Lala Lajpat Rai : The Lion of Punjab

Lala Lajpat Rai

Lala Lajpat Rai, also known as the “Lion of Punjab,” was a prominent leader of the Indian independence movement during the British Raj. He was a political activist, lawyer, and writer who fought for the rights of Indians and worked tirelessly to end British rule in India.

“Bhagat Singh didn’t turn out famous due to his attitude of terrorism, but due to indicating negation and refuting the honour of Lala Lajpat Rai, and by way of him of the nation”, wrote JawaharLal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. Lala Lajpat Rai didn’t simply had great strength of conviction, he acted on his principles. He did not believe in the methods adopted by Gandhiji. When the latter was preaching the theory of gaining independence through Ahimsa Lajpat Rai suggested that if it failed, India should adopt other methods. That’s what Gandhi had to do in the last movement for independence in 1942.

Lala Lajpat Rai

Lala Lajpat Rai

Lala Lajpat Rai believed in the consolidation of the masses at a moral level. He wrote, “A people morally high, alive to a sense of responsibility self sacrificing and ready to suffer for principle and for causes can raise institutions but a people morally degraded, dead to a sense of honour, devoid of a spirit of comradeship, of courtesy and loyalty to friends and co-workers, always ready to compromise and temporize, ready to change their principles in every emergency cannot in the long run serve institutions. Institutions cannot instill life, cannot be source of inspiration, unless led by men of life and spirit.”

Early Life and Education

Lala Lajpat Rai was born on January 28, 1865, in Dhudike, Punjab, India. He was the eldest son of Munshi Radha Kishan Azad and Gulab Devi. He received his early education at the Government High School in Hissar, where he excelled academically and was known for his intelligence and leadership skills. After completing his education, Lajpat Rai decided to become a lawyer, and in 1886, he passed the law exam and began practicing in Hissar. He quickly gained a reputation as a skilled lawyer, and soon became one of the most respected legal minds in the region.

Lala Lajpat Rai Political Career

Lalaji became active in politics at a time when the British had firm roots in this country and Great Britain ruled the waves. To oppose such a great ruler was an act of great courage. It was during this period that Tilak became impatient with the policy of the moderates headed by Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Tilak was a militant rather a revolutionary. That is why Lalaji came close to him. Tilak had declared “Swaraj is my Birthright and I shall have it”. Lajpat Rai never surrendered before the British hegemony and was known as ‘Punjab Kesari’ the lion of Punjab.

Lajpat Rai Letter

Indian National Congress

In 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed not by an Indian but by A.O. Hume, a British national. Its aim was to bring together the middle class educated young men having national views to be satisfied with the constitutional method of requesting the government for certain reforms. It meant the subjugation of revolutionary spirit. Lalaji felt that it was just a safety valve for the British to subdue militancy that always springs from the middle classes. Still he joined the Congress and served it in one capacity or the other for 40 years. Like Tilak he too tried his best to give the movement a new vision a new approach. One may call it extremism or revolutionary. During his stay in congress he earned his well known title because of his  fiery speeches and because of his strong convictions. He was said to be the most powerful man in Punjab after the eighteenth century icon Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Lajpat Rai was born in village Dhudike in Ferozepur district in Punjab on January 28, 1865. His father Munshi Radha Kishan Azad was a school teacher. His mother Gulab Devi was illiterate, but gave great moral support to her son. When he fell in bad company she was very strict and stopped him gambling. His father too was a great moralist. Lajpat Rai considered him as his first teacher. He used to say his father never taught but helped students to learn their own way. He had a great interest in studying latest books. The habit was imbibed by Lajpat Rai too. His father had a great will that India gets freedom. He loved the people of his country immensely. But he had a bit of Islamic leanings, as he was a great scholar of Urdu and Persian. This created a sense of unity in Lajpat Rai’s mind. He later on opposed caste system and untouchability. Of course he learnt the same ideals from the teachings of Swami Dayanand when he came in touch with Arya Samaj.

Munshi Radha Kishan was often transferred from one school to another in another village. Thus he would send his wife to her parents, as with his limited means he could not take the family with him. Obviously the family lived frugally. This created a sense of disregard for material wealth and personal comforts in the life of Lajpat Rai. It had a lifelong effect on him. He had learnt to live in contentment and simplicity. He would just sacrifice all his earnings sharing all his wealth with others. This paid dividends in his later life when he became engrossed in political and social activities. With such a background of meagre means one just wonders how he rose to be successful even in his material life. He took to law as a profession and became an advocate.

