On November 17, 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai died in Lahore, a city that had been his home since 1880, when he joined the prestigious Government College to study law. In many ways his death transformed the political landscape in the country just as his politics had during his lifetime.

The doctors declared heart attack to be the cause of death. But it was widely believed that the blows Rai had received at the hands of the British police a few days ago at the Lahore railway station, while protesting against the Simon Commission, had hastened his death. The British had set up the commission to report on the progress in constitutional reforms in the country but it was criticised for not including a single Indian member.

Rai’s death was a blow to the nationalist cause that had emerged in the early 1920s, after the massacre of peaceful protestors at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 and Mahatma Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation in 1920. Rai, a fierce nationalist, was a reluctant ally of Gandhi during the two years the non-cooperation movement lasted. He had predicted at the onset that this non-violent movement would fail. He was proved right when a violent clash between protestors and policemen in Chauri Chaura (in modern Uttar Pradesh) in February 1922 left 25 people dead and prompted Gandhi to abandon the movement.

Nationalism and Lal Bal Pal

While the Congress, particularly after the arrival of Gandhi, was slowly making inroads in various regions of British India, it was Rai who reigned supreme in the province of Punjab. Years before Gandhi entered the national political arena, Rai, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, laid the foundation of a militant, assertive nationalism within the Indian National Congress that Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru later built upon. Known as the “Lal Bal Pal” trinity, these three figures are held responsible for the radicalisation of the Indian National Congress.

Lal Bal Pal, who were called extremists within the party, demanded greater autonomy for India. The other group, the moderates, asserted that Indians were not prepared for a share in power and that they must first reform society by purging it of its social and religious evils before seeking greater control over its politics. Needless to say the British preferred the moderates and showed willingness to work with them. In fact, before the emergence of Lal Bal Pal, the Indian National Congress was seen as a pro-empire party that believed in the benevolent nature of colonialism.

The moderates were sidelined after the partition of Bengal in 1905 whereby the largely Muslim eastern areas were separated from the predominantly Hindu western areas. A nationalist fervour spread throughout the country. The partition also laid the foundation of the communalisation of politics with Muslims in favour of the partition and Hindus against it, believing it to be a British conspiracy to divide Indian society. To oppose the partition, the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Lal Bal Pal, launched the Swadeshi Movement – a boycott of British goods and services – with the aim of crippling the empire economically and regenerating Indian goods and culture. The movement was a precursor of the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s and was responsible for democratising the nationalist struggle.

There was no stopping the Indian nationalist movement after this. In 1909, the Minto-Morley Reforms providing Muslims with separate electorates were introduced. In 1919 came the Rowlatt Act, which made permanent war-time restrictions imposed during the First World War and allowed indefinite detention and incarceration without trial. By the time Gandhi arrived, much of the groundwork had already been laid.

From left: Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. Under the leadership of Lal Bal Pal, the Congress took on a more assertive nationalist approach. (Credit: via iiMC / YouTube)
From left: Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. Under the leadership of Lal Bal Pal, the Congress took on a more assertive nationalist approach. (Credit: via iiMC / YouTube)

Communalisation of politics

But while on the one hand the early 20th century saw the emergence of a growing nationalist consciousness, on the other hand it witnessed the birth of the communalisation of politics. The cities of India had a growing middle class, educated in British institutions, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, with a heightened sense of communal identities. Lahore, the hub of British educational and economic power in the Punjab, was no different.

In 1877, Swami Dayanand Saraswati had established the Arya Samaj in Lahore. The Hindu revivalist movement looked to modernise Hinduism by removing some of its corrupting influences and seek the essence of Vedic culture that it believed represented the religion’s true form. While the organisation itself did not espouse any political aspirations, its ideology evoked a certain Hinduised form of nationalism that imagined the nationalist struggle as a revival of lost Hindu glory. In the ideological framework of the organisation, Muslims were seen as foreigners and held responsible for the downfall of the Hindu civilisation. In the heightened environment of communal identities and the communalisation of politics in the early 20th century, some members of the organisation aggravated the situation by writing controversial books such as Rangila Rasul and Risala Vertman.

It was with the Arya Samaj that Lala Lajpat Rai’s political career began. Soon after his graduation, he became inspired by the philosophy of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. He believed the regeneration of the glorious Hindu spirit was essential for attaining independence from the British. In fact, it was Rai who much before Muhammed Ali Jinnah or the Muslim League proposed that Hindus and Muslims were different nations and there should be a partition to separate the two. For him, the Indian National Congress was an extension of his political ideology. There was no separation in his mind of Hindu revivalism and the independence of India.

Rai set up the National College in Lahore in the early 1920s as part of his nationalisation of education. It is here that Bhagat Singh met his comrades in arms Sukhdev, Yashpal, Ram Krishna and Bhagwati Charan Vohra. Together they formed a Marxist revolutionary party called Naujawan Bharat Sabha.

Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, which housed the National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai to meet the education needs of young people who were staying away from British institutes.
Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, which housed the National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai to meet the education needs of young people who were staying away from British institutes.

Bhagat Singh and Nehru

While fundamentally opposed to the political worldview of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh and his comrades saw his death as a blot on national dignity. A month after Rai’s death, they murdered assistant superintendent of police JP Saunders – mistaking him for superintendent of police James A Scott, who had ordered the police action in which Rai was injured – not far from the National College. The arrival of Bhagat Singh as a political force, through his trials in which he engaged in political propaganda, marked a transition in the Indian national struggle.

Bhagat Singh’s popularity also saw the rise of a young Jawaharlal Nehru in the Indian National Congress, an ardent socialist for whom the future of India was not aligned with Hindu revivalism but adherence to socialist principles. While Hindu revivalists remained part of the party in a marriage of convenience, it was Nehru’s socialist vision that would influence the political outlook of the nationalist struggle.

Nehru’s rise to the pinnacle of the Indian National Congress is pinned with the politics of Bhagat Singh through whom Marxist revolutionary ideas spread through the alleys and streets of India’s cities and villages. It was the death of Lala Lajpat Rai that precipitated these events.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail