Freedom files: The secret life of Durga Devi Vohra

Also known as Durgawati Devi, she was a key member of Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh’s Hindustan Socialist Republican Army.

Durga Devi Vohra was the only child of a Gujarati Brahmin couple settled in Allahabad. Her mother died when she was young and her father took vows of sannyas, leaving her to be brought up by her aunt. She studied up to Class V, and married when she was eleven. She first came into contact with the revolutionaries in Lahore through her husband, Bhagwati Charan Vohra (1903–1930), the son of a wealthy Gujarati, Shiv Charan Das, who worked for the railways and was honoured with the title of Rai Sahib.

Bhagwati Charan studied at National College, Lahore, where he met Bhagat Singh, who became a frequent visitor to the family home, as did Yashpal and Sukhdev. Bhagwati Charan was involved in student politics, becoming an active member of the NJBS, which functioned (among other things) as a recruiting ground for HSRA members.

Bhagwati Charan was relatively wealthy and was able to dedicate much time and money to social and political work. Additionally, he had no family opposition to his politics; his father had died in the early 1920s, and his mother when he was a child. On account of his wealth, party members regarded his initial interest in the HSRA with suspicion, and it took some time to refute allegations that he was not a CID informer.

By late 1928, he and Durga Devi were incorporated into the party and he became one of the primary ideologues of the HSRA, officially serving as the Propaganda Secretary, writing a history of the revolutionary movement, and treatises such as The Philosophy of the Bomb, which was drafted as a riposte to Gandhi’s 1929 critique of the revolutionaries, The Cult of the Bomb. Durga Devi gave birth to a son, Sachinanda, in 1925, but she remained committed to teaching and continued to work in a girls’ college in Lahore until she was forced to go underground in 1929.

Helping Bhagat Singh escape

In early December, Bhagwati Charan left Lahore to attend the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta, leaving a large sum of money with his wife in case of emergency – four or five thousand rupees, as she recalled. After Saunders’ assassination, Sukhdev and Bhagat Singh came to Durga Devi for help, bringing with them Rajguru.

She had heard of the murder – all of Lahore was abuzz with the news, following the HSRA posters that boldly claimed responsibility. She implicitly knew that Bhagat Singh was involved, yet consistent with party protocol, she did not ask any questions, presuming that Rajguru, whom she had never seen before, was a servant.

As is memorialised in filmi accounts, she readily gave over the sum of money her husband had left, and rather daringly, given social conventions of the time that constrained contact between men and women who were not married, agreed to pose as Bhagat Singh’s wife in order to help him escape Lahore. Taking Sachi, and accompanied by Rajguru (pretending to be the young family’s servant), they passed unencumbered though a police cordon and boarded a first class train carriage for Lucknow, where they changed trains for Calcutta.

Azad also escaped Lahore in the company of women. Disguised as a panda and wearing a ramnami angochha shawl, Azad travelled with Sukhdev’s mother and sister, as though he was escorting them on a pilgrimage.

From Lucknow, Bhagat Singh sent a telegram to Bhagwati Charan, informing him that he was coming to Calcutta with “Durgawati”. Bhagwati Charan received this with great surprise: “Who is this Durgawati?” The party arrived at Calcutta, where Bhagwati Charan was staying with his sister, Sushila, who was also to become a prominent woman revolutionary. It was with an element of surprise that Bhagwati Charan learned of his wife’s role in helping Bhagat Singh and Rajguru escape: “he was very happy. Then he complimented his wife; I have not recognised you until now; today I can understand that I have got a revolutionary wife”.

The Assembly attack

After attending some sessions of the Calcutta Congress, Durga Devi returned to Lahore with her son. Bhagwati Charan, who had learned how to make bombs from revolutionaries in Calcutta, was drawn into the preparations to launch the attack on the Legislative Assembly. In early April 1929, Durga Devi was summoned by her husband to Delhi to bid farewell to Bhagat Singh. Travelling with Sushila, she arrived in Delhi to meet her husband, Azad and Bhagat Singh in Qudsia Park, where they picnicked, feeding Bhagat Singh his favourite foods, sweets and oranges. Again, no words were spoken of the plan to bomb the Assembly; it was simply understood that he was going to perform some action, and that he may not survive it.

Sushila made an incision in her thumb, and gave Bhagat Singh a protective tika of her blood. When Bhagat Singh left the picnic, he went directly to the Assembly, where with BK Dutt he set in motion the events that would lead to his execution. Azad slipped away, and the remainder of the party – Bhagwati Charan, Durga Devi and Sushila – hired a tonga, and began to circle the Assembly, anticipating the drama unfolding within. As the police were taking Bhagat Singh away, young Sachi recognised him and impulsively called out Lamba Chacha! (Tall Uncle!) to Bhagat Singh, who “could not stop himself, he looked up, but the police were in a great hurry”, and so missed an opportunity to arrest his accomplices.

