At a time when most industrialists were wont to toe the British line, Jamnalal Bajaj stood out with his active participation in the freedom struggle notwithstanding repeated incarcerations. MARWAR pays tribute to the indefatigable social reformer, patriot, freedom fighter and industrialist whose life and legacy continue to inspire even today.
JAMNALAL BAJAJ WAS BORN ON November 4, 1889, in Kashi Ka Bas, a small village near Sikar in Rajasthan. His biological parents—father Kaniram and mother Birdibai—were of peasant stock who earned a living from Kaniram’s small-time money lending activities. When barely five, Jamnalal Bajaj was adopted by Rai Bahadur Seth Bachhraj (and wife Sadibai), a self-made wealthy merchant, who owned flourishing cotton and money lending businesses in Wardha, now in Maharashtra.
Though a promising student, Jamnalal Bajaj’s schooling was brief. When just 12, he was married off to Jankidevi, daughter of Girdharilal Jajodia, a well-to-do merchant from Jaora (in Madhya Pradesh). Jamnalal was endowed with a certain spirituality and a total lack of avarice which showed very early in life when one evening, chided by a grumpy Seth Bachhraj, he abandoned home to become an ascetic, renouncing wife, family, material comforts and wishing to be no part of the wealth that Seth Bachhraj was to bestow upon him. It took an apologetic Seth Bachhraj to locate him and beg him to return home.
In the footsteps of Gandhi
This spiritualism and ascetic streak resurfaced once again when he met Gandhiji in 1915—this was just after Gandhiji had returned from South Africa and set up his ashram in Sabarmati [Gujarat] where inmates followed a disciplined, austere life of work, prayer, celibacy and frugality that hugely appealed to Jamnalal. Whenever he could, he would spend time at the Sabarmati ashram. Though neither Gandhiji nor he were politically motivated or were sympathisers of the Home Rule Movement that was beginning to take root at the time, Gandhiji was to soon take centre stage of the freedom movement with his principles of Satyagraha and passive resistance. As for Jamnalal, though he was apolitical and realised that it was suicidal for him to plunge into politics, he being a businessman—Marwari entrepreneurs in general were favoured by the British in those days, enjoying considerable protection and patronage from them—his fondness for Gandhiji led him to finally renounce his Rai Bahadur title, resign from his post of honorary magistrate and make common cause with Gandhiji, who nominated him one of the two ‘Working Treasurers’ of the Indian National Congress. He was also appointed treasurer of the All India Tilak Memorial Swarajya Fund.
The transformation that took place in Jamnalal thereafter was drastic. He ceased to take wholehearted interest in his businesses, depending on his staff rather to run them; he was rarely home with his family—he would either accompany Gandhiji in his tours, or would go on party related missions. As a disciple of Gandhiji, later he was to even take the vow of bhahmacharya, forgo many of the luxuries of life, subsisting often on meagre meals, reading the sacred texts and, more importantly, crusading against prevalent social evils of the day, especially within the Marwari community, of which he was an eminent member. To further Gandhiji’s non-cooperation movement at home, he inspired his young wife Jankidevi to give up foreign goods and imported clothes and opt for khadi instead—which she dutifully did and in turn influenced others to follow suit—and enrol new members among Wardha’s womenfolk into the Congress. In addition, she took to spinning and organised spinning classes for local women at home.
Khadi was one of Gandhiji’s favourite instruments of propagating the Swadeshi movement and Jamnalal Bajaj was entrusted with the responsibility of organising a ‘Khadi Department’. Its objectives were to educate, popularise, promote, produce and market khadi and thereby inculcate nationalistic fervour among the masses, while also acting as a social equaliser. Rather than flinch from this huge responsibility, Jamnalal ably managed the All India Khadddar Board (and later the All India Spinners Association or AISA), tirelessly promoting it, especially with the setting up of the Gandhi Seva Sangh, an organisation devoted to Gandhiji’s constructive programme in the years following Gandhiji’s imprisonment in 1924.
By and by Gandhiji’s trust and confidence in Jamnalal’s organising capability, his uprightness and judgment brought the duo so close that at one point Jamnalal entreated Gandhiji to adopt him as his son. Gandhiji obliged. Later, in compliance to Jamnalal’s entreaties, Gandhiji opened a branch of the Sabarmati Ashram in Wardha, appointing one of his most brilliant and beloved inmates, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, as its head.
