Lala lajpat rai's saga of suffering and national resurgence


- dEsPeraTe cRaNky -
The life story of Lala Lajpat Rai reads like an epic. Not only he lived a hero’s life but his death too was crowned with the halo of a martyr. He shot into fame as one of the triumvirate (Lal, Bal, Pal) during an All-India agitation against the partition of Bengal. From his first foray into politics in 1888 for writing open letters to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan when he was hardly 23 until his martyrdom on 30 November 1928, Lajpat Rai remained in the forefront of every notable movement of social reform, national regeneration and political advancement of his peoples. Though he became a bete noire of the anglo-saxon bureaucracy at a very young age, his name had come to be associated with political turmoil in the Punjab and even in the neighbouring provinces.

In 1907 British bureaucracy was gripped by the ‘mutiny psychosis’ or the prospect of a second mutiny exactly 50 years after 1857. Their panic was getting accentuated by daily doses of hysterical stuff in print conjuring up nightmarish scenes of their women and children being done to death in cold blood and their shrieks rending their ears. Vigilant to every emergent call they were determined to nip any such eventuality in the bud.

Coincidently in same year an agitation by the Punjab peasantry against the proposed canal colony legislation assumed the character of a popular uprising which the Punjab bureaucracy considered exceedingly dangerous and demanding of the most stringent measures. Sir Risely, Secretary to the Government of India, was briefed by E. Maclagan, The chief secretary of the Punjab about the dangerous and seditious activities of Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh whose fiery speeches in the Lyallpur canal colony areas had won him wide acclaim and following. But in the report Lajpat Rai was dubbed a revolutionary and brain behind the whole agrarian unrest in the Punjab. As is now evident from the voluminous Minto Morley papers that Minto, the Viceroy was misled by Sir Denzil Ibbetson, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab into believing that Lajpat Rai was the head and centre of the entire movement in the Punjab and his most prominent agent in disseminating sedition was Ajit Singh. As a result Lajpat Rai was arrested from his home in Lahore and deported to Mandalay on May 9, 1907, under the Bengal Regulation III of 1818 without a hearing and without a trial before a lawfully constituted tribunal of justice.

Just a few hours before his arrest Lajpat Rai penned briefly the real causes of the Punjab disturbances in a letter he wrote to The Punjabee. He listed the following reasons in a chronological order:

a. The letters and articles, etc., that appeared in The Civil and Military Gazette.
b. The prosecution of The Punjabee, but desisting from taking a similar action against The Civil and Military Gazette.
c. The Colonization Bill.
d. The Land Alienation Act Amendment Bill.
e. The increase in canal rates on the Bari Doaba Canal.
f. The abnormal upward revision of land revenue in the Rawalpindi District.
g. The appalling mortality from plague.

The news of Lajpat Rai’s deportation spread like wild fire and provoked nationwide protests and adverse comments in the Press in India and abroad. ‘Lala ji deported and Minto still alive’ was Lokmanya Tilak’s impromptu reaction when he came to know of it at the Poona Railway Station. P.M. Bapat gave an ultimatum that ‘if Lajpat Rai was not released within three months he would shoot Morley.’ Bande Matram gave the clarion call – ‘for one Lajpat Rai taken away, hundreds Lajpats will arise in his place’. Sister Nivedita felt shocked and wrote in her diary ‘is the government crazy?’

In the British Parliament questions were asked on May 13, 1907 even before Lajpat Rai had reached Mandalay. Morley had a tough time in defending the government action of arrest and deportation without trial. He was frequently rattled for this anti-British Act by such prominent leaders as V.H. Rutherford, O’Grady, Henry Cotton, Fredric Mackarness and many other prominent British leaders. Gokhale wrote to Wedderburn that Lajpat Rai’s arrest has ‘literally convulsed the country from one end to the other.’ He pointed out that ‘the Government of India had acted on the proposal of Sir D. Ibbetson to deport him in a state of panic.’ Initially Morley sang the tune of Minto in supporting his policy on sedition. But soon he found himself caught in a tight corner.

Detained without a trial and with no defined sentence during his deportation, Lajpat Rai who was himself a lawyer of great standing, could very well see the illegality of the act. But ‘knowing a bit of history’ as he writes ‘he despaired of getting any justice and fair play from despots and resolved to settle down in the life of bondage.’ But when he came to know that a question had been put in the British Parliament seeking to know the substance of his protest, Lajpat Rai was keen to know the grounds on which his detention and deportation were based. The Warrant of Committal did not give any reasons. After obtaining a copy of the Warrant he drew a petition to His Excellency, the Viceroy and Governor General of India. In this memorial he respectfully but emphatically protested his innocence and utterly denied that he did any such thing ‘at the time of his arrest or before or after it as a result of which there was any commotion taking place in any part of the dominions of His Majesty, the King Emperor of India or which could otherwise justify the application of Regulation III of 1818’. He prayed that ‘he be informed of the grounds on which action had been taken against him and the petition be forwarded to His Majesty, the King Emperor of India’.