Lala Lajpat Rai Punjab Kesari

Lala Lajpat Rai With Gandhiji

Lalaji political and social life began since he was a student. He lived a twofold life. He was equally impressed by the teachings of Swami Dayanand and the work of Indian National Congress. Gandhiji himself called him ‘an institution’. He felt that no movement, no society, no agitation, no constructive programme, no educational scheme could be thought of without Lajpat Rai.

Before joining any social or political organisation Lajpat Rai had gone through the biographies of Mazzini and Garibaldi who had fought for the unification and independence of Italy. He had also gone through the life history of Shivaji Lajpat Rai joined Arya Samaj. Of course he was influenced by the social reforms started by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. But he had a vaster vision that attracted him towards Arya Samaj. Swami Dayanand was a versatile genius who had mixed up the ancient and the modern trends. He preached social justice and equality of a casteless society. He was also deadly against superstitions, customs and rituals because of which the devotees forgot the real purpose of worship. He was against the concept of a large number of gods and goddesses and preached the oneness of God. He worked for the emancipation of women and advocated widow remarriage. He rather inspired the people by infusing new life into the nation by having pride in our scriptures, culture and heritage. Over and above all this he was a predecessor of Gandhi by fighting fiercely against untouchability.

The nationalist outlook and programmes of social reform attracted Lajpat Rai and his friends so much that they travelled far and wide to spread the teachings of Swami Dayanand and promote the programmes for the upliftment of the deprived.

Lala Lajpat Rai Establishments

Lajpat Rai established an educational institution in 1912. It was only for untouchables who were not able to get admission in other institutions. He donated Rs. 40,000 to the institution from his personal savings. It was followed by a number of similar institutions by others too. Today one can find a large number of D.A.V. schools and Colleges and Gurukuls also run on the same lines in the North. Being a true disciple of Swami Dayanand, Lalaji would go to the homes of the so called untouchables and dined with them.

During his studies in college Lajpat Rai had to let the two ends meet with a stipend of Rs. three and a meagre sum of Rs. ten from his father. Sometimes he had to remain hungry too. It had left a permanent effect on him. He was, later on, always ready to spare money for the poor and deprived. This also made him realise how difficult it was for most of the people to get their wards educated. He felt that education leads to economic progress and political strength comes only after economic stability. He had already seen that efforts on the political front were not permanent only because one cannot fight a battle on a hungry stomach.

Lala Lajpat Rai had a great faith in the ancient system of education because of its emphasis on guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) relationship that is lacking in the modern system. But he believed that “everything ancient was not perfect or ideal. We do not want to be mere copies of our ancestors. We wish to be better.” Thus he tried his best to mix up the modern and the ancient. Social reforms, child uplift and the cause of women were a part of his scheme.

Lajpat Rai believed in the physical upliftment of the child that included a nourishing diet. But he wanted that the spirit of nationalism and patriotism should be inculcated in the children since the very beginning of their education. He wanted all this to be included in the subjects taught to them. Mere secular and scientific won’t do. But he wanted the students to learn English and other foreign languages too. His belief was that to bring India at par with the developed countries we cannot ignore or reject the modern thought content.

Lala Lajpat Rai on Women Empowerment

On the problems of women Lajpat Rai’s views were much advanced. Although he believed that women should retain their modesty and fulfil their duties towards their husbands and children they should also be conscious of their rights and ask for them. He made efforts and appealed the people to extend physical and mental development to their daughters as they do to their sons. He also helped widows in distress.

Lala Lajpat Rai believed in the unity of all the peoples of all the castes and religions in India. He did not want to see differences among them on the political front. But when he saw that the Muslims, instead of presenting a united front against the British, had begun to side with them he rather became furious. He delivered fiery speeches. He didn’t agree on this question with Gandhi. He opposed the reservation of seats, separate communal electorates and preferential treatment for Muslims. When he found Muslims joining the British camp he became an advocate of Hindu Unity. He was against promoting the interests of Muslims at the cost of Hindus. He also did not agree with Gandhi that nonviolence was the only way to secure independence.

