Durgavati Vohra: Remembering India’s unsung warriors
I am writing this on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, struggling with conflicting thoughts. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was undoubtedly a colossus who will illuminate mankind’s path for all time. But I am going to focus on the saga of a vibrant woman who chose a path that is diametrically opposite to Gandhi’s non-violence.
Have you heard of Durga bhabhi? She is, among many others, one of the forgotten names of our past. Durgavati Vohra and her husband Bhagwati Charan Vohra ought to be remembered by our country and let me tell you why. Her birth anniversary falls on October 7. It will pass and no one will pay tribute to her this year, as in the years gone by. Durgavati was born into a wealthy family in what was then Allahabad district. Now this is part of the newly-created Kaushambi district and Allahabad has been renamed Prayagraj.
Her father, Pandit Banke Bihari, was a nazir (a court official) in the Allahabad collectorate and her grandfather was a police officer, both in the service of the British. At the age of 10 or 11, she was married to Bhagwati Charan Vohra, the 15-year-old son of a wealthy Gujarati, Shivcharan Das Vohra, who had settled in Lahore.
Shivcharan Das Vohra was conferred with the title of “Rai Saheb” by the British, but his son was not enamoured of the colonisers. Bhagwati Charan Vohra often met Bhagat Singh and other progressive revolutionaries. Bhagat Singh founded the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in March, 1926.
At that time, many young people, including members of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), suspected that Bhagwati Charan was an informant for the British intelligence, coming as he did from a privileged background.
But Bhagwati Charan threw himself into the revolution wholeheartedly. By the end of 1928, he was given membership of HSRA. At this time, he planned a trip to Calcutta. Before setting off, he gave his wife ₹5,000 to use in an emergency.
While Bhagwati Charan was in Calcutta, on December 17, 1928, British police officer John Saunders was killed. The government imposed restrictions in Lahore. Durga bhabhi was alone at home with her three-year-old son when someone knocked on her door at night. On answering, she found Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru at her doorstep. It did not take long for her to understand that the killing had been carried out by them.
She gave them shelter but since this was not enough, she disguised herself as Bhagat Singh’s wife and took him out of Lahore. Such an act, even today, would be considered audacious. There were a number of restrictions on women in those days, but Durgavati blazed her own path. It was her determination and courage that saved Bhagat Singh. The money her husband had left her for an emergency, a substantial sum in those days, was used to help the revolutionaries.
The relationship between Bhagwati Charan Vohra and Durgavati was one of a unique companionship and commitment. The revolutionaries called her bhabhi. But she was not a mere supporter of the revolutionaries, she was an active participant. Bhagwati Charan even taught her how to use a gun. On October 8, 1930, she opened fire on a British police sergeant and his wife near the police station on Lamington Road in South Bombay. She took this step in retaliation for the death sentence awarded to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru a day earlier.
It came as a huge surprise to the British that an Indian woman could be so bold. As a result, the might of the British administration came down on her and she was arrested in September, 1932. A book, No Ten Commandments, written by the then inspector- general of police, ST Hollins, tells us how she had become a thorn in the side of the government. Two years prior to her arrest, Bhagwati Charan Vohra was killed in an explosion while making a bomb on the banks of the Ravi river. Durga bhabhi was not able to see his body but her husband continued to inspire her.
After her release from prison, new struggles awaited Durga bhabhi. Fellow revolutionaries had either been killed or arrested. She was left alone. In 1935, she moved to Ghaziabad and started teaching in a school. Later, she set up a school in Lucknow for poor children.
Jawaharlal Nehru went to see that school but it is not known whether he kept in touch with her after Independence. When she died in Ghaziabad on October 14, 1999, it was not treated as the passing of a revolutionary, but of an anonymous woman. Even today, no effort has been made in any of the places she stayed in to keep her memory alive.
There is a saying attributed to the philosopher, George Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Or are we, today, uninterested in the lives of the many unsung heroes and heroines from our past from whom we can learn so much?
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal