Lala Lajpat Rai: The Patriot Who Changed Face of Indian Politics

Lala Lajpat Rai, the man who as a politician, journalist, lawyer, banker and patriot, fought for India’s freedom.

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“Lathi blows inflicted on me will someday prove to be nails in the coffin of the British Empire.”

Said a bleeding Lala Lajpat Rai, addressing peaceful protesters after being brutally beaten up by the British police on 30 October 1928. Two weeks later, he succumbed to his injuries on 17 November.

His words rang true. On Rai’s 154th birth anniversary, here’s the story of a man who as a scholar, politician, journalist, lawyer, banker and patriot, changed India's political landscape and fought for its independence.

Lajpat Rai was born on 28 January 1865 to an Urdu teacher, Munshi Radha Krishan Agrawal, and Gulab Devi Agrawal, in Dhudike, Punjab (undivided India). He studied law at the Government College in Lahore, and in 1886, moved to Hisar to practice law. He later became a founding member of the Hisar bar council.

As a law student in 1880, Rai met Lala Hans Raj and Guru Dutt Vidyarthi who later became his key allies to build & promote the 'swadeshi' infrastructure in India.

For Rai, It Was Swadeshi First

In 1905, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon announced the decision to partition Bengal. In a well-planned move, Bengal was partitioned on religious lines – Muslim-dominated East Bengal was separated from the Hindu-dominated West.

The partition triggered a wave of nationalism. Bengalis – Hindus & Muslims – from East and West launched an effective boycott of British-made goods. Some protests turned violent – shops selling foreign goods were burnt down.

This anger gave birth to the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. Lala Lajpat Rai, along with others such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipinchandra Pal, Aurobindo Ghosh and VO Chidambaram Pillai, spearheaded Swadeshi agitations across India.

Promoting the Swadeshi movement led him to start the Punjab National Bank in 1894. He also headed the Lakshmi Insurance Company, which was later merged with Life Insurance Corporation of India in 1956.

In 1927, Rai established a trust in his mother's memory to build and run a tuberculosis hospital for women, reportedly at the location where his mother, Gulab Devi, had died of tuberculosis in Lahore.

For Lala Lajpat Rai, it was always Swadeshi first
For Lala Lajpat Rai, it was always Swadeshi first
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

The Lal Bal Pal Trio

In 1914, Rai quit law to dedicate himself to India’s freedom struggle.

Much to the ire of the British Raj, Rai, along with Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, in the early 20th Century, laid the foundation of assertive nationalism within the Indian National Congress that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru carried forward.

The three dynamic leaders who had been promoting self-reliance and opposing British Rule, famously came together as the Lal-Bal-Pal trio. Despite coming from diverse backgrounds, they fought for the same cause – promoting ‘make in India’, boycotting British-made goods and replacing British Raj with ‘Purna Swaraj’ (complete independence).

Rai was fondly called the 'Pillar of Nationalism in India'.

In 1920, Rai presided over a special session of the Congress in Calcutta to decide the party's course of action and to fight the British. The non-cooperation movement was formally launched later that year.

Rai was deported to Burma (now Myanmar), without trial in May 1907, for his role in the agitation in Punjab, but in November, he was allowed to return for lack of sufficient evidence.

Lala Lajpat Rai (left) of Punjab, Bal Gangadhar Tilak of Maharashtra, and Bipin Chandra Pal of Bengal changed India’s political discourse and freedom movement.
Lala Lajpat Rai (left) of Punjab, Bal Gangadhar Tilak of Maharashtra, and Bipin Chandra Pal of Bengal changed India’s political discourse and freedom movement.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Draconian Rowlatt Act

In February 1919, the British passed the Rowlatt Act, allowing certain political cases to be tried without juries. The Act was also termed as the ‘Black Act' and Indians condemned it. Rai led massive agitations against the draconian law. As a consequence, he was imprisoned again from 1921 to 1923.

The Draconian Rowlatt Act
The Draconian Rowlatt Act
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Lathi Blows Inflicted on Rai

In 1928, the British government set up a Commission, headed by Sir John Simon to report on the political situation in India. Indian leaders boycotted the Simon Commission, because it did not include a single Indian as a member of the Commission. There were nation-wide protests. When the Commission visited Lahore on 30 October 1928, Lajpat Rai led non-violent march against it. The protesters chanted Simon go back and carried black flags.

The then superintendent of police, James Scott, ordered the police to lathi charge the protesters and he himself brutally assaulted Rai. Despite being critically injured, a bleeding Lala Lajpat Rai subsequently addressed the crowd and said, ‘Lathi blows inflicted on me will someday prove to be nails in the coffin of the British Empire.’

He did not fully recover from his injuries and died of a heart attack on 17 November 1928.

Rai was brutally beaten up by the Police during peaceful protests in Lahore, on 30 October 1928.
Rai was brutally beaten up by the Police during peaceful protests in Lahore, on 30 October 1928.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

Lala Lajpat Rai Donned Many Hats

At the peak of the non-cooperation movement, Rai was a contributor to several newspapers including The Tribune.

He penned several books, including 'Arya Samaj', 'Young India', 'The Story Of My Deportation', 'Unhappy India', 'The United States of America: A Hindu's Impression' and 'England's Debt to India'.

Rai set up the National College in Lahore in the early 1920s. It is here that Bharat Singh met his comrades Sukhdev, Yashpal, Ram Krishna and Bhagwati Charan Vohra.

Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, which housed the National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai
Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, which housed the National College founded by Lala Lajpat Rai
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Though Lala Lajpat Rai did not live to see India achieve freedom, his spirit lives on in independent India.

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