Gradually Lalaji became more and revolutionary. He wanted the people to fight both on the political and economic front. He wanted the Swadeshi movement to spread throughout the country. If we boycott the British goods their interest will be harmed. Tilak was already doing it in Maharashtra and Chidambaram Pillai moved the masses to boycott British goods in the South.             

Before jumping again into political arena Lajpat Rai completed his educational schemes. Because of hard work he became ill. Malaria spoiled his spleen. But not looking to his comforts he helped the people when they suffered from terrible famine in the North in 1896. It spread to Bengal, Rajputana and Central India. Lala Lajpat Rai organised teams of young men to help the people, as the government did not pay any attention to it.

The famine was followed by a serve earthquake in the Kangra valley in Punjab. He personally visited the quake affected areas and his teams of young men tried their best to help the people.

In 1897 Lajpat Rai opposed the installation of the statue of the queen al Lahore on her diamond jubilee. With all regards for Queen Victoria people considered her as the head of the British tyrants. Lajpat Rai suggested that the money to be spent on the installation may be used for the welfare of the people who had undergone two natural tragedies. There were thousands of orphans to be helped. As the government knew that Lalaji had a great following it dropped the idea of installation of the statue. But because of his fiery speeches he was considered a rebel and the government wanted to arrest him on the charges of sedition as was done with Tilak in Maharashtra and Chidambaram Pillai in the South.

Lala Lajpat Rai Prisoned

Lala Lajpat Rai was arrested in May 1907 and sent to Mandalay in Burma where remained in total isolation for six months. Of Course the guards at Mandalay had great regard for him. The Bengali barber would memorise headlines from newspapers and repeat them to Lalaji. Similarly the man who brought water for him smuggled a newspaper in the can which Lalaji went through hurriedly and returned.

Lajpat Rai was released from Mandalay jail in November 1907. He was now considered the ablest spokesman of India in the country and outside India too. He went to England on behalf of the Congress in 1914. He wanted to go to visit France, Germany and Italy too. But as the world was started he had to go to the United States of America where he addressed the people on the Indian problems at a number of places. After a few months he intended to return to India via Japan. On reaching Japan he addressed big crowds, met Leaders in the country of the rising sun and attended some functions in his honour in universities. He used the opportunity for explaining the Indian point of views.

Finding himself virtually in exile Lalaji returned to USA by the end of 1915. He founded the Indian Home Rule League of America the same year. In January 1917 the League started publishing monthly journal Young India. An information centre was also set up that threw light on happenings in India. He wrote articles on Indian problems. These were published in USA but were banned in India. He symbolised Indian Aspirations in America.

Montford Report

The government came out with Montford Report an attempt at constitutional reforms. It was a half hearted attempt and Lalaji criticised it in his book The Political Future of India, which was published in 1919. It threw light on the Rowlatt Act too through which the government had assumed extraordinary powers to arrest, detain and trial. The Act was opposed by an agitation in India by Gandhiji. All this was followed by the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919. Lajpat Rai tried his best but he was not allowed a passage to India to be with his brethren whose kins and friends were killed in the most brutal way. He could just send a message in which he wrote, “My heart is bitter, my soul is sore. I am filled with anger at the doings of the bureaucracy more so, at the conduct and behaviour of my own countrymen”.

Lajpat Rai could come back to India in February 1920 eight months after the massacre after which the perpetrator general O’Dwyer was praised by the British government. Only six months after his arrival Tilak, his greatest supporter and friend died on August 1, 1920. Lalaji anguish could be seen from his fiery speech that he delivered in the 1920 special session of Indian National Congress that he presided in Calcutta. He said, “No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such a great disservice to the British Empire and has brought such discredit on the good name of the British nation as Sir O’Dwyer.”

The Congress working Committee meanwhile decided to raise one crore rupees for the Tilak Swaraj Fund. Lalaji took a whirlwind tour to collect the share of Punjab. Looking to his activities the government arrested him and he was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment in February 1922. The same year Gandhi started the first Civil disobedience movement.  He gave more importance to his ideology of nonviolence and suspended the movement of the masses when it took a violent turn at chauri chaura where people burnt a police station and killed a few officials little realising that he will have to resort to a violent movement ultimately in 1942.

