One of the legendary triumvirate – Lal-Bal-Pal ( Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal) of India’s freedom movement against the British colonial rule, Lala Lajpat Rai was a multi-faceted personality and led a life of ceaseless activity dedicated to a self-less service to the nation.
Born in an educated Aggarwal family of Punjab, he studied in Rewari and later in Lahore, capital of undivided Punjab. He was drawn into one of the most creative movements of revitalization of 19th century India, Arya Samaj, founded and led by Swami Dayanand Saraswati. Later on, he set up a Dayanand Anglo-Vedic school in Lahore.
Lajpat Rai belonged to that period of our history, when people like Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal had come to see the basic faults in the “Moderate” politics – what they called “political mendicancy” and the inadequacies of gradual constitutional progress. As venerable, R.C. Mazumdar, the doyen of Indian historians explains, “The ideals of new nationalism preached by its high priests like Tilak, Arabinda and Lajpat Rai assumed concrete shape, which may be regarded as the precursor of the Civil Disobedience Movement of Mahatma Gandhi”. He realized that “the British people were indifferent to Indian affairs and the British press was not willing to champion Indian aspirations” as some Moderates believed.
As early as 1897, he had founded the Hindu Relief Movement to provide help to the famine -stricken people and thus preventing them falling into the clutches of the missionaries.
In the two articles he wrote for the Kayastha Samachar (1901), he called for technical education and industrial self-help. In the wake of the Swadeshi movement (anti-partition of Bengal. 1905-8), when “the idea of a national education caught the imagination of the whole of India”, it was Lajpat Rai and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who “propagated the idea”. He went to set up the National College in Lahore, where Bhagat Singh studied. When the agitation against an increased irrigation rates and higher land-revenue began in Punjab, it was led by the Indian Patriots Association led by Ajit Singh (uncle of Bhagat Singh) and Lajpat Rai would often address their meetings.
As one contemporary British report pointed out, “The head and centre of the entire movement is Lala Lajpat Rai, a Khatri pleader— he is a revolutionary and a political enthusiast who is inspired by the most intense hatred of the British government”.
For his growing involvement in the freedom movement, he was given the toughest prison sentences in far away Mandalay (now Myanmar) in 1907 without trial. He also led the protest against the horrendous massacre of Jalianwalla Bagh.
He visited USA and Japan where he kept in touch with the Indian revolutionaries. In England, he also became a member of the British Labour party.
In recognition of his outstanding role in the freedom movement, he was elected President of the Indian National Congress at the Calcutta session (1920).
As he took much interest in the condition of the working class people, he was also elected as the President of the All India Trade Union Congress.
Lajpat Rai called for “highest devotion and the greatest sacrifice from us” and “our first want, then, is to raise our patriotism to the level of religion, and to aspire to live or die for it”.
He has been seen as “a champion of moral courage than of physical courage” and was aware of the basic problems of the society
Taking lessons from India’s millennium old civilizational problems, and learning the correct message from the politics of communal separatism being voiced since long by the likes of Sir Syed Ahmad and his movement, Khilfatists and the Pan Islamists which were taken forward by the Muslim League camp, he was one of the few leaders who realized the difficulties of an united anti-colonial struggle. He stressed the need for unity in the Hindu society first and thus get ready for the struggle against the British. That is why, he was actively associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, which had leaders like Madan Mohan Malaviya, and realized that the larger national interest was being sidetracked.
He had also clearly set out an agenda for socio-cultural resurgence through Hindi and Nagri script, text-books on India’s indigenous cultural heritage ( much of which were lying in ruins), propagation of Sanskrit literature, shuddhi movement of those whose ancestors were Hindus earlier, and protested against British government’s favouritism to non-Hindus.
Gifted with a perceptive mind, he was a prolific writer and authored several works like – “Unhappy India”, “Young India: An Interpretation”, “History of Arya Samaj”, “England’s Debt to India” and a series of popular biographies on Mazzini, Garibaldi and Swami Dayanand. As a visionary and man with a mission, he founded the Punjab National Bank, the Lakshmi Insurance Company and the Servants of the Peoples Society at Lahore.
A mass leader, he led from the front. While leading a protest march against the all-White Simon Commission in Lahore, he was brutally assaulted by the British authorities and was seriously injured which caused the untimely death of this towering freedom fighter in Lahore on 17 November 1928. It was to avenge this brutality, that Bhagat Singh took up arms along with and paid the ultimate price.
One may end this short essay by asking as to why Lahore which was indeed such a culturally and politically advanced city suffered a decline later on.
*Dr Saradindu Mukherji, currently a Member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), has taught Modern History at the University of Delhi. Formerly a Post-Doc Research Scholar at the University of London and a Charles Wallace Visiting Fellow at the University of Hull (U.K). He has written several books/articles on historical/contemporary issues
The views expressed in the article are personal.
Courtesy : PIB