Remembering Rajendranath Lahiri, the Revolutionary Who Threw Away His 'Sacred' Thread

Lahiri can be seen as an embodiment of the transition that the Indian revolutionary movement was going through in the late 1920s.

Among the Kakori martyrs, the names of three – Ashfaqullah Khan, Ram Prasad Bismil and Roshan Singh – are well remembered by every Indian, mainly because they were hanged on the same date: December 19, 1927. However, the name of the fourth martyr, Rajendranath Lahiri, hanged two days before on December 17, 1927, largely remains forgotten.

Lahiri can be seen as an embodiment of the transition that the Indian revolutionary movement was going through in the late 1920s. In terms of ideology, the revolutionary movement witnessed a refinement from anti-British nationalism towards socialism; in matters of religious beliefs, there was a shift towards atheism.

Since the formation of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) in 1924, the Indian revolutionary movement was not merely concerned with overthrowing the British. The revolutionaries also discussed the future society they wanted to establish, the role of religion in politics and its overall merit, and discrimination based on caste and economic inequality. The constitution of the HRA envisioned a society where the “exploitation of Man by Man” would not be possible. The revolutionary movement had not arrived at this aim just as a matter of rhetoric; there were debates and discussions among them. Rajendranath Lahiri was at the centre of these debates.

A sweet-tempered man often seen with a smile, Lahiri was born in 1901, in Pabna district of the Bengal Presidency, in an upper-caste landlord family. He was later sent to study in Varanasi, where he came into contact with Sachindranath Sanyal, the co-founder of the HRA, and thus began his revolutionary career. A graduate in economics and history, Lahiri was honorary secretary of the Bengal Sahitya Parishad and secretary of the health union at Benaras Hindu University (BHU). He wrote articles in papers like Bangabani and Shanka – a magazine edited by Sanyal. He also wrote articles for a handwritten monthly magazine titled Agradut. Lahiri was pursuing an MA in history when he was hanged at the age of 24.

Lahiri was the district organiser for the HRA in Varanasi and a member of its provincial council. He used several aliases like Charu, Jawahar and Jugalkishore. It was Lahiri who stopped the train during the Kakori action by pulling a chain from a second-class compartment. Before participating in the historic Kakori train dacoity, Lahiri was involved in in several holdups for the HRA in the United Provinces to collect funds for revolutionary activities.

For a few years, the HRA resorted to dacoity to arrange money for buying arms and printing leaflets and posters. They would loot affluent landlords from time to time. Slowly, they recognised that this method sustained them financially, but was antithetical to their idea of freedom. The fight against imperialism had to begin by challenging the British Empire and not just by fighting the British in India. Hence, it was decided that the party would target the coffers of the government itself, and make it clear that the Indian revolutionaries stood against the draining of wealth from the country.

Also read: Remembering Ashfaqullah Khan – Kakori Martyr, Poet, Dreamer and Revolutionary Intellectual

Thus, on August 9, 1927, they stopped and looted a train carrying government revenue near Kakori, which infuriated the British government. After the dacoity, the revolutionaries moved to different places. The revolutionaries, while being engaged in revolutionary work, held regular discussions and would often debate various ideas and principles.

Lahiri was one of the most well-read in socialist literature among the revolutionaries of his times, and debated the question of religion in public and private life. Regarding the study of socialist literature among HRA revolutionaries, Manmath Nath Gupta, a comrade of Lahiri’s and prominent member of the HRA in an interview given to the Nehru Memorial said, “I had studied, Rajendranath Lahiri had studied and we both had reached the conclusion that the socialist philosophy was integral part of socialist thinking. The two could not be separated and we were already anti-religious and we had started thinking in terms of atheism. At least we were agnostic.”

Being anti-religious was considered an important part of becoming a socialist in the Marxist tradition among the HRA revolutionaries. This understanding often led to heated debates within the organisation which eventually got divided into two sections. The first comprised ‘old’ revolutionaries like Ramprasad Bismil and Sachindranath Sanyal, who espoused the ‘economic’ aspects of socialism but stayed away from the materialist philosophy. The other section comprised ‘young’ comrades like Lahiri, Manmath Nath Gupta, Keshab Chakravarti, Raj Kumar Sinha and others.

