Life of epic dimensions

Aptly called the Lion of Punjab, Lala Lajpat Rai’s contribution to the freedom struggle has been well documented. The Collected Works of Lala Lajpat Rai, edited by eminent historian and biographer
B.R. Nanda, brings out Lalaji’s role in the struggle for freedom and perspective on nationalism and vital social issues of the time. Much of what he wrote is still relevant.

There was hardly any Indian leader, with the exception of Gandhiji, whose public activities covered such a wide range as those of Lalaji, wrote Krishan Kant, former Vice-President, in his foreword to the book. Excerpts:

When the ‘all-White’ Simon Commission visited India, he was in the forefront of the agitation for its boycott. It was while he was leading a demonstration against the Commission outside the Lahore railway station that he was assaulted by the police and suffered injuries which led to his death. Lalaji’s life had epic dimensions. All his life he lived a hero and in death too he was crowned a martyr. Paying a touching tribute to Lajpat Rai, Gandhiji feelingly wrote in Young India of November 22, 1928: "Men like Lajpat Rai cannot die so long as the sun shines in the Indian sky."

There was hardly any Indian leader, with the exception of Gandhiji, whose public activities covered such a wide range as those of Lalaji. As Gandhiji put it, "It is impossible to think of a single public movement in which Lalaji was not to be found". In 1886, he was associated with the founding of the DAV College at Lahore and out of his income from a lucrative practice at the District Court in Hissar and the Chief Court at Lahore he contributed a lion’s share to it. In 1899-1900, when a dreadful famine raged in Punjab, the Central Provinces, Rajputana and the United Provinces, Lajpat Rai planned and implemented the relief work on an extensive scale.

Importance of economics

Lala Lajpat Rai at a meeting of the Fabian Society
Lala Lajpat Rai at a meeting of the Fabian Society

From the very beginning, Lalaji emphasised the growth of trade and industry and wanted the Congress to hold industrial conferences during its annual sessions. He founded institutions like the Punjab National Bank and the Lakshmi Insurance Company and favoured setting up of indigenous outfits to give a boost to export by Indian traders as against the British entrepreneurs who were making huge profits in the absence of any competition. Lalaji was a great exponent of free and compulsory education and to inculcate patriotism and nationalism among the youth he delineated a model of national education. He established the Tilak School of Politics for the political training of students and the Servants of the People Society to enlist and train life members vowed to work selflessly for the country.

Lajpat Rai approached the communal problem in a rational and practical manner. He emphasised the need for concentrating on economic and other interests which were common to various communities rather than harping on their sectarian differences. Setting aside their communal bickerings, he said, their foremost passion should be to "combine to fight our poverty and ignorance — the common enemies of the whole mankind".

He said since India was not exclusively Hindu, its prosperity and future depended on the reconciliation of Hinduism with the greater ‘ism’ — the Indian nationalism. In the same vein elsewhere he remarked: "India is neither Hindu nor Muslim, not even both. It is one. It is India. Let us live and die for each other, so that India may live and prosper as a nation". He appealed both to the Hindus and Muslims to take pride in the achievements of their common heroes and saints: "If Mother India had an Asoka, she had an Akbar too; if she had a Chaitanya, she had a Kabir also. For every Hindu hero, we can cite a Muhammadan hero. We may be as proud of Syed Ahmed Khan as of Rammohun Roy and Dayanand." What India needed, according to Lalaji, was more of nationalism and tolerance than orthodoxy and bigotry. To resolve the communal tangle, his prescription was to integrate the different religions as much as possible by emphasising the points on which they agreed, by eliminating non-essentials, by restricting the essential differences within the narrowest limits and finally by removing all barriers to free social intercourse between the communities.

To foster the spirit of true nationalism among the people, Lalaji did not favour in the least the idea of annihilation of all nationalities or communal identities but wanted their coming together in a free and equal association, removing all impediments that tended to create a sense of segregation, anomie and alienation among the various groups constituting the nation.

Vision of pluralist India

Realising the pluralist character of the Indian nation, Lajpat Rai pointed out that the differences among the communities and castes were quite real and to evolve a sound and effective system of governance they must not be ignored. With a deep insight into the nature of the communal problem of India, Lalaji pleaded for accommodating the interests of the different communities within the framework of a united India. Understanding the psychology of communalism, he was willing to make reasonable concessions intended to save Indian polity from disintegrating under the pressure of communal strain.

Builder of institutions

Lalaji also founded and edited newspapers and journals and was a prolific writer and builder of institutions. He launched the English weeklies, The Panjabee and The People, and the Urdu daily, Bande Mataram, and made them powerful instruments of national awakening. He founded the Indian Home Rule League of America in October 1917 and launched Young India, a monthly, as the official organ of the League.

