Sundays with The Modern Review: Lala Lajpat Rai

(Note: The Modern Review archives run from 1907, when it was founded by Ramananda Babu, to the 1960s. Since this volume was intended to commemorate Ramananda Chatterjee, we looked only at volumes published between 1907 to 1943, the year of his death, and included a few articles from the August 1947 issue as well. Patriots, Poets & Prisoners was published in 2016 and edited by two of Ramananda Chatterjee’s descendants, Devangshu Datta and Anikendra Sen, and me.

By bringing out this volume and sharing excerpts from Patriots, Poets & Prisoners on this blog, we hope to draw attention to the fact that much of India’s true, and often stirring, history lies in the archives of little magazines and turn-of-the-century journals. These periodicals, if curated and reissued, allow readers today to listen in to history as it was being made, with few filters between them and the leaders or brightest minds from the past. It is a heritage that belongs, properly, to the next generation of Indians, but it cannot be so easily claimed until it is brought out of our archives and libraries.)



Lala Lajpat Rai was 42 when he wrote this long, impassioned, and often prescient essay. 1907 was an action-packed year for him; he visited the US, was deported to Mandalay without benefit of a trial by the British in May, but allowed to return in November. The Modern Review, like many of its counterparts such as the Indian Review and The Hindustan Review, was an excellent meeting place, and jousting ground, for the rising tribe of Indian nationalists.




By Lala Lajpat Rai

Problems of the gravest import await our solution-“problems which need all our nerve, all our determination, all our courage, all our hope and which affect the life and death of us all,” were the words uttered by one of the most popular divines of England, portraying “national perils” for the consideration of his countrymen.


Well did he say that the conditions of things then or at any time may be looked at in two different ways. There is one set of facts, which, when considered exclusively, would make us hopeless pessimists. There is another set of facts which when taken by themselves may furnish good ground for the most sanguine optimism. The truth, however, generally lies between the two. While pessimism is positively harmful as dispiriting and discouraging, optimism may be misleading as tending to produce a frame of mind which is always sanguine, prone to ignore difficulties and to neglect very necessary ‘precautions. The best and the safest course, therefore, will be to steer clear of extreme views, to weigh the situation as accurately as may be possible in the light of our own history, that of the ruling race, and that of other countries and people similarly situated. Practical wisdom lies in eschewing, over-estimating as well as under-estimating. While it is no good under-estimating our difficulties and over-estimating our capacities, it is perhaps more harmful to have a very low opinion of ourselves and our people. Both are equally bad; though if compelled to make a choice between the two, I would rather choose the former than the latter. Keeping the past history of the Hindus in mind I would rather see them indulge in optimism than in pessimism.


We have so long been in doubt about ourselves, about the world and about the good in the world that it is time to exchange this latter attitude of mind for confidence in self, confidence in our people, and hope for a better future, which may give us better opportunities to use and enjoy the good and the beautiful in the world. We have known enough of misery and it is time we made up our minds to discard it at any cost, even at the risk of having to

suffer and undergo greater misery in the attempt to achieve the desired end.


But while recommending this attitude of mind to the nation at large, I cannot help asking those engaged in the work of awakening the people to a sense of their rights, to make no attempts to under-estimate the difficulties or to ignore them. I know there are a number of people ill-disposed towards us, who exaggerate our difficulties so that we may sink under their weight and give up all efforts to rise. These honourable gentlemen, past masters in the art of diplomacy as they are, leave no stone unturned to make us and our people believe that there is no hope for us; that it is perfectly futile for us to make any attempt to gain our liberty; that, in fact, we are happier now than we can possibly be in a state of self-government. While they do not scruple to threaten us with fire and sword now and then, at other times they are disposed to use the milder weapon of persuasion, trying each in turn and hopeful of favourable results. While constantly dinning into our ears the vastness of the resources of their empire, more than sufficient in their opinion to bring down the whole of Asia to their feet, they never forget to remind us of our shortcomings and failings and weaknesses — our state of disunion and our helplessness in their grip.


While some of us they threaten, others they cajole and flatter, going even so far as to bribe some, who are susceptible of being won over in that way. Our wisdom, moderation, prudence, and humanity are all, in turns appealed to, nay, our patriotism also is requisitioned at times on their side. All our weak points are assailed and a superhuman

effort is being made to persuade us to give up all efforts to win self-government, the latter being at times painted as very pernicious, injurious and harmful, in the case of Asiatic peoples. Oh, how shocking must it be to those who believe in the innate sense of goodness and justice of. human nature and in the native integrity of.human conscience! But self-interest blinds a man and it is no wonder, that blinded by self-interest, carried away’ by the lust of gain and power, these imperial wolves in the shape of men, should belie their innate good natures and in the degradation of their own souls try to bring down even truth and uprightness.


