Lala Lajpat Rai was born in 1865 into an Aggarwal (trader) family. His birth took place at his maternal grand-parents’ home in a village called Dhudike in Ferozpur District while his mother was visiting there. His father, Munshi Radha Krishna Azad, a pious and learned man, was at the time receiving education at Normal School, Delhi after serving as a teacher for three years.
Lalaji’s mother, Shrimati Gulab Devi, a strict religious lady, inculcated in her children strong morals values.Lalaji received his education until his Entrance Examination in places where his father was posted as teacher. Lalaji joined the Government College at Lahore in 1880 to study Law. While in college he came in contact with patriots and future freedom fighters like Lala Hans Raj and Pandit Guru Dutt.
The three became fast friends and joined the Arya Samaj founded by Swami Daya Nanda. Lalaji passed his Mukhtiarship (junior pleader) examination and started his legal practice in Jagraon. He passed his Vakilship Examination in Second Division from Government College in 1885. He started his practice in Rohtak but moved it to Hissar where some of his friends were also practicing the Law.
Lalaji’s early legal practice at Hissar was very successful. Besides practicing, Lalaji collected funds for the Daya Nand College, attended Arya Samaj functions and participated in Congress activities. He was elected to the Hissar municipality as a member and later as secretary. Lalaji shifted to Lahore in 1892.
Soon after settling in Lahore, the Arya Samaj suffered a vertical split into two factions, the College Party and the Gurukul Party. Lalaji supported the College Party which favored teaching English along with Sanskrit in schools while the Gurukul Party wanted the exclusion of English from the curriculum. The Arya Samaj managed to maintain its unity owing to the efforts of Lalaji and many other experienced leaders who realized that a split would hurt the nation. Lalaji started the Anglo-Sanskrit High School at Jullundur and assumed the responsibility of the Secretary of the Management Committee. He was an advocate of self- reliance and refused to take Government aid for the D.A.V College. Lalaji also became the General Secretary of the first Hindu orphanage established at Ferozepur by the Atya Samaj.
Lalaji provided immense service toward the famine relief efforts during the famines of 1897 and 1899. He mobilized D.A.V. college students and went to Bikaner and other areas of Rajasthan to rescue destitute children and bring them to Lahore. He believed that “a nation that does not protect its own orphan children cannot command respect at the hands of other people.” When people fleeing the famine reached Lahore, they spent their first night at Lalaji’s house. The Kangra district of Punjab suffered destruction in the earthquake of 1905. Lalaji was there once again, organizing relief for extricating people from the debris. In 1898, Lalaji curtailed his legal practice and vowed to devote all his energy for the nation.
Lalaji was opposed to the recommendations of the University Education Commission. The commission, recommended Government control of education and set forth difficult standards for starting private schools. Punjab was adversely affected by the commission because the Arya Samaj was extremely active in the field of education. After the commission, it became impossible for the people to have any say in their children’s education. Lalaji declared that “the Government by these new regulations has made it almost impossible for the Private Education Societies to start schools or improve them. People are compelled to deduce… that… the Government (does not want) to spend money for educational work, nor can endure that Indians should voluntarily undertake this work by spending money, unless the Indians hand over their money and efforts to the Government. It (would have been) impossible for institutions like (the) Metropolitan College, Calcutta (College), Fergusson College, Poona and D.A.V. College… to come into existence under the present policies.”
Lalaji dove headlong in the struggle against partition of Bengal. Along with Surendra Nath Banerjea, Bipin Chandra Pal and Arvinda Ghosh, he galvanized Bengal and the nation in a vigorous campaign of swadeshi. The British Government claimed that partition would make administering the region easier. The leaders saw through this excuse as the age old British policy of divide and rule at work.
Lalaji was arrested on May 3, 1907 for creating “turmoil” in Rawalpindi. Lalaji went there when he learned that five prominent Indian lawyers had been served notices by the Deputy Commissioner. The District Magistrate banned any public meetings or speeches. Lalaji was to give a speech at Rawalpindi in connection with the served notices. The Magistrate declared the congregation that had come to hear Lalaji’s speech seditious. When Lalaji could not stop their arrest, he returned to Lahore to move the Chief Court for the bail of the lawyers. The Government was informed that Lalaji was responsible for the unrest in Rawalpindi and was arrested.
