a “safety valve” for the British Empire. The Congress would later lead India’s struggle for freedom and achieve it, whereas the Hindu Mahasabha would only spew venom against the Congress’s all-embracing politics. The Mahasabha fuelled the fire ignited by the Muslim League, which effectively consumed the dream of keeping India united.
But if Malviya has been posthumously given the Bharat Ratna for founding the BHU, the government has only exposed itself to some criticism. If Malviya can have the Bharat Ratna, what stops Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) from receiving it? Syed Ahmad founded an educational institution that later came to be famously called the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). If Narendra Modi’s cabinet had just clubbed Syed Ahmad’s name together with Malviya’s, it would not just have been a great political coup, capping the BJP’s recent dream electoral run. It would also have silenced Modi’s critics and made him a nation-builder, erasing forever the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

“Mahamana” Malviya and Syed Ahmad began their services to their respective communities with almost the same ethos and conviction. They also faced similar issues as founders of educational institutions and worked from the same desire to modernise their tradition-bound societies. Syed Ahmad precedes Malviya in many senses, not just in their historical origins. Malviya is of a post-1857 generation, whereas Syed Ahmad not only saw the sad demise of the “old” India but also reacted constructively to it, even if it meant a complete jettisoning of tradition in favour of Western, modern education. He drew from earlier generations of reformers. The year Syed Ahmad was born in Delhi, in Calcutta, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, along with many others, founded the Hindu College. So founding institutions, educational or otherwise, under the banner of the community’s name was a norm rather than an exception. It was fuelled by a desire to assuage the aggrieved feelings of traditionalists in their communities. By naming it so, they hid their real modernising intentions a little. Syed Ahmad was the first Indian Muslim who felt the need for a fresh orientation to Islam and worked for it. He wanted Muslims to have modern education. For this, he faced a backlash from traditional elements within Muslim society.

The institution that Malviya, along with Annie Besant, founded in 1916 today has  more than 30,000 students and is a premier institution of northern and eastern India, catering to many academic disciplines. The AMU, founded in 1875, also has similar student strength. Both have large residential campuses dotted with heritage buildings. Today, the AMU has evolved into a centre of Muslim aspiration and attracts a large number of pupils from conservative and poorer Muslim families. Girls from Kerala and Kashmir find their abode in its hostels. Boys and girls, after their education in madrasas, come here for higher and modern education. The AMU’s Maulana Azad library is one of the biggest libraries in Asia. Its medieval history department produced one of India’s foremost historians in Mohammad Habib, the father of Irfan Habib, also in the same department. Some of its students have gained national prominence as political leaders.

Both educational entrepreneurs had conservative backers —  wealthy princes, feudal nawabs and taluqdars, lawyers and army professionals — for their ventures in building institutions of long standing. In early 1916, Mahatma Gandhi was speaking at a convocation of the BHU, when these very nawabs, rajas and princes, perturbed by his radical thoughts on property, staged a walkout. Gandhi had to cut short his speech, although the students gathered there encouraged him to go on. Most of these princes were never supporters of the Congress but, later on, they occupied the hallowed spaces of Parliament and became rajpramukhs.

If the AMU became the vortex of the Partition movement, it was not something designed by Syed Ahmad, just as Malviya would never have thought that the BHU would one day turn into a den of caste violence. Speaking at a meeting of the Indian Association, Syed Ahmad spoke of how Hindu and Muslim constitute the two eyes of a beautiful bride. But if Syed Ahmad did not favour the Congress or if Malviya, besides being four times president of the Congress, also chaired annual sessions of the Hindu Mahasabha, it revealed less about their political choices than their entrepreneurial conveniences.

If the Indian Railways can search for its antecedence in the 1850s, when it was established to accentuate India’s “drain of wealth”, why should Syed Ahmad’s every comment made then be taken as a discordant voice in today’s sense?

Modi, by recognising “Mahamana” Malviya, has tried to acknowledge the modernist streak of the latter. But if he had also acknowledged Syed Ahmad as a pioneering modernist by announcing his name in the recipient list of this year’s Bharat Ratna, he would have not just won a national accolade, but would have also found in Syed Ahmad an ally for his development agenda. Modi could have buttressed his development plank manifold if his advisors had brought Syed Ahmad’s contribution to his notice. But it is not yet too late. Modi has a historic opportunity to win India’s heart by playing an integrative politics, and not just go down in history as someone who squandered India’s faith in him by being divisive.

Ramagundam teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. Masroor is a doctoral research scholar, JMI

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