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Lala Lajpat Rai biography

Lala Lajpat Rai

(1865-1928)

biography

Lala Lajpat Rai
Lala Lajpat Rai
Lajpat Rai, popularly known as ‘Punjab Kesari’ or ‘Sher e-Punjab’ was born on 28 January 1865 in village Bhudika in the Ludhiana district of Punjab. His father, Radha Kishan, was a school teacher in government schools and worked at different places in Punjab. His mother, Gulab Devi (in whose name Lajpat Rai established a hospital), came from a Sikh family. As the family belonged to the Vaish (bania) caste, normally the prefix ‘Lala’ was used with their names, which explains the prefix ‘Lala’ with Lajpat Rai’s name.

Lajpat Rai received his primary education at a village school and passed the matriculation examination from Mission High School, Ludhiana. In February 1881, he joined Government College, Lahore, in intermediate arts and law. In 1883, he passed the first law examination thus enabling him to practice law which he started in Jagraon. In 1884, he moved to Rohtak. In 1886, he passed the Vakil’s examination and moved to Hissar, practicing in the district court (1886-1892), where his practice flourished. In 1892, he moved to Lahore, the nerve-centre of Punjab, and soon became a leading lawyer there.
As a boy of thirteen he heard a lecture by Swami Dayanand, founder of the Arya Samaj, and was taken in by his personality and his nationalistic views. He joined Arya Samaj formally in 1882 and served its cause throughout his life. He, along with Arya Samaj leaders like Lala Hansraj, founded the first Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) College in 1889 at Lahore, which played a significant role in the freedom movement. Later, he also founded the National College during the Non-Cooperation movement. Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev were alumni of this college.
Apart from Swami Dayanand, Lajpat Rai was very much influenced by revolutionaries and leaders like Mazzini, Garibaldi, Shivaji and Sri Krishna, whose short biographies he wrote in Urdu during 1896-98. Later in life, especially during his sojourn in the United States, he wrote several other books, mainly in English.
Though Lajpat Rai’s political career started in 1888 when he attended the Congress session at Allahabad and joined the party formally, his political career was marked by fits and starts. He was interested in the social and economic upliftment of the masses for which he devoted much of his time, energy and spent a large part of his income.
From 1888 to 1904, he did not take much interest in the Congress party activities except for the Lahore session of 1893, when he served as chairman of the Reception Committee. He was not at all impressed by the Congress and its annual sessions which he used to describe as the annual national festival of the educated Indians' and Congressmen as holiday patriots. He considered the resolutions passed in the Congress sessions as constitutional verbiage, ineffective and meaningless. However, he was not sitting idle during this time and was devoting much of his time to the Arya Samaj and D.A.V College activities and other philanthropic works which were his first priority. In 1895, he along with Lala Harkishan promoted the Punjab National Bank, which is one of the leading banks of the country today. He was also one of the founders of the Lakshmi Insurance Company which was the leading indigenous insurance company in Punjab and adjoining areas for half a century. In 1897, he started the Hindu orphan relief movement under the auspices of the Arya Samaj and opened Hindu orphanages at Ferozepur, Lahore and Amritsar. Under the movement, by 1900 some two thousand Hindu orphans were rescued from being converted to Christianity. The centers at Ferozepur and Amritsar are still active.
Lajpat Rai had met Tilak during the Congress session at Lahore in 1893 and shared his political philosophy of mass agitation along with swadeshi and boycott against the British rule. From 1904, when he attended the Bombay session, he identified himself with the ‘Extremist’ group as against the Moderates. Another famous member of this group was Bipin Chandra Pal and the trio came to be known as Lal, Bal and Pal (Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and B.C. Pal. The Congress deputed Lajpat Rai and Gokhale in September 1905 to England to educate the British public about the conditions in India prior to the general elections in that country. Both of them toured the country delivering lectures and meeting important persons. While Gokhale came back singing praises of the British, Lajpat Rai returned disillusioned and was frank enough to tell the Congressmen during the 1905 session at Banaras that Britain was too busy with their own affairs to do anything for India; that the British press was not willing to champion Indian aspirations; that it was hard to get a hearing in England and that Indians would have to depend on themselves to win their freedom. The message of Lajpat Rai went to the hearts of young Indians assembled there."