In the following months, police began to close in on the revolutionaries. In Lahore, investigators discovered the HSRA’s bomb factory in Kashmir House, rented out in Bhagwati Charan’s name, arresting Sukhdev, Jai Gopal and Kishori Lal. Bhagwati Charan was not on site at the time of the raid, and went into hiding.

Durga Devi was forced to engage a lawyer in an attempt to forestall police attempts to seize the family home on the basis that her husband was an absconder in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. Comrade Ram Chandra, a family friend and fellow traveller, noted that during this period she continued to support the families of revolutionaries in Lahore, and acted as a “post box”, receiving mail for absconding revolutionaries.

A full participant

She was also involved in the procurement of weapons for the party around this time. In early 1930, JN Sahni, the editor of the Hindustan Times, saw her in a secret meeting in Delhi with pistols sourced from the North-Western Frontier Province, which she kept concealed under her clothes.

In 1929, Bhagwati Charan plotted and carried out an attempt to bomb the Viceroy’s train with Yashpal. Subsequently he became involved in a plot with Azad, Yashpal, Vaishampayan, Sukhdevraj, Sushila and Durga Devi to free Bhagat Singh from prison, by raiding a police van during his transfer from Borstal to Central Jail in Lahore.

On 28 May 1930, Bhagwati Charan died. He was testing a bomb in woodland near the Ravi when it exploded prematurely in his hand. His accomplices went for help, but by the time they returned to collect him it was too late. His body was later discovered by police in a shallow grave nearby.

Following Bhagwati Charan’s death, Durga Devi stayed with Kewal Kishan Engineer, before moving with her sister-in-law Sushila to the home of Rana Jang Bahadur Singh, a journalist for The Tribune in Lahore, where she hid for three weeks. Shortly after, Durga Devi left Lahore, disguised in a burqa.

She went to stay with Sridevi Musaddi and her husband, and remained there for a month, at the same time as Azad. Her activities and whereabouts following this are somewhat unclear, other than that she was constantly on the move, staying one step ahead of police. In July 1929 she was seen back in Lahore, holding a placard with Bhagat Singh’s photograph and leading a procession on “Bhagat Singh and Dutt Day”, and weeks later she was named as a member of the ladies’ procession mourning Jatindranath Das.

What Durga Bhabhi Did Next

At midnight on 8 October 1930, Durga Devi shot at a European couple standing outside the police station in Lamington Road, a prominent thoroughfare in South Bombay, in what would later be described as “the first instance in which a woman figured prominently in a terrorist outrage”. The Times of India recorded that this was an ominous development, “the first outrage of its kind in Bombay in recent years, and is reminiscent of the anarchist outrages of Bengal”.

The victims of the shooting, it turned out, happened to be a police sergeant and his wife. They “had a miraculous escape”; Sergeant Taylor had a bullet pass through his hand, and Mrs Taylor suffered three wounds on her leg.

The shots were fired by more than one weapon from a passing car, with witnesses reporting that they saw three assailants. A trace on the car’s licence plate quickly led the police to the driver, JB Bapat, who after five days of intense questioning gave the “startling revelation” that one of the assailants was “a Gujarati woman disguised in male attire”.

The police went on to make suppositions that “with her in the car was her husband and her 8 year old son”, which was of course incorrect. This began a search for a suspect described as a “young, fair, goodlooking” woman, dressed in khaddar, who went by the name of Sharda Devi.

Durga Devi, Prithvi Singh and Sukhdevraj had hastily conceived of the action at Lamington Road to commemorate the death sentence of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, handed down the previous day. Technically, the action was in contravention to party policy which stipulated that permission for actions could only be granted by Azad. Because they felt the need to act quickly, so that the authorities would interpret the attack as a distinct response to the death sentences, Azad’s permission was not sought.

Prithvi Singh and Durga Devi had set off in a car driven by Bapat in the early evening. Their initial target was the Governor of the Punjab, Sir Geoffrey de Montmorency; however security around the house where he was staying in Malabar was such that they could not approach it.

Frustrated, they decided to target a police station instead, and finally saw “two Britishers” standing near the police station on Lamington Road. According to Durga Devi, as the car crept past the pair, Prithvi Singh cried “Shoot!” and together they leaned out of the windows and opened fire; she recalled firing three or four times.

Following the successful precedent that had convicted Bhagat Singh and his comrades in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, the prosecutors of the Lamington Road Outrage decided to argue that it was a part of a broader conspiracy in the Punjab and UP. While there was reason to suppose this was true, there was insufficient evidence to prove it in court, with only the testimony of one approver.

This confession was judged unstable and the “attempt to make a gigantic superstructure on the flimsiest grounds” failed. There were no convictions; those arrested were released. Meanwhile, Durga Devi had escaped capture, able to use the days it took for the police to realise that a woman had been an assailant to slip out of Bombay undetected.

Excerpted with permission from A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text, Kama Maclean, Penguin Books.

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