In September 1907 Lajpat Rai learnt from a magazine that one of the charges against him was that of his having attempted to tamper with the Loyalty of the native army. This not only was an unfounded charge but a gross libel. He felt like filing a libel suit against certain newspapers spreading this canard and soon after his release he instituted cases of libel against them. But immediately he proceeded to address the second memorial to the Right honourable, the Secretary of State for India, London. In this memorial, like the previous one, Lajpat Rai protested his innocence and emphatically stated that he had done nothing calculated to cause commotion or attempted to tamper with the loyalty of the British Native Army or for that matter any thing that could make him liable under Regulation III of 1818. He protested how he was kept ignorant of the allegations against him and even denied access to newspapers. That he took no part in Lahore or Rawalpindi riots and did not make any speeches that could be considered seditious. That he had always been acting within the bounds of law and constitution in matter of expression of disapproval of certain measures of the government exercising the public mind. That he never advocated any violent or illegal method of redress. That the suspicion, if entertained against him of having tampered with the native soldiers of his Majesty’s Army was entirely unfounded, for the petitioner had no opportunities whatsoever of mixing or communicating with the same.

The memorial finally raised a point of legal and constitutional nature in that the Regulation III was opposed to the letter and spirit of the British constitution and British Laws and hence ultra vires. He continues to pray that ‘the provision of the said regulation giving permanent powers for all times to come to the executive government to deprive British subjects of personal liberty without a proper trial by a court of justice are opposed to all notions of natural justice and government by law.’ In the end ‘the petitioner earnestly hopes that justice and fairplay for which the British nation and their government are renowned’--a set language in vogue for such memorials and which found great favour with Indian political leaders of his times subscribing to constitutionalism. Read in its entirety the memorial is no petition for clemency or mercy but makes out a clear and emphatic case on the basis of legal rights and constitutional practices and principles. It is addressed in a language of protest and a challenge to the much-vaunted British sense of justice and fairplay and very well brings out the patent illegality of the Regulation. The very fact that the British government was forced to release him unconditionally vindicated Lajpat Rai’s stand that the charge of sedition against him had no foundation in fact and could not be sustained in the event of a trial by a tribunal of justice. His analysis of the causes of agrarian unrest and ferment in Punjab was proved correct. For the peaceful conditions returned to the province the moment the Viceroy vetoed the Punjab Colonization Bill on the ground that ‘it was a faulty piece of legislation’. On knowing better as to how he was misled into ‘confusing unrest with sedition’ by Sir Denzil Ibbetson, Minto wrote to Morley, ‘As to Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh I have not a shadow of doubt that we must in common justice release them and that the sooner we do so the better. Now that we have declared the Punjab to be quiet we cannot logically justify their further imprisonment’. Again the Punjab government could not produce even a shred of evidence against Lajpat Rai who was charged with hobnobbing with the Amir of Kabul to dislodge the British from India. After examining the entire case files and evidence Minto hastened to make an honest confession to Morley: “Lajpat Rai is undoubtedly a man of high character and very much respected by his fellow countrymen and if, when I was asked to arrest him, I had known what I do now, I should have required much more evidence before agreeing.” Studying Lajpat Rai’s files many months later Morley was shocked and wondered if he would be able to forgive himself hereafter for the grievous wrong inflicted by the British bureaucracy on the person of Lala Lajpat Rai. When in parliament Mackarness asked Morley on June 18, if Lajpat Rai had made any protest against his arrest, Morley expressed his ignorance since the representation Lajpat Rai had submitted to the Secretary of State for India had been intercepted on the way. A bit longish though it would be revealing to quote what he has to say about this ugly episode for which he regretted:

“It seems clear from the papers that the Lieutenant-Governor of Burma refused Lajpat’s request to see his solicitor. This is in itself, a hateful thing to do, only worthy of Russia, or, say Austrialia, in her Italian days. But worse still, I was allowed to tell the House of Commons that access to a solicitor would of course be allowed. In this, nobody in your government set me right… More than that, I was permitted to say that he was allowed to receive letters from his family. It now seems that some 50 such letters were stopped, and I was never told. Now, even the officials responsible in India, must surely know that in this country, which after all, is and means to be their master, for a Minister to mislead Parliament in matter of fact, is as heinous an offence as he can commit” (J. Morley to Minto, April 15, 1908, J. Morley Papers, Vol. III).

In sum, Lajpat Rai’s arrest and deportation in 1907 was his first baptism in fire from which he emerged a high-minded statesman cast in a heroic mould. It blazed a trail of such examples of suffering and sacrifice for public causes and this considerably helped accelerate the pace of the Indian nationalist struggle. Even though he had clear differences with those adopting methods of militant struggle for the liberation of their country from foreign yoke, Lajpat Rai remained the symbol of militant nationalism and an inspiration for the youth. Revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru wore the crown of martyrdom to avenge the assault on Lalaji which had led to his death. Widely acclaimed as the Punjab Kesari, the lion of Punjab, he occupies a prominent position in the galaxy of leaders who sacrificed their all for the freedom of the motherland.

Gandhiji gave a touching tribute on Lajpat Rai’s death in Young India of 22 November 1928: “Lala Lajpat Rai is dead. Long live Lalaji. Men like Lajpat Rai cannot die so long as the sun shines in the Indian sky.”

Dr. Madan G. Gandhi

Editor, Collected Works of Lala Lajpat Rai

President, Gandhi Earth Vision Foundation