In 1906, Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh (uncle of Bhagat Singh) led a movement in Punjab against the Punjab Land Colonization Act and increase in irrigation rates. Both of them made fiery speeches against the government’s high-handed policy which was ruining the farmers. The government considered their speeches as seditious and on 7 May 1907 deported both of them to Mandalay jail for six months. While in jail, Lajpat Rai wrote the book The Story of My Deportation. The news of his deportation shocked the whole nation and Lajpat Rai’s popularity got an unprecedented boost. He was hailed as a national hero when he was released in November 1907. He filed a defamation case against an Anglo-Indian paper and won the case. The following month in December 1907 came the unfortunate Surat Congress. His name was proposed by the Extremists for presidentship but to avoid any controversy, he declined the offer. After the Surat session of the Congress, Moderates headed by Pherozeshah Mehta and Gokhale took complete control of the Congress which had become almost an ally of the government. Soon after, Tilak was deported to Mandalay jail for six years. In disgust, Lajpat Rai withdrew from the Congress, questioning its representative character. He left for England in 1908, using his time there for propagating India’s cause. He came back to India in 1909. He was elected to the Lahore Municipality in 1911, where he did much useful work for the residents.
Lajpat Rai rejoined the Congress party in 1912. The following year the Karachi Session deputed a delegation to visit England once again to plead for reforms. Lajpat Rai was one of the four delegates. He reached London in May 1914. Soon the World War broke out and Lajpat Rai decided to go to U.S.A. (November 1914) where he stayed for the next five years. He toured extensively in the U.S.A., speaking to select gatherings talking about the woes of the Indian people. He also devoted his time to writing his major works there: Arya Samaj (1914), Young India (1916), England’s Debt to India (1917) and Political Future of India (1919). He also made a short trip to Japan (July-December 1915) in the midst of his American sojourn. In October 1915, Lajpat Rai founded the Indian Home Rule League of America, borrowing the term from the Irish revolutionaries. He also started publishing a monthly organ of the League, Young India. In 1916, Tilak and Annie Besant also started Home Rule Leagues with the same objective but the three Leagues did not merge. Lajpat Rai’s Home Rule League did not last long.
Lajpat Rai returned to India and landed in Bombay on 20 February 1920. He was warmly received by enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. He was pained to learn that repression by the British government was more ruthless than before and the Jallianwala Bagh incident (April 1919) was one of its manifestations. He joined the Congress and presided over its Special Session at Calcutta, (September 1920) where Gandhi presented his programme of Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience, assuring his countrymen that he would get freedom for the country in one year. Lajpat Rai was sceptical about Gandhi’s claims but was won over, like many others, by Gandhi at the Nagpur session of the Congress (December 1920). Lajpat Rai participated in the Non-Cooperation movement with full vigor and was imprisoned. He was shocked to learn that Gandhi, without consulting anyone, had called off the movement, citing the Chauri Chaura incident as an excuse. Lajpat Rai wrote a letter, addressed to all the members of the Congress Working Committee, from the prison cell describing his anguish over Gandhi’s action. Though he praised Gandhi as a person in the letter, he lamented that we had surrendered our better judgment to his (Gandhi’s) decision”. He told the members frankly that “he had lost faith in the political leadership of Gandhi”, and did not change his mind during the remaining years of his life. In one of his most memorable speeches after coming out of the prison, delivered while presiding over Punjab Provincial Congress at Amritsar on 8 December 1923, he tried to analyze the causes of failure of the Non-Cooperation movement. He said, “If freedom could be won by going to jails in large numbers we should have won it by this time; if liberty could be achieved by showing contempt of British courts, British laws and British prisons, we should have been free by now. We must not fail to remember that in spite of our propaganda, government service continues to be the chief attraction of our educated youth, be they Hindus, Mohammedans or Sikhs. That fact alone explains our failure, the most important item of our programme”.
