by Haroon Khalid
From 1900 till 1947, for almost half a century the famous Bradlaugh Hall of Lahore situated on the Rettigan road, remained a symbol of Revolution for the entire British India. Charles Bradlaugh, Lala Lajpat Rai, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Ajeet Singh, Bhagat Singh, and Jawaharlal Nehru all towering figures of their times have been associated with this hall. What should have been preserved as the museum of political revolution in Lahore lies in shambles near the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences today. There is a huge lock on the entrance of the hall placed there by The Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB). The gloomier aspect is that not many people of the city today are aware of the political, cultural and social significance of the Bradlaugh Hall. There are a few people who are actually aware of its existence.
Rettigan road in the late 19th century was occupied by massive British bungalows. This was the elite section of the town. Charles Bradlaugh, an English Parliamentarian, advocate of Indian freedom from the British yoke, bought a piece of land here. Bradlaugh unlike his fellow British conservatives belonged to a different school of thought. He was one of the most famous atheists of his time who refused to take the oath on Bible when elected in the Parliament. He was also one of those Parliamentarians who advocated that the Indian people should be allowed to choose their own fate; in the Parliament. His resolution was accepted.
In Lahore, he had earlier purchased this vast tract of land; however no hall had been constructed so far. The British Government could not appreciate his sympathy for the Indians so they initially took the contract of laying down railway tracks from him and then ordered him to leave Indian land immediately. He bought a boat, stocked food and anchored the boat on the bank of Ravi. His contestation was that since he was not on Indian ‘land’ therefore he was not disobeying the State. He was later forced to leave. In England he gathered together members of the civil society and the labor class to advocate for the cause of Indian freedom.
Surinder Nath Banarjee in 1900 after the departure of Charles Bradlaugh inaugurated this hall. He was a member of the Indian National Association which was incorporated into Congress later. From 1898-1905 he remained the President of the Indian National Congress.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to this hall came from Lala Lajpat Rai. He was born on the 28th of January 1865 in Ferozpur to Ghulab Devi. Ghulab Devi Hospital on the Ferozpur road is named after her. He joined the Government College Lahore in 1880 from where he got a degree in Law. As part of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement he founded the National College inside this Hall to impart quality education to Indians, who did not want to join British institutions. In 1928 when the Nationalists boycotted the Simon Commission there were speeches organized here against it hosted by Lala Lajpat Rai, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, and Syed Atta ullah Shah Bukhari. The National College takes us directly to Bhagat Singh and his comrades. In 1922 he joined this college where he met Sukhdev and Yashpal his future compatriots. He remained here till 1926 and his political bearings were marked by his stay here. During that juncture and even after that many plays and other cultural activists were organized here with the focus on freedom of India. Another comrade of the Naujawan Bharat Swabha Bhagat Singh’s party Shareef Mateen, an inhabitant of Lahore remained in refuge here during the case against Bhagat Singh. He was present here with party members, the parents and brother of Bhagat Singh. During the trial his parents used to sit outside the hall on a charpoy and people passing by used to acknowledge them. The British Government established a Police check-post nearby to monitor the activities of the refuge.
Bhagat Singh was brought to this college by his Uncle Ajeet Singh a prominent figure of the Gaddar Movement. In the first half of the 20th Century political activists from the Gaddar Movement, Kissan Tehrikh and Pagadi Sambhal Jutta found refuge here. In the 1920 the famous Mohan Roy founder of the All India Communist Party and member of the International Communist Manifesto gave a memorable speech here, exhorting people to stand up for their rights and fight the British Imperialism. Inder Kumar Gujral a freedom fighter and former Prime Minister of India mentions of this hall in the most reminiscing tone. He says that this is where his political journey began from, where they formed their first Student Union. They heard the revolutionary speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru and poetry of Josh Miliabadi here for the first time. They also heard here Haran Mukherjee, Dr. Muhammad Ashraf, Mian Ifthikharuddin and Dr. Saifuddin Kachlo.
When the first film studio in Lahore was setup in 1933 it was organized in fields next to the Bradlaugh Hall property of the Hall.
It is a pity that a Hall, which remained so close to the Independence of British India and a center of cultural activity for half a century, saw a complete turn of fate after the creation of Pakistan. For a little time after 1947 it was used to store food stuff after which till 1980s, it served as a steel mill. It reopened as a technical education centre, the Milli Technical Education Institute however because of a dispute between the Directors; one of them took possession of the Hall and rented it out to private academies. Finally the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) took possession of the Hall claiming to be the legal owners of the property and since 2009 it has been closed. Now it is a sanctuary for criminal activities.
It is high time that the government realizes the political and cultural significance of the Bradlaugh Hall and conserves it as a museum of Revolution. Portraits or sculptors of the various important personalities who have been related to the Hall can be put up and a short history of the movements that have sprang up from here or that have remained in focus here can be put on the walls with pictures from the movement. The Hall can be open to general public. If steps are taken in this direction the significance of this Hall would be reestablished and the waning interest of our people in the history and culture of our land can be revived.