An epicentre of political activism

Making sense of Bradlaugh and the hall in his name

An epicentre of political activism

The dilapidated and crumbling structure of Bradlaugh Hall still exists on Rattigan Road, Lahore, but its horrid state speaks volumes for our anti-historical attitude at best. During the closing years of the 19th century, Rattigan Road was an elite section of Lahore.

Most of the bungalows built there belonged to the British, with only a very few owned by affluent Indians. It was perhaps after the coming up of Gulberg and Model town that Rattigan Road faded into relative insignificance as a residential space. However, district courts and the closer proximity of Civil Secretariat as well as several educational institutions built around Rattigan Road sustained its seminality as an important vicinity. Of course, Bradlaugh Hall was a big contributory element in the importance that the Rattigan Road came to be known for, primarily because of it being the epicentre of nationalist politics.

The people making a brouhaha over the ruination of Lahore’s heritage as a result of the Orange train’s proposed route have not even once mentioned Bradlaugh Hall as a cause for concern, which is quite disconcerting. One cause for the indifference demonstrated towards this historic structure might be our communal reading of history. Its construction came about from funds collected from the 9th annual session of Indian National Congress held in Lahore in 1893 and it was named after Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, a British radical and atheist, a freethinker in the tradition of Voltaire and Thomas Paine. That was the time when among the visitors, Dadabhai Naoroji, the President of the Congress session and A. O. Hume, the founder of the Congress, were the centre of public attention.

Importantly, the Congress held its session on the invitation of Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia. The historians of Indian National Congress consider that session as a great success. Congress saved Rs10,000 which was the core money to build Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore. Haroon Khalid writes that Charles Bradlaugh had purchased a piece of land at Rattigan Road where that hall was constructed. But this information needs to be corroborated by a primary and credible source.

Obviously, all these persons involved in that affair do not correspond with the Pakistani national narrative that exists in stark contravention of the politics that these people subscribed to. The free thinking and, obviously, the atheism that Bradlaugh represented so zealously disqualify him even to be mentioned in our national narrative. He was also an English parliamentarian and a staunch advocate of Indian freedom from the British colonial rule, which too does not sit well with our nationalist trajectory. Charles Bradlaugh’s bonhomie with Indian National Congress is another reason for that person as well as the building named after him to be deleted from our collective memory. Thus, the neglect accorded to the architectural façade named after Bradlaugh makes sense.

The hall’s construction work got completed in 1900 and Surendranath Banerjee inaugurated it. Immediately after its inauguration, Bradlaugh Hall became an epicentre of revolutionary activism.

When Bradlaugh Hall was built, Lahore had only two halls -- the Town Hall and the Montgomery Hall -- and both of them belonged to the government. Thus, for the political meetings, the courtyard of The Tribune, then a weekly newspaper owned by Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia, was used. Prior to the establishment of Indian National Congress (in 1885), Indian Association founded in Calcutta in 1876 by Surendranath Banerjee (1848-1925) was the political association in the real sense of the word which had cast its influence on Lahore. Other organisations operating in the Punjab were religious reform movements like Brahmo Samaj, Dev Samaj, Prathana Samaj or Arya Samaj etc.

The hall’s construction work got completed in 1900 and Surendranath Banerjee inaugurated it. Immediately after its inauguration, Bradlaugh Hall became an epicentre of revolutionary activism. But it will be pertinent if a brief biographical account of Charles Bradlaugh is furnished here.

Charles Bradlaugh was born in London on September, 26, 1833, to a poor clerk. At 15, he abandoned Christianity for atheism. He served in the army in Ireland for three years, during the course of which he taught himself languages and law. By the closing years of the 1850s, he had emerged as the most powerful British propagandist for atheism, and in his public lectures he faced, with courage and skill, hostility and even physical abuse.

He became president of the London Secular Society in 1858 and two years later, he founded the periodical National Reformer. In 1866, he organised the National Secular Society, which became the largest of such organisations in the entire Britain. He was also an early supporter of women’s right to vote, birth control, and republicanism. In 1874, Mrs. Annie Besant joined him as the vice-president of the secular society.

It would not be out of place here to mention that Annie Besant, a socialist, a theosophist and a long-time colleague of Bradlaugh, who, for her theosophy related work, had travelled to India in the late 19th century, and was eventually elected as president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. Importantly enough, she was also a founder of Home Rule League in India, of which Quaid-e-Azam too was an enthusiastic member.

Now we should revert to Bradlaugh, our main protagonist. He contested elections for the House of Commons from Northampton. After failing to secure electoral success initially, he finally became the member of the lower house in 1880. Then ensued the long-drawn controversy over his right to be seated. This rather contentious issue centred on the oath of office invoking God that all members were required to take. Bradlaugh offered to take this oath or to substitute an affirmation of allegiance for it, but the House refused him either option. That controversy persisted throughout his parliamentary career and the constitutional issues raised were finally resolved by the passage of Bradlaugh’s affirmation bill in 1888.

After living an eventful life riddled with controversies, Bradlaugh died on January 30, 1891. He was greatly admired by Indian Nationalists because of his strongly articulated support for Indian freedom. And that primarily was the reason that the hall at the Rattigan Road was named after him.

To be concluded.