Lala Lajpat Rai, son of the soil

Salma Mahmud recalls a controversial Punjabi patriot’s life and works

Last year, on July 17, 2009, the Gulab Devi Hospital in Lahore celebrated its platinum jubilee, and recalled the establishment of the Gulab Devi Memorial Trust in 1927 by the renowned Punjabi patriot Lala Lajpat Rai. The trust was founded by Lalaji in memory of his mother Gulab Devi, who died of tuberculosis in Lahore. The building was finally completed in 1934, seven years after Lalaji’s death, and was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. It remains today as one of the very few TB hospitals in Pakistan, providing an invaluable service to those who suffer from ‘the white scourge’, which is today curable, given the right treatment at the right time.

A third of the world’s population is thought to be infected with Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, or TB, and new infections occur at the rate of about one per second. This dread disease has been present in humans since antiquity, and records of it exist from Neolithic times onwards. 95% of the cases reported today occur in the developing world, and diagnosis relies on radiology, a tuberculin skin test, blood tests, as well as microscopic examination and the microbiological culture of bodily fluids. Treatment is difficult and requires long courses of multiple antibiotics. For all of this, free hospitals like Gulab Devi are invaluable, and Lala Lajpat Rai’s contribution to the welfare of his fellow Punjabis in this regard is beyond compare. It is of course also a tribute to the memory of his beloved mother, who must have died in great agony, and who is said to have inculcated strict moral values in her children.

Lalaji, known as the Lion of the Punjab, as well as Punjab Kesari, the Caesar of the Punjab, was born in 1865 to an Aggarwal trading family in Dhudike village, Moga district. His father was a teacher, and he received his education until his Entrance Examination in places where his father was posted. In 1880 he joined the Government College, Lahore, to study law, and it was at college that he came into contact with several patriots and future freedom fighters like Lala Hansraj and Pandit Guru Dutt, and with them he joined the Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dayananda. By 1885 he had passed his Vakilship Examination and began to practice law in Rohtak and then Hissar. In 1892 he shifted to Lahore. At this time the Arya Samaj split into two factions, one that wanted English excluded from the school curriculum, and the other that was in favour of English being taught. Lalaji supported the latter faction, but was instrumental in healing the rift within the party.

His father, Munshi Radha Kishan Azad, was somewhat skeptical about the beliefs and philosophy of Hinduism at one stage of his life, and converted to Islam, according to one of the biographical entries on Lalaji available on the internet. Later his father re-converted, and quite naturally this act had a lasting impact on Lalaji’s mind, adversely affecting his religious attitudes. He was known as a comparatively fanatic Hindu, forming part of the extreme faction of the Congress party. He, along with two other committed patriots, Lokmaniya Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, was part of a triumvirate called Lal-Bal-Pal, and their views were extreme as compared to the more moderate members of the party. Lalaji also joined the Hindu Mahasabha, now called the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP.

Apart from these beliefs, we must also examine Lalaji’s committment to the Shuddhi Movement, which gained a certain measure of popularity during the early part of the last century. Today the RSS are great advocates of this belief. This socio-political movement, derived from the ancient rite of shuddhikaran or purification, was started by the Arya Samaj, and its founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati. Shuddhi had a social reform agenda behind its belligerent beliefs, as it allegedly aimed at abolishing the practice of untouchability by converting outcasts from other religions to Hinduism and integrating them into the mainstream community. Coming from a religion that believed in untouchability, this was a very peculiar stance.

The Arya Shuddhi movement provoked Muslim leaders to launch Tablighi and missionary initiatives. On the other hand, by 1908, Arya missionaries began touring eastern Rajputana, calling upon Muslims there, especially the Malkana Rajputs, to renounce Islam, which the missionaries said had been forced upon their ancestors. By the end of 1927 some 163,000 Muslims are said to have been brought back into the Hindu fold. The Shuddhi Movement was involved with Sangathan as well, which advocated the consolidation and militarization of all Hindus. However, the movement eventually petered out, although today, as mentioned previously, parties such as the RSS are strong advocates of its tenets.

Much of Lalaji’s attitudes towards Indian Muslims and Islam can be understood after a study of the twelve articles written by him in 1924 entitled: The Hindu-Muslim Problem.  ‘The Hindu-Muslim Problem Is The Problem Of India’ is the first of these articles. ‘Religion Must Be Rationalised As Much As Possible’ is the title of the third article. Here, as in other places, Lalaji states his firm belief that Hinduism is the most tolerant of all religions. His innate distaste for the basic beliefs of Islam is made evident, and here he reveals his lack of understanding of the true teachings of this religion. However, his criticism of the Khilafat Movement is rational, especially when he states that Muslims outside the subcontinent exhibited little or no interest in it. He also objects to the vast sums of money collected to support the movement, while Indian Muslims spent little or no money on local causes. What happened to all that money is a question he asks, and this is indeed a valid query. Lalaji also expressed great distress over the bloody communal massacres that had already begun to take place on a regular basis at that time.

He is firm about his belief that each Indian must place his country first, and his religion second if independence from colonial rule was to be achieved. Here again there is a basic contradiction evident, coming from a man with his belligerent stance on militant Hinduism. However, there is no doubt about his sincere support of the concept of Swaraj, or self-rule, advocated by Mahatma Gandhi, a leader with whom he did not agree on other basic concepts.

