An excerpt from a book on Indian revolutionaries like Durga Devi Vohra

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 18, 2016 09:31 IST
Bhagat Singh in Lahore jail. (Photo courtsey: Nehru Memmorial Museum and Library.)

A new book also highlights the role of women like Durga Devi Vohra, who not only helped Bhagat Singh escape British intelligence but also participated in action. An excerpt...

While in recent analyses much emphasis has been put on Bhagat Singh’s infamous getaway disguise as an Anglo-Indian or a sahib, complete with that hat, it has rarely registered that he was also specifically disguised ‘as a married man’, a measure intended to confound the police who were on the lookout for unencumbered youths. Being seen in the company of HSRA member Durga Devi Vohra and her young son placed him in an altogether different register, as a family man.

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Durga Devi, popularly known as Durga Bhabhi (sister-in-law, or more precisely, the wife of one’s elder brother), is remembered as one of the few women to feature in the machinations of the HSRA. In a scene invariably depicted in comic books, documentary and filmi accounts, Durga Devi poses as Bhagat Singh’s wife, and with her three-year old son Sachi, the ‘family’ neatly evades the police cordon set up to capture Saunders’ assassin. Yet this was not Durga Devi Vohra’s only contribution to the HSRA. Few are aware that she was involved in a range of activities, and even led an action, shooting at a British policeman and his wife in October 1930.

In popular renditions of revolutionary nationalist activities, the roles of women have been largely obscured, with the ongoing use of the epithet Bhabhi (generally not an empowered role in the extended family) further reducing her subjectivity. An appreciation of the role of women in the HSRA has been further precluded by conventions which imagine politics to be a male arena of activity, and by history writing practices that read violent responses to colonialism as the product of an ultra-masculine or gendered agenda. However, women were active on the fringes of the inner circle of the HSRA, and both despite and because of prevalent conceptions of femininity in north Indian society at the time, their roles were vital. As the HSRA was depleted of manpower as inner party members were progressively arrested, women such as Durga Devi began to take more prominent roles in party machinations.

Women in the HSRA

In 1932 intelligence authorities discovered a lengthy HSRA manifesto which they attributed to Bhagat Singh. It contained extensive ideological ruminations, including an incisive Marxist analysis of the state of colonialism in India. The document mapped out opportunities for the revolutionaries to intervene in the Congress-dominated political landscape, and while disclaiming that ‘no artificial barrier is recognised between men and women’, it also noted that there was, practically speaking, less scope for women to undertake military training. However, it explicitly included roles for women in the party, particularly in intelligence-gathering, fundraising and espionage. The particular utility of women in these roles becomes apparent in Durga Devi’s story.

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Durga Devi Vohra

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’.

Posters like Desh Chintan (Concern for the Country) depicted women as passive worriers. However, some of them played a more radical role. (Photo courtesy: Kama Maclean)

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. In a studio photograph from around 1927, she is well turned out, elegant in a silk sari gathered at her shoulder with a brooch. She appears relaxed, confident, with Sachi sidled up to her, clasping something precious to his chest (Figure 23).

Bhagwati Charan’s radical political activities brought him to the attention of the CID, and the couple were aware of being monitored, suspecting that their driver was a plant. In 1928, Bhagwati Charan rented a property at the behest of Sukhdev, the mastermind of the Lahore Conspiracy Case, to be used for party activities — including the manufacture of bombs. Durga Devi supported her husband’s political activities and, according to Kumari Lajjawati, ‘her one motive was to do whatever her husband did … she said, “I’ll do whatever Bhagwati Charan says”’. Her thoughts on being a revolutionary were to develop as she was increasingly drawn into the party. …

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.

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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’.