Social reform and politics
Shortly after Seth Bachhraj passed away, the onus of running the family businesses fell upon Jamnalal. He was just 17 then. One of his friends (and also legal advisor) was a young lawyer from Rajasthan, Srikrishnadas Jajoo. Jajoo was well-educated and shared Jamnalal’s passion for religious and social reform. The painful realisation that it was lack of modern education that was the main reason behind the social evils that plagued the Hindu society at the time and also stood in the way of progress motivated the two to set up schools, and within a matter of years there were schools for both boys and girls in Wardha. One was set up in Jamnalal’s native Sikar as well.
This was to be just the beginning of Jamnalal’s lifelong quest for social reform. Later in life, as the founder of the Akhil Bharatiya Agrawal Mahasabha (he belonged to the Agrawal sub-caste) and as a member of its executive committee, he exhorted fellow Marwaris to desist from being motivated by purely commercial goals or pursuing business ventures that went against national interests (such as dealing in imported textiles and fabrics) and adopt and promote the khadi movement instead. He spoke against caste taboos, restrictions on inter-caste marriage, restrictions on foreign travel, child marriage, purdah system, untouchability, orthodoxy, superstition, etc. He also decried ostentation and extravagance during weddings. To prove that he practised what he preached, in the face of threats of social boycott, he married off his daughter, Kamala, only after she turned 14 and in a simple ceremony, at a cottage near the Sabarmati Ashram that served as a second home for the family. (Jamnalal had bought this cottage anticipating that the ashram’s influence would cast his family in the Gandhian mould.) To combat untouchability, he threw open the doors of the family Lakshinarayan Temple to harijans. And this was much before Gandhiji embarked upon his campaign against untouchability.
When Gandhiji decided to move over to the Wardha ashram in 1934, a delighted Jamnalal donated his 20-acre garden house to serve as his residence and office, which was named Maganwadi. From here, Gandhiji launched his campaign of reviving and encouraging village industries through a newly set-up All India Village Industries Association. Further, he sought to exemplify his concepts of rural education and abolition of untouchability by setting up model villages that epitomised these reformatory practices and which were also rid of poverty, ignorance and disease. To do these, he retired to a village called Sevagram near Wardha (a part of which was owned by Jamnalal Bajaj), where a small hut, christened Bapu Kutir, was built to accommodate him.
To take Gandhi’s mission of spreading education in the villages, Jamnalal not only worked towards it actively but also turned his attention to promoting Hindi as India’s national language. To this end, he appointed a Hindi literature enthusiast, Shriman Narayan (who later was to marry his daughter, Madalsa, in 1937) as the secretary of the Shiksha Mandal, an educational society established by him in Wardha in 1912. He also pursued Gandhiji’s cow protection cause, which called for conservation of the nation’s cattle. (This was because Gandhiji had perceived milk to be an ideal and easily procurable nutrient for the villages of India.)
Gandhiji’s retirement to Sevagram had in part been necessitated by the Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) dismissal of Gandhiji’s non-violence and non-cooperation ideologies to achieve nationalistic goals. But soon after his departure, factionalism broke out within the CWC forcing its members to return to Gandhiji. Thereafter, to ensure his attendance in CWC meetings, committee members would converge upon his cottage in Sevagram. As there were no good hotels in Wardha at the time, Jamnalal would consequently open the doors of his bungalow, Bajajwadi, to accommodate them. Apart from them, there would also be an endless flow of foreign dignitaries for Gandhiji, with which Gandhiji’s role in managing constructive work took a backseat, forcing Jamnalal to take responsibility. His role as a CWC member consequently heightened, he being the only CWC member in Wardha. It also fell upon him, as Gandhiji’s confidant and trusted aide, to reconcile warring factions (Socialists, Rightists and Congress loyalists) and individuals in many of the committee’s never-ending crises. These apart, he is also credited with having once successfully arbitrated a bitter feud back home between Maharaja Sawai Mansingh of Jaipur and one of his main jagirdaars, Rao Raja Kalyan Singh, that was threatening to snowball into a major crisis.
A patriot and freedom fighter
Jamnalal’s formal entry into active politics was marked by the Flag Satyagraha of 1923, when questioning the legitimacy of British rule in India, he defied existing restrictions on civil freedom and led a procession into a restricted area of Nagpur, flying the national flag (tricolour). As could be expected, he was arrested. Upon his release, he returned home to a hero’s welcome for suffering incarceration as a patriot, when fate had bestowed him with enough wealth to lead a life of luxury and ease instead.