In the final analysis one must concede that Lalaji was indeed a sincere patriot, committed to the cause of freeing India from colonial rule, and in this regard, despite his membership of the Mahasabha, he fought valiantly as a leader in the Punjab in protests against the Jalianwala Bagh massacre, and also led the non-cooperation movement in the province. He went to jail on several occasions as a result of his many protests. His final fight was against the establishment of the Simon Commission, and this led to his death in 1928.

The Simon Commission’s official name was the Indian Statutory Commission, whose chairman was Sir John Simon, and it consisted of a group of seven British members of Parliament, dispatched to India in 1927 to study constitutional reform in that colony. The people of India were outraged and insulted that a body that was to determine the future of India, did not include a single Indian member in it. The Indian National Congress resolved in December of 1927 to boycott the Commission and challenge Lord Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India, to draft a constitution that would be acceptable to the Indian populace. A faction of the Muslim League, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, also decided to boycott the Commission.

The Commission eventually arrived in India in February of 1928, and was confronted by throngs of demonstrators carrying black flags. The entire country observed a hartal, and protests were held in all major Indian cities. On October 30 the Commission arrived in Lahore, where it was met with a huge number of protestors. Lala Lajpat Rai, who had moved a resolution against the Commission in the Punjab Legislative Assembly earlier in the month, led the demonstration. To make way for the Commission, the local police began to lathi charge the protestors, and were especially brutal towards Lalaji, beating him mercilessly on his head. He was hospitalized and succumbed to his injuries two weeks later, after suffering a heart attack. The entire country was overwhelmed and appalled.

The eventual aftermath of this tragic event among other factors as well, was a succumbing to Indian sentiments by the British government, who in 1930, stated that Indian opinion would henceforth be taken into account, and that India would be granted dominion status. This was the first step towards granting the country its independence.

Apart from his heroic political activities, Lalaji is also to be remembered as one of the founders of the Punjab National Bank, as well as of the Lakshmi Insurance Company. The bank, which commenced operations in 1895, has the distinction of being the first Indian bank to have been started solely with Indian capital that has survived to the present. (The Oudh Commercial Bank was started in 1881, but failed in 1958.) The founders of the Punjab National Bank included several leaders of the Swadeshi movement, such as the eminent philanthropist Dyal Singh Majithia and the unique entrepreneur Lala Harkishen Lal among many others. Lala Lajpat Rai was actively associated with the bank’s management during its early years. Today it stands proud as the second largest government owned commercial bank in India, with a presence throughout the world.

Lalaji’s brilliance as a public speaker should not be forgotten either. The art of oratory is what makes an effective politician, and Lalaji was known for his impassioned patriotism, expressed in memorable words. The scene of many of his speeches was Lahore’s legendary Bradlaugh Hall on Rattigan Road, named after Charles Bradlaugh, a socialist member of Parliament in the UK, who was a supporter of the cause of independence for India. Radical speakers such as Mazhar Ali Khan, later the distinguished Editor of The Pakistan Times, and then the Viewpoint journal, and Rajbans  Krishan, the Marxist student leader, among many others, participated in fiery debates here, filling the hearts and minds of their audiences with patriotic enthusiasm. Bradlaugh Hall stands derelict and neglected today, as do many other buildings of note in Lahore, although there is a move to have it restored and declared a national heritage centre.

The scene of Lalaji’s last speech was Gol Bagh at the end of the Lower Mall, where a statue of him with his index finger compellingly raised towards his audience, stood. After Partition many statues on the Mall were vandalized and stolen, including that of Sir Ganga Ram, to whom Lahore owes so much. His statue ended up in the parking lot of the Mayo School of Arts, from where it then disappeared. Lalaji’s statue was removed by admirers before it could meet a similar fate, and was thereby lost to the people of Lahore. However, the statue finally found a resting place in Simla, where it stands at Scandal Point on that city’s Mall. The placard at the statue’s base reads: Lala Lajpat Rai, the Great Patriot of Punjab. 1865-1928

Sic transit gloria mundi…Thus passes the glory of the world.


5 responses to “Lala Lajpat Rai, son of the soil

  1. A well researched and well worded article. A beautiful window into our past.

  2. I pay my kudos to the writer of this article. which is not only a thought-provoking one but poses a mark of shame for our wealthy industrialists in general and so called patriots in particular. They have set up some Hospitals no doubt but every body knows their motives and tactics to extill funds from the Governments from time to time for their token service to the humanity. In the garb of Zakats most of the beneficiaries play planks with the governement and public and it is a common pratice. Gulab Devi Hospital will keep on reminding us and searching our conscience that how generous and open minded we are towards our contribution to human service.

  3. Sukhdev Singh Sohal

    Lala Lajpat Rai’s life reflects changing moods and moves of his times. It shows how a brilliant Punjabi could turn Hindu politically amidst rising communal colossal. In a fit of intellectual collapse, he advocated reorganisation of the Punjab in the mid 1920s on religious grounds ,the ghost of which could never be exorcised. Lala had a noble heart for the sick and poor. He had resourses. He is remembered by the Punjabi for his social and philanthropic deeds and by the conservative Hindus for his religious convictions. He epitomises the Arya Smaj mindset in minority areas. What a fall of great Punjabi who voiced his ideas through The Panjabee and The People newspapers !

  4. hi,

    it was a nice read
    however,i just want to point out that the statemenr ‘Hindu Mahasabha,now called the BJP’ is factually incorrect…Some memebers of the Mahasabha left it to form the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, which was later re-christened as BJP….

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