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

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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. Durga Devi was now a widow, and it is here that her role in revolutionary politics is often thought to have ended. She bore her widowhood, according to Kumari Lajjawati, with mute bravery. Restrained by the need to remain silent in their Lahore hideout, she didn’t even shed a tear when she was told the news. She summed up what she did next in her interview:

I fled after that. I sent the boy to someone in Allahabad. There was a warrant against me so I threw myself fully into my work. I was not a born revolutionary, but one who becomes a revolutionary with the maturity of ideas. More and more, an individual thinks, understands, reads and writes, his ideas change, they become stronger, it’s not about being emotional. The first phase is emotional. And I believe that 99 per cent of our comrades were those who had come from an emotional phase, educated themselves, and then became genuine revolutionaries. Of course there are exceptions, such as my husband. Such as Chandrashekhar Azad. I told Azad that I wanted my full share of revolutionary work.

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.

The Lamington Road Outrage: 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’.

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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, J.B. 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.

Durgawati Devi, an Indian revolutionary and freedom fighter. (HT Photo)

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.

The Party as Family

From this incident it is clear that gendered roles ascribed to Durga Devi as a mother, wife and later a widow gave her a unique disguise. The mandarins in Indian Political Intelligence had connected ‘the violence movement’ with young, unencumbered and energetic bachelors. Because this was largely true of inner circle members, the strategic use of the wives of married party members could lend subversive operations a sheen of respectability. Women were the perfect front.

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While Durga Devi’s motherhood of a small child might have been thought to preclude her from revolutionary activities, in fact it provided a foil for them. On the day of the Lamington Road attack, she had left Sachi with Babarao Savarkar — the brother of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar — with instructions that if anything untoward happened he should be sent to an HSRA member in Punjab, Dhanvantari. When Savarkar read about the action in the newspapers the following day, he panicked — he was engaged at the time in secretly printing copies of his brother’s banned book, The War of Indian Independence, and was naturally keen to avoid attention. He sent Sachi to the home of Bapat, the driver in the action, who had already been arrested; the boy was then redirected to Vaishampayan’s residence; he too had been arrested. Durga Devi began to frantically search for her son, and ‘by fate or whatever you want to call it’, she finally found him on the street near Prithvi Singh’s akhara [gymnasium], holding the hand of one of Prithvi Singh’s friends. Durga Devi gratefully swept him up and caught a train to Kanpur, where Azad was based at the time. He was angry that party protocols had not been followed, but soon calmed down as she explained their haste. As the case went to trial in February 1931, the prosecutors were still trying to pin down the exact identity of the ‘mysterious person with long hair’. It was not until the very end of the court case that the wanted woman was identified as ‘Durga Devi of the Lahore Case’.

Durga Devi’s widowhood did not drive her into melancholy seclusion; if anything, she became more active than before. By failing to behave in a culturally conscribed manner befitting a mother, wife and later a widow, she confused the intelligence and police networks who sought to anticipate and capture her. As the newspaper coverage of the Lamington Road Outrage demonstrates, the investigators presumed the gunmen were men; and when witnesses’ statements suggested otherwise, they guessed that the woman must necessarily be married to one of the men in the car. This too was flawed and informed a search for a fugitive ‘couple’, which was ultimately fruitless. A daring lone woman, let alone one with a young child, was simply unimaginable.

In the final months of Bhagat Singh’s life, Durga Devi became a prominent member of the Bhagat Singh Defence Committee, formed to lobby for legal and financial support; to collect signatures to appeal the death penalty; and ultimately, to take his case to the Privy Council. Interestingly, this was largely organised by women, headed by a dedicated Peshawar-born Congress worker, Lajjawati. …

Durga Devi’s activities supporting Bhagat Singh in jail were enabled by her capacity to manipulate gendered forms of anonymity that provided, literally, the perfect cover for revolutionary work. By wearing a black veil and assuming the persona of a lady in purdah, she was able to attend court proceedings and visit Bhagat Singh in jail, which she continued to do even while he was on death row, confidently gliding past jailors to deliver him letters, books and foodstuffs. Several other girls who were trusted by the revolutionaries ‘posed as sisters or nieces of the accused men and visited them regularly carrying messages to and from them’. No male absconder would dare to do this. Little wonder that by 1933, the ‘wearing of disguises was made a criminal offence, so that men and women … could not evade police detection by dressing as women and men, respectively, and Hindu men and women were prohibited from masquerading as Muslims.’

