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Jamnalal Bajaj, the Gandhian capitalist who was the Mahatma’s ‘Merchant Prince’

On his 77th death anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the life of Jamnalal Bajaj, the industrialist, freedom fighter and social reformer.

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New Delhi: An honest industrialist could perhaps be a myth in India given how frequently scams of different sizes surface. In the 1920s, though, when India was fighting for independence, Jamnalal Bajaj emerged as an ethical entrepreneur who was dubbed the ‘Merchant Prince’ by Mahatma Gandhi.

Jamnalal was born to small-time Marwari money lenders in a village in Rajasthan on 4 November, 1889. At 5, he was adopted by a business family in Wardha, said the journal Marwar. After a brief schooling period, he was married off at the age of 12 to the daughter of a well-off merchant from Jaora. He took over the family business of his adoptive parents in Wardha at 17 and went on to establish several factories and companies.

Today, the Jamnalal-founded Bajaj Group stands as one of India’s largest conglomerates.

On Jamnalal’s 77th death anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at the life of the industrialist, freedom fighter and social reformer.

Close to Gandhi

After Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, Bajaj took an instant liking to his teachings. Looking to get Gandhi to make Wardha a centre of his freedom movement, Bajaj donated 20 acres of land to Gandhi, who later adopted him as a son.

Despite the Marwari business community enjoying warm relations with the British, Jamnalal renounced the title of Rai Bahadur and the honorary magistrate post given to him during World War I, and joined the freedom movement.

Jamnalal went on to participate in the Non-Cooperation Movement (1920-22), Nagpur Jhanda Satyagraha (1923), Boycott of Simon Commission (1928), Dandi March (1930), among other important events leading up to 1942.

Following Gandhi’s arrest after Dandi March and the ensuing arrests, Jamnalal found himself in Nasik Central Jail for two years.

In 1942, at the peak of the freedom movement, Gandhi wrote about Jamnalal in Harijan, “There was no work of mine in which I did not receive his fullest co-operation in body mind and wealth. Neither he nor I had any attraction for what is called politics. He was drawn into it because I was in it. My real politics was constructive work, and so too was his. I had hoped that after me he would fully carry on those works of mine which would be regarded as of special importance.”

Also read: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the princess who was Gandhi’s secretary & India’s first health minister

Financing freedom movement

In his book India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947, historian Bipan Chandra wrote, “Among the various groups that participated in the national movement were several individual capitalists who joined the Congress. They fully identified with the movement, went to jails and accepted the hardships that were the lot of Congressmen in the colonial period. The names of Jamnalal Bajaj, Vadilal Lallubhai Mehta, Samuel Aaron, Lala Shankar Lal, and others are well known in this regard.”

Jamnalal is said to have played a major role in securing funds for the All India Tilak Memorial Fund in 1921. The money — said to be Rs 1 crore — was to be used for popularising khadi in the country. Through his life, Jamnalal is said estimated to have donated close to Rs 25 lakh in charities.

He also served as a regular financer and banker for the Indian National Congress for almost two decades, and introduced the concept of trusteeship of profits in business.

Industrialist as social reformer

But Bajaj was more than just an industrialist or freedom fighter, he was a philanthropist too.

Of the several social reforms Jamnalal undertook in his life, the Jamnalal Foundation lists speaking against caste system, support for child education and inter-caste marriage. He also opened the doors of his family temple to Dalits in the area even before Gandhi made untouchability a national issue.

He conducted khadi tours across India as the founder-president of the Gandhi Seva Sangh urging the establishment of khadi industries. He also actively propagated Hindi as the national language.

After 53 years of a life immersed in political and social activism, Jamnalal breathed his last at his Wardha home on 11 February 1942.

In his tribute to Bajaj in 1942 soon after his death, Gandhi wrote, “Whenever I wrote of wealthy men becoming trustees of their wealth for the common good I always had this merchant prince principally in mind.”

Also read: Gujarmal Modi: The sugar baron British celebrated on Meerut roads

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