Thursday 4 August 2011

Lala Lajpat Rai: The Lion of The Punjab

‘No man is truly great only in his life-time. The test of greatness is the page of history’, wrote William Hazlitt.   Lala Lajpat Rai emerges as a giant among historic personages who have carved a niche in the hearts of Indians.
When Socrates was served hemlock, Bruno burnt at the stake or Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) given lathi blows, the context was more or less the same.  They had defied authority, upheld truth and refused to bow before the tyrant.
It is the leaven of sacrifice that ferments and keeps alive the national spirit.  More so when a subject nation is engaged in breaking the shackles of an imperialist regime.  The odour of sacrifice is explosive--it produces death-defying heroes.
When courage and integrity withstand oppression, history is the natural offshoot.  The kinetics of nationalism are moved by the fuel of sweat and blood.  Lala Lajpat Rai who belonged to the famous trio --Bal, Pal, Lal, was one such nationalist who offered his life as an oblation in the yajna of India’s struggle for freedom.  His motto was service and sacrifice, his creed patriotism and his ultimate goal, the attainment of Swaraj.
Born on January 28, 1865, at Dhudike, a small village in District Moga of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai was a precocious child with a frail body.  The courageous outlook of his father, Munshi Radha Kishan, an Urdu and Persian teacher in a government school, the nobility and forbearance of his mother, Gulab Devi, the rationalism of Brahmo Samaj which he joined in 1881 under the leadership of Pandit Shiv Narain Agnihotri (1850-1929), the writings of Italian nationalists, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), and the socio-religious upsurge of the 19th  century India, went into the making of his personality.
The turning point in his life was his contact with Pandit Guru Datt Vidyarthi and Lala Hans Raj at the Government College, Lahore.  It was under their influence that he joined the Arya Samaj (1882) which was bubbling with the spirit of nationalism, democracy and social reform.
In subsequent years, Lala emerged as a prominent leader of the Arya Samaj and spearheaded the movement for social reconstruction by opposing caste, untouchability, ritualism and gender inequality, by reviving the Vedic tradition, and by establishing orphanages, hospitals and a network of educational institutions, both for boys and girls, the most important among them being, Dayananda Anglo Vedic College, Lahore (1886).
Despite ill health and pecuniary crisis at home, Lala Lajpat Rai passed the first Certificate of Law examination from Punjab University in 1883 and obtained the licence to practise as Mukhtar.  Three years later, he passed the Pleaders’ Examination and started legal practice at Hissar before shifting to Lahore in 1892 where he gained much reputation.
Lajpat Rai’s ‘Open Letters’ to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1888) in The Kohinoor, an Urdu weekly of Lahore, criticising the Muslim leader for his insular approach to the communal question and his withdrawal from the Indian National Congress, marked his entry into politics. 
Allen Octavian Hume (1829-1912), founder of the Congress, was so much impressed that he translated them into English. At the Allahabad session (1888) of the Congress, Lajpat Rai was given the honour of vindicating the resolution which favoured the expansion of central and provincial councils. 
In the following year, this time at the Bombay session he supported the resolution for an increased representation to Indians in the legislative councils. 
He actively took part in the Lahore sessions (1893 and 1900), but disapproved of the political mendicancy of the Congress and its subservience to an alien regime.  Due to his political sagacity, he was deputed along with Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915), to place the grievances of Indians before the British public opinion in 1905.  He returned dissatisfied after six months as he felt that it was foolishness to expect benevolence from an imperialist nation.
Lajpat Rai vociferously opposed the partition of Bengal (1905) on communal lines and spearheaded the Swadeshi movement in Punjab in 1906.  During the agrarian unrest in Punjab (1907), he along with Sardar Ajit Singh (d.1947), was unlawfully deported to Mandalay (Burma) and released after six months. 
Lord Minto wrote to the Secretary of State in this respect: ‘Lajpat Rai is undoubtedly, a man of high character and very much respected by his fellow countrymen, and if when I was asked to arrest him I had known what I do now, I would have required much more evidence before agreeing’.
The deportation and release of Lajpat Rai exposed the whims of the British bureaucracy.  His popularity increased and he came to be described as, the “Lion of Punjab”.  The extremist wing of the Congress wanted him to contest the election for its presidentship at the Surat session in 1907, but sensing opposition from some quarters he withdrew his name and tried to bring about unity in the party.  But his efforts ended in vain and the Congress suffered a split. 
Although Lajpat Rai accepted the Congress creed at its Allahabad session in 1908, he regarded the expulsion of extremists as a miscalculated step that was sure to rob the organisation of its representative character.  For some years, he did not take much interest in the Congress politics and devoted his time to social and educational work. The miserable plight of         Indian nonviolent crusaders, Satyagrahis, in South Africa attracted Lajpat Rai’s attention, and at the Congress sessions in Bihar (1912) and Karachi (1913), he expressed concern for their welfare.  On the appeal of Gopal Krishna Gokhale he collected money from the Punjab to promote their cause.