Gupta further says, “Rajendranath Lahiri and myself and Raj Kumar Sinha and some others stood for new ideas. We wanted to do away completely with religion, whereas Ramprasad Bismil and all these people, they said that we need not be carbon copies of the Russian revolutionaries, and that religion could play a role here. We didn’t agree with him. So there was all the time discussion, heated discussion, which sometimes threatened to end up in a scuffle.” The ‘young’ revolutionaries like Lahiri were totally against the mixing of religion with politics, and far as personal belief was concerned, according to Gupta, Lahiri was a vacillating ‘agnostic’ who was “marching from agnosticism to atheism”.

As a person who questioned religion, Lahiri also personally challenged social and traditional moors of upper-caste Hindu society. Jogesh Chandra Chatterji – co-founder of the HRA and co-accused in the Kakori conspiracy  – in his autobiography In Search of freedom (1958), writes that “he [Rajendra Lahiri] was an out and out revolutionary and revolted against social prejudices and though a Brahmin he threw away the sacred thread. He took pork and beef without the least hesitation. He realised at heart that the social prejudices were great hindrances in the path of progress and they were to be broken off mercilessly. That was the real spirit of a true revolutionary.”

That the HRA revolutionaries used to break Brahminical socio-religious conventions is also confirmed by Gupta in his autobiography They Lived Dangerously. Gupta writes, “We used to take beef in defiance of the whole society. This does not mean that all our members were of this view.” Even though the ‘old’ members did not support the eating of beef, they did not impose their beliefs among the ‘young’ members who were experimenting with revolutionary ideals in every aspect of life. According to Gupta, the ‘old’ members tried to dissuade the ‘young’ revolutionaries, not by citing ‘religious codes’ but through debates and discussions over the merits of eating non-vegetarian food.

Lahiri, an absconder in the Kakori conspiracy case, was arrested on November 10, 1925 from Calcutta, where he was expanding the HRA network. In what came to be known as the ‘Dakshineswar bomb case’, Lahiri along with eight other revolutionaries were arrested from a bomb factory in Dakshineswar. Lahiri was awarded a 10 years’ sentence in the Andamans but was later transferred to Lucknow Central Jail as colonial authorities came to identify him as an absconder in the Kakori conspiracy.

Also read: Meet Shah Alam, the Young Revolutionary Continuing the Legacy of His Heroes

Lahiri was hanged two days prior to the scheduled date. His hanging is unique, not only in revolutionary history, but also probably in entire history of capital punishment, where a death sentence was carried out before the assigned date. There are many speculations over why this happened, but the most probable theory is that a group of revolutionaries under Gupta had decided to break out Lahiri out from the Gonda prison. The colonial police got whiff of the plan, and since Gonda prison was located far away from any major re-enforcement centre, the jail authorities decided to hang Lahiri before the prison break plan could be put into motion.

Lahiri, in his last days, had become religious, a transformation which Gupta attributes to the misadventure at the Dakshineswar bomb factory, the “octopus like grip” of Sachindranath Sanyal, who was guiding his studies in Lucknow Central prison, and his extreme loneliness in Gonda and Barabanki prisons, where he was lodged for the last six months of his life. Sanyal, being part of the ‘old’ guard of the HRA, deeply believed in the Vedanta and was able to ‘convert’ Lahiri on the path to religion in his last days.

The revolutionaries not only questioned old traditions, but also tried to imbibe and propagate novel ideas which seemed dangerous and disruptive to broad sections of a conservative society. Lahiri, along with his other comrades, took on this daunting task, which finally culminated with Bhagat Singh, who was so impressed with Lahiri that he named his nephew after him. Rajendranath Lahiri lived the life of a revolutionary who challenged and wished to break away from the past, for laying the foundations of a new society. A revolutionary may fail, but their ideas and struggles live on.

Ankur Goswami and Harshvardhan are PhD research scholars at JNU.