A couple of years later, after the ruling Moonjee party had been ousted from the Central Province (Marathi) Congress, Jamnalal found himself at the helm of the C P (Marathi) Congress. He once again took to the streets, this time leading a procession of activists waving black flags to protest against the Simon Commission. (The Simon Commission precipitated the full-fledged call for independence, resulting in Gandhiji’s famous Dandi March in March-April 1932—to defy restrictions on making salt and taxes imposed upon it. It became a symbol of national defiance against British Rule.)
After the Dandi March, a jittery British resolved to apprehend Gandhiji at the very first opportunity and did, sending him to the Yeravada Jail in Pune. Jamnalal, who had been instructed to move to Bombay [now Mumbai] by Gandhiji in the immediate aftermath of the Dandi March, had set base at a Congress Camp in Vile Parle. He too was arrested on charges of violating salt regulations and sent to Nasik Central Jail for two years.
In 1931, Gandhiji was released from prison along with other prisoners following the Irwin-Gandhi Pact, whereby it was agreed that Gandhiji would give up civil disobedience and attend the Round Table Conference in London. Jamnalal, on his part was not in favour of this pact and went back to the civil disobedience agenda and was rearrested. This was in 1932. Soon after, his wife was put behind bars for a six-month sentence. For Jamanalal, this time around, he was in on a harsher sentence, having had to even suffer the indignity of being treated like a human bullock to draw water from a prison well.
As an entrepreneur
Jamnalal was just 17 when he had taken over the family business. Though not well educated, he was intelligent and shrewd, especially when it came to managing his businesses, making regular rounds of cotton markets near and far so as to stay connected and remain informed.
Given this keen business insight, he was not only able to manage his businesses (in spite of all other preoccupations) but also expand it. Among the companies established by him included Bachhraj Factories, Bachhraj & Company, Hindusthan Sugar Mills (now Bajaj Hindusthan Ltd), Hindusthan Housing and Mukand Iron & Steel, which have since grown into mega corporations to make the Bajaj Group one of India’s oldest and largest conglomerates. In 1926, he founded the now famous Bajaj Group, which counts among the world’s largest two- and three-wheeler manufacturers, apart from commanding a huge presence in other areas such as home appliances, insurance, travel and finance.
Family and home life
Jamnalal was deeply religious which prompted a certain detachment from materialism, as becomes evident from his adoption of Gandhian ways of austerity and frugality and the fact that he had made substantial donations towards causes close to Gandhiji’s heart, especially his ashrams. An ardent nationalist, the true purpose of life, according to him, was selfless public service. Life and wealth, he felt were transient, and therefore were not to be regarded as the be all and end all in the overall scheme of things. He was very helpful as well.
While this total dedication to duty and national politics as a Gandhian and attempts to please everybody did win him friends, popularity and considerable influence, it did not always go down well with his family, especially Jankidevi. Though she complied with his Gandhi-inspired lifestyle, his oath to brahmacharya and other obligations such as attending to the continual stream of guests at Bajajwadi, putting up with the endless demands of a joint family, managing home during his frequent absence and walking in his footsteps in the fight for freedom, it did put their relationship to the test. But, in the end, she lived up to her husband’s expectations, fulfilling his wishes and remaining dedicated to him and national causes.
The legacy lives on
A hectic life marked by political and social activism, not to forget repeated incarcerations, took their toll on Jamnalal’s health, and these began to show in the aftermath of his arrest in Jaipur in 1938. As the years wore on, he became increasingly spiritual, seeking to redress the shortcomings of his life with pilgrimages. By and by he withdrew himself from active politics, dedicating himself to pursuing Gandhiji’s social objectives instead, especially the cow protection cause.
On the family front, son Kamalnayan, now married, had taken over the reins of the family business, daughters Kamala, Madalsa and Uma were happily married, and Radhakrishna was proving to be worthy with his active role in the freedom movement.
In the morning of February 11, 1942, tragedy struck the Bajaj household in Wardha when Jamnalal succumbed to a stroke, bringing to an end a life lived dedicatedly and unselfishly for the country. But rather than put an end to all that he had stood for, his death reaffirmed his family’s commitment to the national cause, which led to the establishment of the Bajaj Foundation in 1977, in Mumbai. Apart from upholding Jamnalal’s Gandhi-inspired idealism, the foundation promotes and celebrates exemplary work towards the nation and its people through several prestigious awards. And, of course, there is the humongous Bajaj Group, which apart from serving as a foundation of the Indian industry continues to enrich the lives of its citizens through its myriad offerings.