Women as Intermediaries

Being generally held above suspicion, women were the ideal conduits between the revolutionaries and the Congress movement. While the two movements were discrete, many of the north Indian revolutionaries had been active Congress members in the early 1920s, as I shall demonstrate in the next chapter. Bhagwati Charan was still a paid-up Congress member in 1929. In a meeting organised by a Delhi Congress leader, Raghunandan Saran, Durga Devi called upon Mahatma Gandhi, who was staying at the home of Dr Ansari in Delhi during the Gandhi–Irwin talks in February 1931. Attended by Sushila, she first was introduced to Jawaharlal Nehru, who by his own account was excited to meet them. Their subsequent meeting with Gandhi, to appeal to him to include a clause in the pact with Irwin to save the condemned trio, did not fare so well. Gandhi had presumed that, tired of living the life of an absconder, she had come to surrender herself to him and he advised her to do so; she refused, made her case to Gandhi, and left.

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The early 1930s in general marked an increase in the politicisation of women, especially with the onset of civil disobedience. The large numbers of women taking part served, among other things, to make the work of the police ‘particularly unpleasant’. When Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru were executed on 23 March 1931, mass protests across India included an unprecedented and unexpected number of women, even in areas known for conservative restrictions on women’s movement. …

Durga Devi was eventually arrested in Lahore on 14 September 1932, and although she did not much elaborate on this in her testimony, Ram Chandra records that she actually invited the police to arrest her, writing a letter to them alerting them to her address. Manmohini Zutshi recalled the excitement when Durga Devi was delivered to the Lahore jail where she was being held as a satyagrahi, surmising that with many of her comrades dead or in jail, Durga Devi had simply lost heart: ‘she was not very communicative, though we all tried to engage her in conversation’.

A Political Who’s Who compiled by the government of the United Provinces noted that Durga Devi was ‘detained in jail for two months under the Special Powers Ordinance from 28–9–1932; [then] released and restricted to Lahore’ for a further twelve months under an Act which allowed for preventative detention of suspects. By 1935, she had returned to her studies and matriculated, and in 1936 began to work as a teacher in the Pyare Lal Girls School, Ghaziabad, after an amnesty was extended to political prisoners, and charges against her ‘were dropped or had expired’.

With the revolutionary movement largely suppressed, Durga Devi Vohra began to take part in Congress politics. She served as president of the Delhi Congress Committee in 1937–8, and assisted in organising a reception for the freed prisoners of the Kakori Conspiracy Case. She was arrested again, this time in her capacity as a Congress worker for her involvement in a hartal in 1938, and was imprisoned for a week. In 1940, she set up and dedicated all her energies to a Montessori school in Lucknow, and she was still engaged in this when she was interviewed in 1972. When she died in 1999 her funeral rites were performed by Sachi on the banks of Hindon river, celebrated with full state honours.

Revolutionary Women

That women took up revolutionary roles at all was frequently construed in the 1930s as an indication of how oppressive the government had become, that they were willing to flout or depart from their expected roles. ‘Who could imagine’, wrote the journalist-agitator Chaman Lal, ‘that those quiet and humble goddesses of piety and sweetness would turn out to be real warriors in the cause of their country’? …

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Inciting men to violence was one thing; but taking it up, as did Durga Devi in the Lamington Road Outrage, was another. British intelligence networks struggled to understand the phenomenon of women joining the revolutionary movement, reasoning that it was an outcome of the growing trend towards co-education, particularly in Bengal. As Purnima Bose has noted, the phenomenon of Indian women committing acts of violence against European men challenged and complicated understandings of Indian women as ‘backward and submissive in comparison with their European counterparts’.