In 1914 Lajpat Rai went to England, again as a member of the Congress delegation to present the party’s views on constitutional matters. During World War I, his activities were restricted by the British government. So he moved to Japan and then to the United States where he lived virtually as an exile for about five years. 
During this period, he continued to promote the cause of India’s freedom by informing Americans about the inhumanity of the British rule, by keeping in touch with the Indian revolutionaries abroad, by setting up Indian Labourer’s Association and Indian Information Bureau in New York, by forming Indian Home Rule League  of America, and by publishing a number of books and pamphlets like England’s Debt to India (1917), Political Future of India (1919), Problem of National Education in India, and Unhappy India, being a reply to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1928).
Some of his earlier works  like the biographies of Mazzini, Garibaldi and Shivaji were dubbed by the Punjab Government as seditious since they emphasised the hazards of a foreign rule and the need for gaining freedom at all costs.
When Lajpat Rai returned to India on February 20, 1920, he was presented, ‘Addresses of Welcome’ at Bombay, Delhi, Lahore and many other places, and was asked to preside over the special session of the Congress at Calcutta to chalk out the future course of action after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (1919). Although he was sceptical of the efficacy of non-co-operation as a political weapon, he supported Mahatma Gandhi’s resolution on Non-cooperation at the Nagpur session (1920).  He actively participated in the Non-cooperation movement, having been arrested twice--on December 3, 1921 and January 31, 1922. 
The sudden suspension of the movement after a violent incident at Chauri Chaura near Gorakhpur (U.P.) on February 4, 1922, annoyed him, and for sometime he joined the Swaraj Party (founded 1922) of Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925) and Motilal Nehru (1861-1931). He was elected the Deputy Leader in the Central Legislature in 1925.  However, due to ideological differences, he broke away from it and collaborated with Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946) to form the Congress Nationalist Party which achieved commendable electoral success.  He also espoused the Hindu cause through the forum of Hindu Mahasabha. When the all-white Simon Commission came to India, Lajpat Rai led a black flag demonstration against it at Lahore on October 17, 1928.  The peaceful procession was lathi-charged.
Lajpat Rai received several blows on his chest and had to be removed from the scene in a serious condition. At a mammoth public gathering the same evening outside Mori Gate, Lahore, he thundered, in spite of excruciating pain.
‘I want to say from this platform that every blow that was hurled at us this afternoon was a nail in the coffin of the British Empire.... I wish to warn the government that if a violent revolution takes place in the country, the responsibility of bringing it about will fall on such officers as misbehaved themselves....I would not wonder if the young men were to go out of our hands and do whatever they choose with the object of gaining the freedom of our country.  I do not know whether I shall be alive to see that day.  But whether alive or dead if that day is forced on them by the government, my spirit from behind will bless them for their struggle’.
This was the last roar of the wounded lion who succumbed to his injuries on November 17, 1928.  His death was mourned by all and goaded revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev to lay down their lives at the altar of freedom.
To Lajpat Rai, patriotism was not a frenzied outburst of emotion but a life-time dedication.  He was the first Indian nationalist to examine the applicability of socialistic ideas to the Indian situation. 
He showed great concern for the welfare of the depressed castes and classes, workers and peasants and other subaltern groups.  He regarded militarism and imperialism as the twin children of capitalism which supported each other.  But he realised that capital and labour in India must go side by side to ensure socio-economic development. Lajpat Rai presided over the first Indian Trade Union Congress at Bombay in 1920 and was one of its founder members.  In 1926, he represented Indian labourers at the 8th International Labour Conference held in Geneva, and created great impression.
Lajpat Rai founded three papers--the Punjabee, Bande Matram and The People, besides publishing a number of books and tracts, instituted the Tilak School of Politics, promoted the growth of Punjab National Bank and sponsored the Lakshmi Insurance Company.  His contribution to the domain of education was immense. D.A.V. College, Lahore and National College, Lahore which grew under his care and patronage became the nurseries of intellectuals, reformers and revolutionaries.  Dwarka Das Library, in Chandigarh and Gulab Devi Hospital, Jalandhar, are  the two living monuments for his work and vision.
‘No man is truly great only in his life-time. The test of greatness is the page of history’, wrote William Hazlitt.   Lala Lajpat Rai emerges as a giant among historic personages who have carved a niche in the hearts of Indians.
Article by : Dr. Satish K. Kapoor
Source: Bhavan's Journal 30 November 2009
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