I made a personal act of pilgrimage in Lahore this week - to the Bradlaugh Hall. This magnificent but sadly dilapidated building is where Freda Bedi - the English woman turned Indian nationalist whose biography I have written - first addressed a political meeting in her adopted home of Punjab.
It was the mid-1930s, and Freda was convinced by her Punjabi communist husband, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, to address a student rally at Bradlaugh Hall.
'B.P.L. said oh, you know, they want you to talk - it's nothing, you just talk as you talk at a debating society at Oxford. And when I got there I was petrified to find that there were 24,000 people waiting, and this crowd of 24,000 had a very definite opinion about what it should listen to and what it shouldn't. And if it didn't like the speaker it would start beating the ground with sticks and the soles of the feet and making a noise so the speaker would have to go down.
'Anyway, I decided that the reason they didn't like a number of speakers was that they couldn't hear them and the best thing would be to speak pretty loudly. ... So I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution and I suddenly began speaking ... in a very loud voice, and I can still feel the shock that went through the whole 24,000 heads when this slight western-looking person suddenly bellowed into the microphone, must have been out of sheer fright. And that established me as a speaker. I found I could go on speaking and not be drummed out of existence by the sticks and the feet.'
The 24,000 number is not to be taken too literally - but creeping inside the rotting hulk of the building, a rather perilous venture, you get a sense of the scale of the nationalist rallies so often held here. When Freda and other wartime political prisoners were released from jail in Lahore in 1941, Bradlaugh Hall was the venue for the Congress rally to mark their liberation.
It was a stormy and overcast day when I visited the hall - you can get an idea of how it looks when the sun shines from this photo, one of a series, which accompanied an excellent article in the Dawn newspaper a few years ago:
The hall has a fascinating, if somewhat opaque, history. It is very central - just off Rattigan Road and a few minutes' stroll from Government College where B.P.L. Bedi was once a student. And it's named after an English politician, Charles Bradlaugh (I once made a radio documentary about him - you can hear it here). He was a republican and atheist MP on the ultra-radical wing of Victorian liberalism who was famously detained overnight in the Houses of Parliament as part of a tumultuous struggle he staged to be allowed to affirm - rather than take a religious oath - when taking his seat in the Commons.
Bradlaugh took on the informal title when a Parliamentarian in the 1880s of the 'Member for India'. And he was one of the very few British MPs of his day to make the trip out to the biggest and most valued part of the Empire.
In December 1889, Bradlaugh sailed to Bombay to give the opening address at the annual gathering of the Indian National Congress. Yes, that's the same Congress - in institutional terms at least - as the political party which dominated politics once India gained independence, until the recent rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP that is.
Bradlaugh was by then very unwell, in part because of his ceaseless campaigning. Part of the purpose of the trip to India was the supposedly restorative sea passage. He spent not more than two weeks in India and health concerns meant that he wasn't able to fulfil his ambition to travel around the country. And it's clear - in spite of what some local historical sources say - that Bradlaugh never made it to Lahore.
Four years later, in 1893, the annual session of Congress was held in Lahore - and was presided over by Dadabhai Naoroji, who was also a member of the House of Commons (the Liberal MP for Finsbury Central). That seems to be when fundraising started to construct a hall in Lahore not under the direct control of the colonial authorities and so able to be used for nationalist gatherings.
The inaugural stone was laid in 1900 - nine years after Bradlaugh's death - by a prominent nationalist Surendranath Banerjee. Once completed, it became associated with Lala Lajpat Rai, who established the National College in the hall buildings. Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary regarded as perhaps India's foremost martyr of the struggle for independence, attended this college and almost certainly spoke here.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah are among many prominent political figures said to have addressed their followers at the Bradlaugh Hall. It was perhaps the foremost venue in Lahore for nationalist meetings during the first half of the twentieth century.
The hall is slightly hidden away and not fully visible from the main road. That perhaps explains its survival more-or-less in tact - though some extensions were added when the building was, apparently, used as a steel mill after independence.
Although it's supposed to be sealed off, with the help of local historian Faizan Naqvi, I was able to get inside the cavernous hall, which was both awe-inspiring and, given the poor upkeep, deeply depressing.
A detailed study of Bradlaugh Hall - posted below - describes it as 'a gem among all the colonial period building of Lahore' and points to the window design in particular as a remarkable amalgamation of western and local styles. The architecture is certainly, well, non-standard - but its importance lies in the use to which it was put rather than the integrity of its design.
The building is certainly imposing, and given its centrality to the nationalist movement in what was then the capital of undivided Punjab, I do hope it has a secure future.
At the moment, the structure seems broadly sound, but many of the remarkable wooden window fittings are crumbling and the roof is peppered with holes. It was a rainy day when I visited, and floor of the hall - happily constructed of brick - was an array of puddles.
The building is under the control of a curious hangover from the Partition era, the Evacuee Trust Properties Board. After the steel mill closed, the building was apparently used as a school - and although it is said to have been empty for the past fifteen years, my ramble round the interior revealed educational posters of a fairly recent vintage and even a blackboard with some maths sums still clearly legible.
There is now a Save Bradlaugh Hall campaign which deserves support - though there's work to be done to develop clear plans for any future use of the hall and the source of funds to repair and adapt the structure.
But such a magnificent and historic meeting place - a location so redolent of the nationalist movement in Lahore - surely deserves a generous measure of tender loving care ... and cash.
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