November 17 is the death anniversary of Lala Lajpat Rai, the firebrand Indian nationalist leader affectionately called ‘Punjab Kesari’. Rai is remembered for his role during the Swadeshi movement and for his advocacy of education. The patriot died at Lahore in 1928 after he was attacked by police during a protest rally against the Simon Commission.
Born at Dhudike near Ludhiana in Punjab in 1865, Rai studied law at the Government College, Lahore (now called GCU, Lahore), and had a legal practice in that city. Early in life, he became a follower of Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, and went on to become one of the society’s leaders. In 1881, he joined the Indian National Congress at the age of 16. In 1885, Rai established the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School in Lahore and remained a committed educationist throughout his life.
During the Lahore Session of the Congress in 1893, Rai met Bal Gangadhar Tilak, another nationalist, and the two became lifelong associates. Rai, Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal (called Lal-Bal-Pal) fervently advocated the use of Swadeshi goods and mass agitation in the aftermath of the controversial Partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon.
After taking part in a demonstration in Punjab in 1907, colonial authorities deported Rai to Mandalay in present-day Myanmar without trial, but he was allowed to return the same year for lack of evidence.
In 1913, Rai set out for a lecture tour to Japan, England, and the United States, but was forced to stay put abroad after World War I broke and remained overseas until 1920. During his travels, he met many diaspora communities and founded the Indian Home Rule League of America in New York City in 1917.
Upon his return, Rai was elected President of the Indian National Congress during its Special Session in Kolkata in 1920, which saw the launch of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation Movement. He was subsequently imprisoned from 1921 and 1923.
In 1928, the Simon Commission, a British-appointed group of lawmakers arrived in India to study the implementation of the Government of India Act, 1919 (the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms). The group of 7 did not consist of a single Indian member, a fact that was heavily resented by the Congress. Rai was among the leaders of the movement opposing the Commission and was severely lathi-charged during a protest in Lahore on October 30, 1928. It was after this that Rai famously said, “The blows struck at me today will be the last nails in the coffin of British rule in India.” He died a few days later on November 17.
Apart from his active involvement in politics, Rai also wrote extensively in English and Urdu. His important works include: ‘The Arya Samaj’, ‘Young India’, ‘England's Debt to India’, ‘Evolution of Japan’, ‘India's Will to Freedom’, ‘Message of the Bhagwad Gita’, ‘Political Future of India’, ‘Problem of National Education in India', ‘The Depressed Glasses’, and the travelogue ‘United States of America’.