One is at times disposed to lose all faith in the goodness of human nature when one sees these professed friends of ours preaching sermons of unswerving loyalty, and forbearance and moderation to us in their efforts to make us believe that our state of complete subservience is nothing but perfect bliss for us, and that an attempt to throw it off is sinful and likely to land us in greater disasters. I will advise my people to decline to listen to these friends of ours, if they desire to go forward and to attach no weight whatsoever either to their threats or their promises or their reasoning but all the same, to try to study the situation well, find out the truth and do what is right and just, be the consequences what they may.


At the 22nd session of the Indian National Congress our worthy president, the grand old man of India, has laid down our political goal. The aim of all our efforts and the object of all our agitation, has been placed before us in clear, unambiguous and unmistakable terms. In a happy and inspired moment Mr Naoroji struck upon that noble word “Swaraj”, which sums up all our political aspirations. Henceforth, “Swaraj” is our war-cry, our all-inspiring and all-absorbing aim in life. Henceforth, the duty of our earthly existence should be to forget self in this aim prescribed for us by the exigencies of the times and accepted by us after consideration of all the pros and cons.



For the first time in the history of political agitation in this country under British rule, the goal of all cur political effort has been so clearly laid down before us; and thank God that for that we are indebted to no other but one who is the flesh of our flesh and the bone of our bone – a chip of the old block. We are now no longer groping in the dark as to the final goal of our political ambition; Swaraj has now been, officially, so to say, and definitely set up as the polestar in the firmament of Indian nationalism, and there it shall stay and shine with ever-resplendent glory and splendour as the guiding star of our hopes and aspirations. So far well and good. The next question that now arises is how to reach that goal and how to realise that aim? Like practical men, who have every desire to go into the matter in a businesslike spirit, we should first of all make a complete survey of the difficulties in the way of our success and then take stock of our resources, so that we might successfully employ the latter to meet the former.


Coming to our difficulties, in my opinion the foremost place amongst them must be given to our want of faith in ourselves, to the scepticism that is the ruling doctrine,of our life, to the habit of too close an analysis which paralyses both action and thought.


Unfortunately, for us, though born in a country dominated by a religious atmosphere of great depth all round, we are wanting in “that power of faith and will which neither counts obstacles nor measures time”. At present, we are nothing more ‘ than a set of doubting Thomases fond of analysis and entirely devoid of synthesis. Perhaps we are getting into a habit of destroying rather than that of building. We can calculate profits and losses to annas and pies, but we are devoid of that spirit of enterprise which can dare and at time play boldly.


In a country whose history is brimful of instances of thousands of men and women having willingly and gladly sacrificed their all for the sake of honour and faith, we find that a century of Western domination has so changed the ruling impulses of life as to convert the people into a set of clay-puppets having no will or faith of their own. Thank God, the country has not lost all sense of spirituality. The gold is there. It requires the touch of a magician to find it out and to make it over to them whose it is by birthright. The true solution of the problem lies in appealing to the true instincts and tendencies of the Indian heart, mute just now, but revealed to us in the pages of our history. In the words of Mazzini, the first step towards this aim is “to make war against the existing idolatry of material interests and substitute for it the worship of the just and the true: and to convince the [Indians] that their sole path to reality is through sacrifice boldly. The work before us is not only an endeavour to create a united nation but to make her great and powerful, worthy of her past glories and conscious of her future mission.”


India is just now materialistic, believing in the benevolence of English Ministers or English Parliaments, seeking rather the amelioration of the condition of the classes than to constitute itself a nation. The country and its leaders rather fight shy of high principles, and are ready to accept any compromise, any offer of a post here or there, any tinkering with their rights, any mode of assistance and last but not the least “always ready to accept any man brought forward with a promise of relieving her immediate sufferings” as their Messiah. Our attitude towards the questions of the day is not determined by its inherent righteousness, but by the chance of its reception at the hands of the powers that be. We are not always actuated by truth and justice, but by expediency and tactics. Our object is to propitiate our foreign rulers, but not to inspire our people. We choose to live in a world of myth and fiction and not in a world of truth, faith and duty. We conceal our sentiments not because they are not true and just but because we cannot afford to offend those whom they might hurt. In trying to deceive others we often deceive ourselves. The result is that we are lacking in that power of faith which alone can make us men, able to create a nation and win liberty for the same.