Swaraj Party

Meanwhile Chittaranjan Das anbikd Pt. Motilal Nehru founded the Swaraj Party to fight the British government within the legislatures. It was rather non-cooperation from within. Lajpat Rai was released on August 23, 1923. He had supported the ideology of Swaraj party but joined it formally in 1926. He was already elected to the Central Assembly. The same year he went to Europe to attend the International Labour Conference as a representative of India. Earlier in 1924 after his release he had gone to England to meet Ramsay MacDonald, The Labour Party Prime Minister with the hope he could convince the new government on The Indian Problems.

Attitude of the government remained unchanged. The British Prime Minister announced to appoint a Commission on November 8, 1927. It was headed by Sir John Simon. It consisted of seven members. No Indians was taken as a member. Naturally all the parties and leaders were shocked with this discrimination. The Commission, after visiting different places had to submit its report to the Prime Minister of England. Irrespective of their political affiliations the decision to boycott the Commission was unanimous. There were mass demonstrations all over the country on the day of the arrival of the Commision. It was followed by mass demonstrations in every city on the day it was visited by the members of the Commission. Legislatures, throughout the country refused to help the Commission.

The Commission arrived in Mumbai on February 3, 1928. There was complete hartal in the Commercial Capital of the country. There were huge demonstrations. People went in processions waving black flags and crying ‘go back Simon’. Lajpat Rai moved a resolution in the Central Assembly on February 16 saying that the House would have nothing to do with the Commision. It was not acceptable to India. It was supported by overwhelming majority and was passed amid cries of ‘Bande Mataram’. This enraged the government and it decided to eliminate the fiery leader the first after pa Gangadhar Tilak.

The Commission had decided to arrive in Lahore on October 30, 1929. A huge procession was organised under the leadership of Lala Lajpat Rai. Mr. Scott, the Senior Superintendent of Police had an opportunity to show his callousness rather hatred towards the great leader. As soon as the peaceful procession reached the Railway station the police under Scott rained lathi blows specially on the leaders. Lalaji was their pointed target.

Blows fell on him. His followers tried their best to save him from the lathi charge. But they failed to save him. The blows were sufficient to let Lalaji fall down. But somehow he tolerated them. The procession was controlled and taken back. He marched at the head of the procession. There was a huge public meeting in the evening in which Lalaji roared, “Every blow that they hurled at us drove one more nail into the coffin of the Empire”.

Lala Lajpat Rai was wounded so much that it was difficult to gain recovery soon. Still he attended a meeting of the All india Congress Committee in New Delhi on November 3 and 4. Lalaji took seriously ill on the night of November 16. Next morning i.e. on November 17, 1929 Lalaji went into heavenly slumber after making strenuous efforts to awake the nation from its political slumber.

No doubt he fought fiercely for the freedom of the nation Lalaji  was basically an academician having great interest in having a network of  educational institutions. He founded and edited several magazines. Punjabee as the name suggests was in Punjabi the language of Punjab. Young India and the People were in English while the Daily Vande Mataram became the foremost Urdu Paper. It raised the standard of Urdu journalism. The people was well known for its fearless analysis. After coming back from AICC meeting he wrote an article that was published in the paper about which Nehru, in his Autobiography wrote, “The article, perhaps his last writing for publication had a melancholy interest for me”. In the article he had referred to Nehru and Subhash as the ‘Youngest men, the only two whose sincerity, high character and scholarship I value’.

While Lala Lajpat Rai was in Mandalay Jail he read several books  on Burma and its people. Later on when he was out he published a volume in Urdu Afsanay-i-Burma i.e. Romance of Burma. His Urdu reading in Mandalay included Zauq verse, The prose of Muhammad Hussain Azad, his former teacher as also Persian odes of Hafiz. A History of India, Maharaja Ashoka and Vedic Tract were some of the books written by him.

Lalaji associated himself to multifarious activities political, economic, social and educational. His demise at the age of 64 was a national loss irrecoverable.

Lal Bal Pal

The three pillars of Swarajya – Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak & Bipin Chandra Pal or Lal-Bal-Pal. The trio was responsible for igniting the minds of Indians & arousing them against the British all over India.

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