It was, however, a willingness to manipulate such suppositions that ensured that activism by women such as Durga Devi Vohra became an indispensable element of clandestine revolutionary operations. Moreover, it is evident that revolutionary organisations conceded this, even as they were a product of a society where conservative views on the roles of women were in a state of flux, as women and girls began to take up roles in the broader nationalist movement. It was with an element of surprise that British observers noted that during the Civil Disobedience Movement ‘unexpected assistance’ came from women. ‘Thousands of them — many being of good family and high educational attainments —suddenly emerged from the seclusion of their homes, and in some instances actually from purdah, in order to join Congress demonstrations’. But as Tanika Sarkar concluded, in Bengal, ‘Gandhian radical nationalist and terrorist leaders alike consistently harped on the supreme relevance of traditional roles and values for modern Indians’, in which there was little room for feminist sensibilities.

In the case of the HSRA, reservations about the roles of women in the inner party circle existed, but were negotiated, with women such as Durga ‘Bhabhi’ and Sushila ‘Didi’ being absorbed into the familial party structure. Nonetheless, Durga Devi paid a price for her politics. Neighbours in Lahore, unappreciative of her personal and social radicalism, primly observed her interactions with the other male revolutionaries and, according to Yashpal, gossiped about her. Peripheral party members made assumptions about her failure to live the life of a widow, and published scandalous allegations about her, which she strenuously denied. …

The HSRA came to a position of recognising ‘no artificial barrier between men and women’, with Bhagat Singh urging from jail the formation of a women’s committee whose primary duty would be ‘to revolutionise the womenfolk and select from them active members for direct service’. Initial reservations about women’s participation gave way to a pragmatism towards meeting larger goals. The revolutionaries found that defying gender conventions was an effective means of operating below the radar of the disciplinary machinery of the state, and extended these opportunities to women who wanted them. These women simultaneously defied and appropriated norms and ideals around contemporary concepts of womanhood and it was precisely this that made them such useful operatives.

Many other women were drawn into the activities of the revolutionary movement in north India. Intelligence files describe the shady activities of several women involved in the NJBS, including Nikko Devi of Peshawar, ‘the mother of terrorists’, whose work included supplying bombs and arms to unnamed persons in Karachi and Lahore. Other examples include Suhasini Nambiar, who presided over the 1929 NJBS meeting in Lahore, held alongside the Congress; and a sari-wearing, Urdu-speaking woman of Irish birth, who adopted the name Savitri Devi (also known as Mrs Jaffar Ali and Alyce Nisbet Wright), known to be working with Yashpal engaged in writing party propaganda.

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Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert’s research makes it clear that a number of women supported their revolutionary husbands, not simply by keeping their homes, but through illegal activities such as procuring and hiding guns and ammunition. The extent to which women participated in the revolutionary movement, particularly in supportive roles (meaning those who ‘provided shelter, food and cover, carried messages or arms, or instilled a passion to “serve the country” among their children, telling them about the “heroes” and “martyrs” who had sacrificed their lives for the country’s freedom’), is ultimately unquantifiable. Many women shrouded their actions in supporting the revolutionary movement with silence, as they ‘feared that their activities would be associated with “terrorism”’, which continued to be stigmatised in the aftermath of independence.

Durga Devi was the most celebrated of these women, made infamous as Durga ‘Bhabhi’ in Bhagat Singh films, documentaries and comics. And yet, as one newspaper wrote in her obituary, ‘while her earlier life reads like a thriller, her later years were spent in exclusion and relative anonymity’. It is telling that many of her surviving male colleagues wrote and published memoirs about their revolutionary lives, some more than one, but she did not. Coaxed to record her testimony by the oral historian Manchanda, it becomes clear that the level of her involvement as a revolutionary has been vastly under-appreciated. That the twists and turns of her story are still largely unknown is a reminder that popular depictions of the revolutionaries have become hegemonic. An immersion in the archives, drawing on governmental, oral and proscribed visual sources, shapes a much more detailed and often complex narrative.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, image, voice and text

Kama Maclean


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