Lajpat Rai was greatly upset by the communal riots in Punjab in which Hindus suffered grievously. The attitude of the Congress leader’s white-washing the role of the Muslims after every riot pained him. He was critical of Gandhi who had exhorted the Hindus t0 show complete trust in Muslims and adopts an attitude of complete surrender. “Hindus have declined to accept this”, he announced. He warned those who followed Gandhi blindly: “We must not add to the numerous cults and sects of this country by adding one more under the name of' Mahatma Gandhi”.3 Lajpat Rai genuinely felt that the Congress party was neglecting the interests of the Hindus and was not caring for their lives and property to appease the Muslims. He told the Congress leaders that the party should depend more and more on the Hindus because Hindu-Muslim unity was a chimera. These proved to be prophetic words. He then lent active support to the Hindu Sanghatan movement and Hindu Mahasabha. He became a prominent member of the Hindu Mahasabha and presided over its session at Calcutta on 11 April 1925. He also presided over the Provincial Hindu Conference at Bombay in December 1925.
In January 1926, Lajpat Rai joined the Swaraj party in the hope that it would take care of Hindu interests but found it working on the same lines as the Congress party. He resigned from the Swaraj party after six months and formed the Indian National Party or the National Party in association with Madan Mohan Malaviya, M.R. Jayakar, N.C. Kelkar, and others. It was totally a Hindu party, working in collaboration with the Hindu Mahasabha. They fought the general elections under the banner of this party. Swarajists were routed. They could not win a single seat in Punjab. In fact, the president of the party forfeited his security deposit. In U.P. the Swarajists could win only one seat, that of Motilal Nehru. In other states also Swarajists did not fare well. Lajpat Rai was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly, where he became the leader of their newly formed party and made some memorable speeches, including the t one on 16 February 1928 when he moved a resolution for boycotting the Simon Commission, which was carried by sixty-eight to sixty-two votes.
During later years Lajpat Rai devoted much of his time and energy for the amelioration of the condition of industrial labour and took part in the working class movement in general. He presided over the First Trade Union Congress in 1920. He was elected to represent Indian labour at the Eighth International Labour Congress at Geneva in 1926, where he made a forceful speech for the abolition of begaar (forced labour) in British India as well as in Indian states.
In his early youth, Lajpat Rai edited the monthly DAV College SamacharBharat Sudhar (Urdu) and Arya Gazette. In October 1904, he started the Punjabee, a weekly English newspaper with K.K. Athvale as editor, Bande Matram, an Urdu daily and the People, English weekly, which was read widely in Punjab.
To live up to his opposition to the Simon Commission and the resolution which he had moved in the Central Legislative Assembly, he led a demonstration in Lahore on 30 October 1928 for boycotting the Simon Commission, the members of which had reached Lahore on that day. The demonstrators were lathi-charged and a British officer assaulted Lajpat Rai. He was hit on his head and chest with a baton. He died of the injuries ne on 17 November 1928. About the police assault he remarked, “Every blow aimed at me is a nail struck in the coffin of British imperialism in India.”
Lajpat Rai is remembered more for his role as a social and economic reformer, as an educationist and as a philanthropist. He translated his patriotism and love for his countrymen in the shape of several institutions and welfare associations, more than those left by any other leader of his rank. Amongst several others, he was instrumental in establishing the Tilak School of Politics, Dwarkadas Library (which is functioning now in Delhi), Lakshmi Insurance Company, and Gulabdevi Hospital in Jalandhar, Servants of People’s Society; Lok Sewak Samiti and Achchut Uddhar Mandal. Still the list is not exhaustive.
Punjab has yet to produce a leader of the caliber and status of Lajpat Rai.

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