Our mortal disease is that unlimited confidence in everything bearing the outward semblance of all calculation and tactics, that constant distrust of all enthusiasm, energy and simultaneous action — three things which sum up the whole science of revolution.


We wait, study and follow circumstances; we neither seek to dominate nor to create them. We honour with the name of prudence that which is, in action, merely mediocrity of intellect. Our whole life from top to bottom smacks of fear, deadly fear of losing in the estimation of those whom we in our heart of hearts believe to be only usurpers; fear of losing the sunshine of the smile of those whom we believe to be day and night engaged in the exploitation of our country and the spoliation of our people, fear of offending the false gods that have by fraud or force taken possession of our bodies and souls, fear of being shut up in a dungeon or prison house, as if the freedom that we enjoy, is not by its own nature, one to be abhorred, despised and hated, a freedom by default or by sufferance. In my opinion the problem before us is in the main a religious problem — religious not in the sense of doctrines and dogmas — but religious in so far as to evoke the highest devotion and the greatest sacrifice from us.


Our first want, then, is to raise our patriotism to the level of religion and to aspire to live or to die for it. We believe in religion for the sake of the truth in it which is to secure for our souls communion with God. There in the presence of our God we forget our tiny selves, the pettiness of our minds and rising above the same, drink from the pure fountain of bliss and love. In the same way, let the edifice of patriotism be raised on the solid rock of truth and justice. In worshipping truth and justice let us be honest and bold, regardless of worldly losses and gains. Let the people first learn to think honestly and boldly.


This will in course of time be followed by honest, bold and truthful words and the latter by honest, bold and inspiring deeds. If we do this, the future of our country is in our hands. There is no power on earth that can stand between us and our country as there is no petty god that can ever come between the conscience of an honest, bold worshipper and his Almighty Maker. The first step of the political ladder, then, consists in our educating the

people in a school of true politics, of our initiating them into a religion of true patriotism with a creed of Nationality, Liberty and Unity, to be believed and striven after with all the sincerity of heart and devotion, worthy of the oriental mind.


Let us first renounce all kinds of self-interest and class-interest, in favour of a noble and universal patriotism embracing all the people and all the provinces of Mother India, irrespective of creed, caste and colour. All talk of unity is futile unless we succeed in bringing about a unity of purpose in the minds of the people whom we desire to unite. An attempt to base this unity of purpose on material interests might lead us in interminable dissensions and endless controversies — in insuperable friction and unsurmountable irritation. But a sincere effort to give a higher and spiritual basis to our unity of purpose might save the situation and lead us safely to the haven of our hopes. That oneness of purpose is very happily summed up in the sacred salutation Bande Mataram and in the war-cry of ‘Swaraj.’


Let us next proceed to examine the forces that are likely to oppose us in our propaganda. Here, again, the greatest danger is in my opinion, from within and not from without. To the Government there are only two paths that are open: a system of terror or a system of concessions. The latter possesses more possibilities. of success than the former. A system of terror invariably recoils over the heads of those that resort to it, and I am confident that the British are sufficiently wise not to forget that there is a great deal of truth in what is so often quoted by European revolutionists that:-


“Blood calls for blood, and the dagger of the conspirator is never so terrible as when sharpened on the tomb-stone of a martyr.”


A system of small concessions, however, might be more effectual to stem the rising tide of nationality. Therein probably lies a greater danger to the rapid growth of the idea of nationality in the country than in a system of repression. Trivial changes in administrative machinery, the reform of the most crying governmental abuses and a few more ineffectual concessions not involving any fundamental change in the principles of government or in the Constitution of the same, should not satisfy our people, unless the same are accompanied by a guarantee of fixed institutions, and a fundamental contract recognising a right, a power and a sovereignty in the people.


That the opposition of the dominant race will be tremendous and terrible I readily grant; but what I fear most is the opposition from within, the opposition of the classes enjoying the special patronage of the Government, the opposition of interest, the opposition of privilege, and last but not the least, the opposition of timidity and cowardice. The divine, whom I quoted in the opening lines of the paper, has in one of his essays on social amelioration drawn the following picture of the attitude of his countrymen towards the social evils existing in English society.


He says: “The attitude of some — let us hope very few — is simply not to care at all, to live in pleasure on the earth and be wanton; to have hearts as fat as brawn and cold as ice, and as hard as the nether millstone; to heap up superfluous and often ill begotten wealth, to be hoarded in acquisition, squandered in luxury, or reserved for the building up of idle families. But to men, whose immense riches are squandered, in all but an insignificant fraction, on their own lust and their own aggrandisement comes the stern strong message of St. James:


‘Your riches are corrupted, your garments are moth-eaten. You have lived delicately on the earth, and taken your pleasure. You have nourished your hearts in a day of slaughter.’


