17th November 1928: Lala Lajpat Rai, Indian nationalist, passed away

Lala Lajpat Rai, renowned Indian nationalist and writer, who was born in Dhudike, Punjab, on January 28, 1865, died on November 17, 1928, after suffering grievous injuries during a lathi-charge carried out by the police.

His father, Radha Krishan, was an Urdu teacher. In 1884 Krishan was transferred to Rohtak, where Rai became the secretary of the Hindu cultural organisation Arya Samaj. He cleared his law exam in 1886 and started practising law in Rohtak and then in Hisar (today a part of Haryana).

He was elected to the Hisar municipality and his years in Hisar laid a firm foundation for a life in public service. During this time he was closely involved in activities of the Arya Samaj. In 1888 he went to Allahabad to attend a session of the Indian National Congress.

In 1892, he shifted to Lahore. He took the lead in famine relief during 1897 and 1899. He got together students from D.A.V. College and formed teams that would go to Rajasthan for relief work, concentration especially on orphan children. Rai was also at the forefront of relief work when an earthquake struck Kangra (now in Himachal Pradesh) in 1905.

Deeply influenced by Hinduism, Rai believed that the religion together with emerging nationalist ideals could be the basis for an Indian state. After joining the Congress, he participated in the political agitation in Punjab. Believing that Rai was a ‘revolutionary’ and the main leader behind the unrest in Punjab, the British government arrested him from Lahore and deported him to Mandalay (Burma) in May 1907. But before he was taken away Rai listed out what he considered were the ‘real’ causes of the disturbances in Punjab. These included government measures such as The Land Alienation Act Amendment Bill, hike in canal rates on the Bari Doaba Canal and the abnormal upward revision of land revenue in Rawalpindi, and the state’s ineffectiveness in tackling plague.

With evidence against Rai quite shoddy, Lord Minto was compelled to allow him to return to India in a few months.

Rai visited the United States in 1914. It was meant to be a short trip but he could not return to India until 1919, after World War 1 got over. He perceptibly observed the challenges in presenting an accurate picture of India to countries like America that saw the East predominantly through British eyes. “The civilised world’s ignorance about India, her culture, her history, her politics and her economy is simply colossal. People hold very peculiar views about us,” he wrote. “Our mysticism has sometimes amused and sometimes repelled them; our poetry and philosophy have at times been praised. Beyond this the affairs of India had little interest for the rest of the mankind.”

In a paper titled ‘Lajpat Rai in USA 1914 -1919: Life and Work of a Political Exile’, author and scholar Harish Puri writes: “Lajpat Rai…inspired a number of Indians and Americans to make a deep study of India and to advocate her cause in America and other parts of the world. Agnes Smedley a young journalist was drawn to Lajpat Rai after listening to his lecture at Columbia University on 10 March 1917.”

Smedley later wrote about her first encounter with Rai in her autobiography (quoted by Puri): “He [Rai] was a teacher and a wise man… He introduced me to the movement for the freedom of his people and showed me that it was not only an historic movement of itself, but it was part of an international struggle for emancipation.”

Rai, along with leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo Ghosh, came to be known as an ‘extremist’ or ‘militant’ nationalist of the Indian freedom movement. Attacking the Congress in his 1916 work Young India, Rai wrote: [T]he Congress was started more with the object of saving the British Empire from danger than with that of winning political liberty for India. The interests of the British Empire were primary and those of India only secondary.”

In 1920, after returning from the US, he, however, took an active part in the non-cooperation movement. His stance on issues of Hindu-Muslim equations was often divergent from mainstream Congress views, but he stressed on the importance of unity. In 1924, for instance, he wrote:  “However divided Hindus and Muslims may be, however bitter their relations with each other, they are still united in their demand for Swarajya, in their opposition to the government, and in their hatred of the subjugation imposed upon them from without.”

Rai reflected upon a number of social and political issues. On the caste system, he wrote: I find no sanction for it [untouchabiltiy] in the Hindu shastras. I find no mention of it in history. As far as the Hindu untouchables are concerned, most sensible Hindus are agreed that in their case, at least, it is senseless, inhuman, and intolerable, because of the fact of their being followers of the same religion and members of the same community as the so-called higher castes.”

In 1928, when the Simon Commission visited Lahore, Rai led a non-violent protest against it on October 30. The police struck back with lethal force, carrying out a lathi-charge. Rai suffered serious injuries in the police assault and eventually died on November 17, 1928 of a heart attack.

Lala Rajpat Rai is remembered as a nationalist Indian and freedom-fighter who was unafraid of putting his views, even when they were critical of the Congress or Mahatma Gandhi, in the public domain. As an author and thinker his writings leave behind a fascinating and rich legacy.

Also on this day:

1920 — Gemini Ganesan, Tamil film star, was born

1961 — Chanda Kochhar, managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank, was born  

1973 — Mirra Alfassa, also known as ‘The Mother’, spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, passed away

1982 — Yusuf Pathan, Indian cricketer, was born  

2003 — Surjit Singh Bains, Punjabi singer, passed away

2012 — Bal Thackeray, founder and leader of Shiv Sena, passed away

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