He also set up the Indian Information Bureau in New York with himself as its Director to serve the cause of India’s freedom. During his enforced stay in America, besides travelling from coast to coast and delivering lectures on the Indian situation, he authored some of his notable books —The United States of America, England’s Debt to India, National Education and Young India. His Unhappy India, published in 1928, contained by far the most scathing refutation of Miss Mayo’s scurrilous attacks on Indian society as given in Mother India.

Photos: Courtesy Servants of the People Society, Chandigarh.

Moved by nationalism
Lala Lajpat Rai

There can be no doubt that Indian nationalism is receiving a great deal of support from the world forces operating outside India. On the political side it has been inspired and strengthened by the forces of European nationalism — the struggles and successes of the English proletariat, the sufferings and the eventual triumph of the French revolutionists, the efforts and victories of the Italians, the continued struggle of Russians, Poles, Finns, Hungarians, and others. The Indian nationalist is an ardent student of the history of modern Europe, of England, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Russia, Austria, and last but not least, of Turkey and the Balkan states. The nationalist calendar of great men followed by young India contains such names as those of Washington, Cavour, Mazzini, Bismarck, Kossuth, Emmet, Parnell, by the side of Partap, Ramdas, Guru Gobind Singh, Sivaji, Tipu Sultan, and the Rani of Jhansi.

History of Europe

The Indian Government is conscious of this, and some people think this is what is influencing the policy of the Indian universities in tabooing the history of modern Europe from the courses of studies.

American literature and American events are also playing their own part in the influences that are feeding Indian nationalism. The leaders are and have ever been close students of American literature and the history of the American federation. Asia, however, is playing a greater part in moulding and influencing Indian nationalism. The Russo-Japanese war thrilled India to its core. The recognition of Japan as a great power by the nations of Europe is regarded by young India as a potent factor in Indian nationalism.

The future

It is both difficult and risky to predict, especially concerning a country situated as India is today. It is always the unexpected that happens in human affairs. This is particularly true when human affairs are so complicated and complex as in India. It is perhaps easier to predict the future of America or England than that of India.

The Indian nationalists of the 1890s, or even of the early days of the new century, could hardly have imagined the developments of the last 15 years. It is true that India is rather immobile; its masses are rather inert; and perhaps of all peoples the least affected by changes in the outside world.

They have been under the benumbing influence of a philosophy of life which keeps them contented even under adverse circumstances, even when they are starving and have no clothes to hide their nakedness.

Writing on the wall

There is a great deal of exaggeration about the immobility of Indian people. There may be millions in India who are as unaffected by modern conditions of life and modern ideas as they were 50 years ago, but then there are millions who have consciously awakened. Their strength is not to be judged by the attendance at congresses and conferences or other public meetings or demonstrations, nor by the circulation of newspapers or books.

Popular demonstrations organised in honour of popular leaders, and the increase in the circulation of newspapers give indications of a great change in Indian life, but the actual change is even much greater. Read the poetry of the country or its prose, read the rough versifying of the half-educated or even uneducated men and women (including some who are even illiterate), listen to the talk in the village park or square or other meeting places, see the games which the children of rustics and the poorest classes play, attend to the patterings of children, examine the popular songs or the music that is now in demand, then you will see how deeply nationalism has pervaded Indian life and what a strong hold it has gained on the thoughts of the people.

No foreigner can realise that; only an Indian can properly understand it. Examine the vernacular press — the most sober and the most loyal papers — and underlying the expressions of deepest loyalty, you would assuredly come across genuine tears of blood, shed for the misfortune of the country, its decline, its present wretched and miserable condition. From the Indian press we hear a never-ceasing lamentation. Listen to the utterances of the most wanton chief, and the most callous millionaire, bring him out from his isolation or retirement, put him on the public platform, and you will notice a vein of nationalism in his thoughts and in his words. But if you can know what he talks in private to friends from whom he keeps no secrets, you will see and notice a great deal more.

The writer has not so far met a single Indian of any class — he has met Indians of all classes and of all shades of opinions, educated, uneducated, prince and peasant, moderate and extremist, loyalist and seditionist — who was genuinely sorry at the outbreak of this war. A number of Indians are fighting at the front.

They are sincerely loyal and true to their oath of allegiance. They would leave nothing undone to win, but in their heart of hearts lurks something which in moments of reflection or when they are off duty, reminds them of the wrongs which they and their countrymen are suffering at the hands of England. Nationalism is no longer confined to the classes. It promises to become a universal cult. It is permeating the masses.

Only those Indians realise it who mix with the people and do not derive their knowledge from works written by Englishmen or by other armchair politicians. No foreigner, however kind and sympathetic, however great his knowledge of the language of the country, can ever realise it fully. Even the dancing girls are affected by it. They will sing political or national songs if you so wish.

Excerpted with permission from The Collected Works of Lala Lajpat Rai, Volume 6, edited by B.R. Nanda, published by Manohar, New Delhi, Pages 351, Rs 725