“The attitude of others is that of a scornful pity, half cynical, half -despairing. The attitude of others again is stolid acquiescence. They are weary of the whole thing; sick of hearing anything about it. It annoys them. Tell them of it and they shrug their shoulders with an impatient “what can we do!” Ask them for help, and they have “so many claims,” that they practically give to none. Press the claims and they resent it as a personal insult. Suggest a plan and they call it a’Utopian.” Describe a case of anguish and they will call you “sensational.” Take part in a public effort and they will sneer at you as “self advertising.” The one thing they believe in is selfish laissez faire. Things will last their time and that is all they care about. They grow too indulgent and too selfish to care about anything but their own indulgences and their own ease.”


Applying this to Indian society, I am afraid, the picture will have to be painted a great deal blacker. There are at any rate no traitors in English society. In our case the chief difficulty does not solely lie in the persistent and deliberate discouragement which is held out by a large section of the community to all efforts towards progress. Here it is not the scoffer and the cynic only that stand in the way of advance but even more dangerous are those who insist to

be of you, and with you, but whose heart is not with you, and whose interests, as understood by them, lie the other way. Although they are apt to betray themselves at every other step, they cover their shame by ridiculing the zealous and the earnest, by quietly and philosophically questioning their motives and by poisoning the minds of others against them.


Their attitude undergoes no change whether the reform advocated is religious, social or political. The first bores them as an affection of the brain; the second annoys them as tending towards puritanism and misanthrophy; the third frightens them. The beauty of the whole thing, however, lies in the fact that large number of them cannot help poking their noses almost everywhere. They enlist as members of societies whose proposed object is to preach religion. They display great interest in social reform so long as it does n~t interfere with what they call the joys of life. Maintaining an attitude of boldness and defiance to public opinion when the latter proposes to interfere in any way with the “pleasure of life,” they are docile as lambs when their ladies and biradari (caste) people insist on the celebration of the marriages of their boys and girls at tender ages.


As for political associations, these are their special hunting grounds. They have no objection to preside at public meetings or to move or second resolutions or to attend Conferences and Congresses, if it suits their convenience or is likely to be profitable, but all the same they will continue to revel in scoffing at and laughing down those who are serious and earnest about the matter. The general mass of the people are so ignorant of political ideas that it is impossible for them to understand or find out the real game which these gentlemen are playing. Consequently they are often cowed down and persuaded to let matters alone rather than make a bold stand for

their rights.


The first necessity of the situation is, therefore, the coming forward of a number of whole-time workers in each province, devoted to the work of giving political. education and imparting right ideas, irrespective and regardless of the scoffer and the cynic.


Mr. Dadabhai Naoroji exhorts us to agitate, agitate and agitate.


I say, Amen! but on the clear understanding that agitation is an educational duty which has to be performed regardless of success in the shape of concessions. Let the public be accustomed to agitate for the sake of agitation and not in the hope of getting any immediate redress. That is, in my opinion, the only way to ward off disappointments and to prepare the people for more effective methods of political activity. Our esteemed countryman Mr. Tilak advises the people to make the work of administration on the present lines impossible by passive resistance. I say, that is only possible by training the people to a habit of suffering for principles, i.e., to dare and to risk; and by infusing in them a spirit of defiance wherever a question of principle is involved. The way is to be shown by personal example and not by precept alone. There is the old truth “no risk, no gain.”


The line of least resistance, of empty resolutions on paper, of simple resolutions, memorials, and not petitions backed up by anything which would place our earnestness beyond the shade of a doubt, is a line of action more worthy of women than of men. If I may be permitted to question the political leaders of the country, what irresistible proofs have they up to this time given of their earnestness for the political demand made by them? If the time was not and is not ripe for these proofs then why did they not follow the Japanese in ‘making quiet preparations at home before coming out openly with fiery speeches and longwinded resolutions? If, however, we have not wasted twenty-two years on political agitation and if the Swadeshi and Boycott are not lip-platitudes to be indulged in for the edification of our audiences, let us now take to it seriously and give incontestable proofs, of our earnestness for political privileges.