On arriving at the Commissioner’s office, Lalaji was told that he was under arrest in pursuance of a warrant issued by the Governor General who had decided to deport him. At about 4 a.m. Lalaji was put on a special train that left for Calcutta. Lalaji reached the Diamond Harbor railway station and was put on a ship which sailed for Mandalay fort. Lalaji remained in Mandalay for six months. Lalaji was released on November 11, 1907. While in Manadalay two British newspapers charged Lalaji of conspiring with the Amir of Kabul for overthrowing the British Raj in India. On his release Lalaji filed law suits against the newspapers for making libelous statements and won both cases.
Fearing prosecution from the Government for having contacts with Lalaji, the College Party of Arya Samaj issued a statement which read that the D.A.V. College had no connections with Lala Lajpat Rai. Lalaji was deeply hurt by this statement but he continued to support the College and the Samaj from outside.
Lalaji believed that it was important for the national cause to organize propaganda in foreign countries to explain India’s position because the freedom struggle had taken a militant turn. He left for Britain in April 1914 for this purpose. Lalaji wrote numerous articles and delivered many speeches. A couple of months later, World War I broke out between England and Germany and Lalaji was not allowed to return to India. Lalaji immediately made plans to go to U.S.A. to galvanize more political support for India’s cause. He founded the Indian Home League Society of America and wrote a book called “Young India” with a preface written by Col. Wedgewood, a member of the British Parliament. The book constituted the most damaging indictment of British rule in India and book was banned in Britain and India even before it was published. While Lalaji was in America, the British press churned out propaganda against Lalaji, charging him with taking ten thousand rupees from Germany. Lalaji was able to return to India only after the war was over in February 1920.
On his return, the Congress invited him to preside over the special session in Calcutta in 1920. Lalaji supported the non-cooperation movement, which was being launched in response to the Rowlatt (Black) Act, in principle. He was skeptical if such a mass boycott comprising of educational institutions, job, law courts and foreign goods was truly achievable. Lalaji nevertheless exhorted the nation to answer the Congress’s demand for complete non-cooperation. The Congress started the Tilak Swarajya Fund to raise one crore rupees for the effort. Lalaji collected nine lakh rupees within two weeks for the fund. Lalaji was arrested on December 3, 1921 in Lahore for his activities related to the non-cooperation movement and was imprisoned for a year and a half. The program was a resounding success. The Government machinery, slowly but surely, began to grind to a halt. The Governor General invited Mahatma Gandhi to attend a Round Table Conference in London, Britain.
The British began to employ the tried and tested Divide and Rule policy once again by harping on communal discord between Hindus and Muslims. Riots were justified by Muslim leaders as a fight for equal political rights if and when India became free. The Muslim leaders assured that the squabbles would stop if they were granted political rights according to their wishes. To cater to this request, the Congress appointed Lalaji and Dr. Ansari for bringing Hindu- Muslim unity. Chittranjan Das submitted his own proposal while Lalaji and Dr. Ansari were holding deliberations. C.R. Das’s efforts failed to achieve their goal and Hindu-Muslim discord persisted.
Gandhiji ended the non-cooperation movement when riots broke out at Bardoli. Lalaji diverted his attention again to social and educational projects. He reopened the Jagaraon High School and started a newspaper called People. He started the Lok Sewak Society, whose member toured from place to place and started new schools for the depressed classes. He donated a lakh of rupees toward the construction of the Gulab Devi Memorial Hospital in memory of his deceased mother.
Lalaji was disgusted at the arrogance of the British for sending the Simon Commission comprised of Britishers only. On February 16, 1927, Lalaji moved a resolution in the Central Legislative Assembly, refusing cooperation with the Simon Commission ‘at any stage or in any form.” He spoke with such fervor that he carried the house and got the resolution adopted in the Assembly. The Government imposed section 144 to restrain people from protesting against the commission. Lalaji joined a demonstration against the Simon Commission. The police lathi-charged the assembled. While Lalaji tried his level best to keep the demonstration peaceful, the police targeted him and wounded him on his chest. The people were enraged at this insult and held a meeting the same evening. Lalaji, though in intense pain, gave a speech and declared “…every blow aimed at me is a nail in the coffin of British Imperialism….” He recovered from the wounds left by the British but he remained emotionally scarred at the brutality of the “civilized” British. Why had he been specifically targeted by the British? Why had they lathi- charged against a peaceful gathering. These thoughts racked his spirit till the very end. Lalaji died on November 17, 1928 of heart failure.
Lalaji appealed to the people “I do not know whether I shall remain, but you should never worry. My spirit after me will go on exhorting you to make more sacrifices for liberty.”