Saturday, September 22, 2001

An illustrious son of the soil, Seth Chhaju Ram
M.M. Juneja

ONE of the greatest philanthropists of the country and a well known maker of modern Haryana was Seth Chhaju Ram. As the present Haryana is famous for its three Lals — Devi Lal, Bansi Lal and Bhajan Lal; there was a time when the region had three popular Rams — Chhaju Ram, Chhottu Ram and Neki Ram. In the history of the country, especially Haryana, Seth Chhaju Ram has his unique place.

Chhaju Ram was born in an ordinary Jat peasant family of Alakhpura village, which is now in Bawanikhera tehsil of Bhiwani district. His date of birth remains confirmed, but the widely accepted year of his birth is 1865. His father, Salig Ram, was Lamba by gotra. Chhaju Ram was the only boy of his village who got enrolled in the primary school of Bawanikhera, five miles away from his native village. He took keen interest in his studies, and always secured good marks. In 1877, he got scholarship in his fifth standard examination, and got admission in Government Middle School, Bhiwani. During his school days at Bhiwani, the following incident left a lasting imprint on his young mind:

The boy Chhaju Ram once purchased an umbrella for Rs 1 on credit. Somehow, he could not pay the amount as he promised. As a result, he changed his route to school to avoid meeting the shopkeeper. He could only resume the old route after he paid the amount. This incident made him realise the value of money!


Chhaju Ram went to Rewari for matriculation. Here, he joined Government High School in 1880. It was probably the only high school then in Haryana. He passed his matriculation in 1882. Being a laborious student, he gained proficiency in English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and Mahajani. While studying in Rewari, Chhaju Ram also worked as a tutor. He taught the son of the Railway Station master, a Bengali gentleman. He received Rs 6 per month. In search of a better job, Chhaju Ram left for Calcutta, the second capital of the British empire, in 1883.

Living in Calcutta (Kolkata), Chhaju Ram came in contact with certain Marwaris. Apart from teaching their children, he worked as their Munshi during his spare time. In those days, the Marwaris had flourishing businesses in Calcutta, which was the hub of jute industries owned by the British. The Marwaris then hardly had any knowledge of English. Chhaju Ram, being their Munshi, wrote business letters for them in English. As a result, he came to know their trade secrets, and in 1893 became a broker. This was a turning point in the life of Chhaju Ram as now his days of financial crisis were over. Remembering his old days, spent at Calcutta from 1883 to 1893, he often said to his children: I had nothing with me except the railfare when I left for Calcutta for the first time. For years to come, I remained hand to mouth. Whenever I wanted to go to my village from Calcutta, I had to borrow money from someone. Then the return journey could also be made possible only with the money borrowed from some villager!

After spending nearly a decade, working first as master then as munshi, a day came when Chhaju Ram was respectfully known as Sethji. His biographer — Shiva Nand Malik has recorded that Chhaju Ram had the following assets by 1928-29: Seth Chhaju Ram had 21 kothis in posh areas of Calcutta — 14 in Alipur and 7 in Bara Bazaar. Besides, he had a double- storeyed haveli in his native village Alakhpura and an ultra-modern farmhouse in the nearby village of Hansi — Shekhupura. The capital of his firm crossed Rs 40 million.

In a nutshell, Seth Chhaju Ram was one of the richest brokers of the country, and the only Indian who had 21 palatial buildings in Calcutta. Seth G.D. Birla had been a tenant of Seth Chhaju Ram. How did Chhaju Ram become a magnate is no doubt an interesting and inspiring story; yet more important and inspiring is the way he spent his money for the welfare of the poor.

Seth Chhaju Ram married twice, first to a girl of Dhohka village in Charkhi Dadri tehsil (Bhiwani district). She bore no child, and died of cholera. The second marriage of Chhaju Ram took place in 1899 with Laxmi Devi. She was of Bilawal village in Charkhi Dadri tehsil. The couple was blessed with five sons and three daughters, but unfortunately five of them met with an untimely death in their childhood years. But the biggest blow came to Chhaju Ram when his eldest son— Sajjan Kumar—died at the age of 36. Seth Chhaju Ram, who could never really recover from the shock, lived for about five years after the death of his son.

Like his father, Sajjan Kumar had been elected a member of the Punjab Legislative Council from the Non-Mohammadan Rural Constituency, Hisar. Seth Chhaju Ram was elected in 1927, while Sajjan Kumar was elected twice in 1930 and 1934.

"There was a day when Chhaju Ram was too poor to pay the price even of an umbrella, and the same Chhaju Ram had now himself become an umbrella of the poor!" The list of his welfare activities is extremely lengthy, so here only a brief account of his philanthropic deeds is given.

Seth Chhaju Ram spent several lakhs of rupees in construction of numerous schools like Jat schools of Rohtak, Hisar and Sangaria; Arya Kanya Pathshalas of Hisar and Calcutta; D.A.V. School of Hisar; and the rural schools at Alakhpura and Khanda Kheri. Besides schools, he extended monetary help to D.A.V. College, Lahore; Indra Prastha (Women) College, Delhi; Benaras Hindu University; Gurukul, Hardwar; Vishwa Bharti, Santiniketan etc. He also financed deserving students for higher education.

Seth Chhaju Ram got the Lady Hailey Hospital built at Bhiwani in 1928. Here, the medicines were given free of cost to the patients. Seth Chhaju Ram got it constructed in the memory of his daughter Kamla (1908-23). This well-equipped hospital was subsequently merged with General Hospital, Bhiwani.

Apart from getting several wells and dharamshalas built, Seth Chhaju Ram established the Arya Samaj Mandir in Calcutta. He also offered liberal donations to various Arya Samaj institutions in the country.

His beneficiaries ranged from common villagers to national celebrities like Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Out of respect, his fellow countrymen rightly called Seth Chhaju Ram the Danveer.

Besides being a danveer, Seth Chhaju Ram was an excellent host. Lala Lajpat Rai Punjab Kesari often became the guest of Seth Chhaju Ram. Many Arya Samajis especially those hailing from Punjab and often Haryana stayed with him in Calcutta. Certain revolutionaries too took refuge in his house. Bhagat Singh reached Calcutta from Lahore in December 1928 after killing Saunders. He hid himself in the kothi of Chhaju Ram where Sushila Bahin, a lady of revolutionary leanings, was already residing as a tutor of the Seth’s daughter — Savitri Devi.

Seth Chhaju Ram died on April 7, 1943, in Calcutta. History will always remember him as an illustrious son of the soil, who not only became a rich and successful businessman but also established certain records of public welfare which can hardly be broken by any philanthropist of the nation!