Hitherto our work has lacked that system and solidity which are the outcome of well thought out and well organised plans; hitherto the political movement has only been carried out by fits and starts. It has completely depended on the moments of leisure which gentlemen engaged in learned professions and business, could conveniently spare for the same. It has been a labour of love to them, but it has always occupied a secondary position in their thoughts. The country has so far failed to produce a class of men whose chief and prime business in life will be political agitation and political education. The chief and crying need of the national movement is the coming forward of a class of earnest, sincere, able and devoted men, who will move about the country freely and preach the Gospel of freedom, both by word of mouth as well as

by example — men who wiII win over the masses to the cause of Truth and Justice, by words of wisdom and lives of service. The nonexistence

of this class at the present moment, combined with other difficulties makes the national outlook very gloomy indeed, but the remedy to change the face of things lies in our own hands.


There is an all round awakening in the land, and if the awakening were to be properly utilised by the class of men I have spoken of above, I am sure that the dense gloom that prevails now, will soon be thinned by streaks of encouraging and cheering light, crowed by the dawn of hope and the sunrise of national birth.


Most of our people are unnerved by the prevailing disunion and other vices which are the necessary outcome of a foreign domination. It is true that foreign domination is always brought on by disunion but once it has come in, it accentuates the same and adds to its volume and intensity, as without it, it loses the chief reason for its continuance. Some of our people are very angry (and at times rightly) at the narrow, sectarian, denominational spirit that is rampant in the land. In their eyes, it is the chief obstacle in the way of political independence and as a means to obtain the latter, they set about in all sincerity and earnestness to root out the former. All honour to their sentiments and to their impulses. But a calm consideration will show that the task is almost impossible. If the boon of self-government is to be denied to us so long as the people of this country do not give up denominationalism and do not take to one religion or no-religion, I am afraid there can be no hope for us.


The problem before us is, to accept the facts before us as they are, and then to build up the edifice of nationality on them or inspite of them. I hope I shall not be misunderstood. I am not opposed to the cultivation of a spirit of catholicity amongst the followers of the different religions that are to be found in the country. By all means carry on your work in this direction as zealously as you can. I wish you all success. But I cannot persuade myself to believe that it is possible to uproot denominationalism from this land and for matter of that, from any land. Our best efforts should then be directed to create a nation in spite of them.


I am not quite sure, if it is desirable to do away with religion or with religious denominations altogether, even if it were possible to do so. All these differences in religion serve their own purposes in the general economy of the world, and there are a good many people whose views are entitled to the greatest respect from us, who are inclined to think that the world would be poorer and monotonous by the entire removal of these differences. Our readers are probably aware of the rebuke administered by Burke to the authors of the French Revolution in their efforts to enforce a universal quality. In his “Reflections on the French Revolution,” addressing the people of France, he questions the wisdom of the sweeping changes effected by them in their constitution in the following words:


“In your old States you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed, you had all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.”


I express no opinion upon the force of the anathemas hurled by Burke on the French Revolution, but I cannot help remarking that there is a great deal of truth in the general observation quoted above. The world is, no doubt, good and beautiful only with its diversity. The chief object of human yearning is, has been, and ought to be, to find harmony in diversity. Nations are built and unified by the differences that exist between the various classes of their population. The Apostle of Unity in order to succeed must find a common object to achieve and a common enemy to fight.


All differences must be sunk in the presence of the latter and to achieve the former but not necessarily otherwise. For as this and this only can be the common basis of nationality, I do not think there are insuperable difficulties in the way of Indian Unity, if the denominational and other differences are faced in that spirit.


Another evil which often staggers us, is the illiteracy and ignorance of our people. Here again, while admitting the absolute necessity of educating the masses, I fail to see the soundness of the proposition, that universal education must precede any demand for self-government. In fact it is hopeless to expect anything like universal education without self-government. Over a century and a quarter of British rule has failed to educate more than five or six per cent of the people of India, while Japan has been wholly educated within less than forty years. The educational work is one of the most important of our national duties, but by no means should it be made a condition precedent to our demanding self-government.


Here, too, the principal question is of men and money. Find out the former and the latter will be forthcoming. That is, therefore the chief thing, for the finding of which, the nation should put forth its best energy and talent.


Give us a dozen men in each province, exclusively devoted to the work of national regeneration, and the situation will at once assume a bright appearance and will promise the most hopeful results. Let us hope that the best talent and the best patriotism of the country are engaged in tapping the resources which are eventually to give us the desired class of men who shall be our national Sanyasis in the present crisis. It was probably said of times like these that, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The sunshine soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands to it now, deserves the thanks of man and woman. Tyranny like hell is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the contest, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ‘it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods; and it would have been strange indeed if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”


Originally published in the Modern Review, volume I, (1907), pp. 282-89.


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Copyright: The Modern Review is out of copyright and in the public domain; however, the editors request that articles should be reproduced in their entirety wherever possible.





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