Honoring Complex Legacies

    By conferring the highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna, on former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was president of the Indian National Congress more than once before Independence but was better known as the founder of the Banaras Hindu University, the country has recognized the contributions made by these leaders to public life and India’s political evolution.

    The decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party government is also indicative of a certain resoluteness to emphasize its own political tradition – Mr. Vajpayee was the first BJP Prime Minister of India, for 13 days in 1996, and again, from 1998 to 2004; Malaviya was among the founding leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha in the early 20th century.

    Mr. Vajpayee, now ailing, still retains appeal that cuts across political divisions because he was particularly mindful of seeking a larger consensus on national issues. As Prime Minister his tenure was eventful, marked by a war with Pakistan, a series of terror attacks including the hijacking of IC-814 and the Parliament attack, and India’s decision to go publicly nuclear. Through all this, Mr. Vajpayee’s statesmanship and his ability to demonstrate strength and large-heartedness simultaneously, only got better.

    Freedom-fighter, journalist, educationist and social activist, Malaviya belonged to the Hindu nationalist stream within the Indian National Congress. He was fiercely opposed to Congress participation in the Khilafat movement and disfavored separate electorates for different communities proposed by the British government. An important figure in the Non-Cooperation Movement, he was a delegate in the First Round Table Conference in 1930. But Malaviya’s living legacy is the BHU that he founded in 1916 in the city of Varanasi with the help and support of Annie Besant.

    Previous ‘Bharat Ratna’ awards have had their share of controversies, and accusations that many dispensations have used it to further their own political interests and negate those of opponents are not unfounded. The fact that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was conferred the Bharat Ratna only in 1990 when a government in which his followers had influence was in power is a telling example. Historical figures often leave mixed and complex legacies, and Mr. Vajpayee and Malaviya are no exceptions.

    Honoring a personality is not necessarily an endorsement of all of his politics, or being blind to his failures and shortcomings. It is also not about jettisoning disagreements in our public space. It would be unfortunate if the highest civilian award of the country becomes a matter of political disagreement rather than of collective celebration and endorsement of those who have contributed in significant measure to the making of India as a diverse and multifaceted nation. (The Hindu)

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