The Bharat Ratna has always been a political award and this year was no different. The Modi government has conferred India’s highest civilian award on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya. Vajpayee was, of course, the first prime minster from the Bharatiya Janata Party and easily the party’s tallest leader. Born more than 150 years ago, Malaviya’s link with the BJP and its ideology is somewhat less known.

Madan Mohan Malaviya was born in Allahabad in a Brahmin family highly respected for its learning and knowledge of Hindu scriptures. Financial circumstances forced him to take up a job as an English teacher in a local school after graduating from his BA. From these humble beginnings, Malaviya was able to branch out into a somewhat bewildering number of fields and leave his mark on them.

He started his political career in 1886 with a widely appreciated address to the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. Malaviya would go on to become one of the most powerful political leaders of his time, managing to be chosen Congress president on four occasions. Impressed by Malaviya’s 1886 address, an Awadh taluqadar, Raja Rampal Singh, offered him the editorship of his Hindi newspaper, Hindustani. Later on, Malaviya would go on to rescue the Hindustan Times from financial ruin and launch its Hindi edition. He would serve as the Hindustan Times’ chairman for more than 20 years, building it up to be the foremost nationalist newspaper of its time.

Linguistic politics

In spite of his achievements in politics and journalism, maybe Malaviya’s greatest impact lies in the sphere of language. The late 1800s saw mobilisation around the issue of Hindi and Urdu ‒ till then, the courts and bureaucracy of the Raj used Urdu written in the Persian script as the official language. Malaviya submitted his famous Memorandum (“Court Character and Primary Education in North-Western Provinces and Oudh”) to the Lt Governor of what is now Uttar Pradesh. The Memorandum was masterfully framed and was one of the principal arguments which convinced the British Raj to pass an order in 1900 which permitted the use of Nagari characters alongside Persian in the courts of the North-Western Provinces.

While his overall achievements are obviously a factor, the primary reason this BJP government feels the need to honour Malaviya is of course his contribution to the Hindu nationalist cause. Malaviya was a staunch conservative, both socially and politically. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Independent India’s first woman cabinet minister) writes that Malaviya “would never take food or drink from the hands of anybody other than a Brahmin of his own caste”. He helped set up a Hindu university in Banaras which along with “Aligarh Moslem University” would produce men “true to their God, their King and their country”. As the reference to the King shows, politically, Malaviya believed in constitutionalism and was one of the few major Congress leaders to oppose Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Carrying on with this strand of thought, the party Malaviya founded, the Hindu Mahasabha did not participate in the Quit India movement of 1942.

Malaviya’s position on the integration of Dalits in order to prevent their conversion to other religions, formed the basis of how the Hindu Right saw this issue and is played out till today in instances like the Shivpuri conversions and the fact that the Indian state takes away “scheduled caste” status from any person who converts away from Hinduism. Malaviya also played an important role in introducing the concept of “reconversion” to Hinduism, an issue which seems to be on the top of the Sangh Parivar’s agenda today. A fear of reduced Hindu numbers ‒ a pet peeve of today’s Hindutva supporters ‒ drove his thinking on “reconversion”.  Presiding over a Hindu Mahasabha convention in 1932, Malaviya argued: “When now we are so badly treated with a numerical strength of 22 crores, what would be our condition in future with a much reduced Hindu population, if we allow this rate of conversion from Hinduism and do not allow reconversion into Hinduism?”

Muscular Hinduism

Malaviya also championed a muscular Hindu identity which often jostled violently for space with urban India’s Muslim minority. In Allahabad, the annual Ram Lila procession was organised by the Malaviya family. In the fractious politics of North India, this procession would often trigger off communal violence, the immediate catalyst being music being played outside mosques. When the British demanded that the procession stop playing music whenever it passed outside a mosque, Malaviya refused, arguing that this would make it a “mourning procession, not a Ram Dal”. As a result, the British banned the Ram Lila procession in Allahabad and it was only resurrected in 1937 when a Congress government came to power in UP under the 1935 Government of India Act.

Organisationally, Malaviya also had a seminal role to play in the Hindu nationalist movement. He set up the Hindu Samaj in 1880 in reaction to what he thought were Christian missionary attempts to stop the annual Magh Mela. But of course, his biggest contribution was the setting up of the Hindu Mahasabha along with Lala Lajpat Rai in 1915. The Mahasabha was the largest Hindu nationalist party in British India. Mahasabha leaders such as Savarkar played a key role in crystallising Hindu nationalist thought and one of the party’s tallest leaders, Syama Prasad Mookerjee would go on to found the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the ruling BJP today.

Given how Malaviya contributed, both ideologically and organisationally, to the Hindu nationalist cause, it is not surprising that the BJP now seeks to honour him with a Bharat Ratna.