The eleventh story in the series ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence is the story of woman revolutionary – the “Agni of India”.
One of the lesser known freedom fighters, who shared her name with the illustrious queen of Gond, Durgavati, she was as fearless as Goddess Durga in fighting the demonic forces of the British. At a time when freedom of women was limited to the four walls of their houses, this was something unimaginable.
Durgavati Devi was born in October 1907 in the village of Shahzadpur in the present day Kaushambi district of Uttar Pradesh to Pandit Banke Bihari Bhat and Yamna. Banke Bihari worked in the court at present day Prayagraj.
When Durga was barely ten months old, her mother died and her father took up ‘Sanyas’ renouncing family life. So, Durga was brought up by a distant relative of theirs.
At the age of eleven, she was married to fifteen-year-old Bhagwati Charan Vohra of Lahore. Vohra’s family was very wealthy. Bhagwati’s father Shiv Charan Vohra was in a senior position in the Railways and very loyal to the British. He had been conferred with the title “Rai Bahadur” by the British.
Bhagwati Charan’s family was not conservative and they encouraged Durga to continue her studies after marriage by arranging a private tutor. Later she graduated from the Punjab University and started working as a teacher.
Ideologically, Durgavati’s husband was just the opposite of his father and hated the British. Deeply impacted by the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 his hate for the British had grown multifold. But due to his respect for his father, he never expressed his views or indulged in the fight against British openly.
His father died in 1920. Then, upon Gandhiji’s call, Bhagwati quit his studies and joined the Non-cooperation movement. Since he was wealthy, finance was not an issue.
However, as it had happened with other revolutionaries, he was also sorely disappointed with Gandhiji’s discontinuing the movement. So after some time he, along with Durgavati resumed studies at National College Lahore which had been established by Shri Lala Lajpat Rai, the great freedom fighter from Punjab. Here he came into contact with Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Chandrasekhar Azad, Yashpal and others who also shared the singular goal of freeing Bharat from the British. Reading about the various political revolutions of the world, in the college library, the friends came to the conclusion that non-violence was not the path to freedom.
They held frequent meetings at Bhagwati Charan’s house and naturally Durgavati also got involved. She was fondly addressed as Durga Bhabhi by them, a name which stuck to her. In addition to various other tasks, she was in-charge of secretly procuring and distributing weapons to the revolutionaries. She and her husband were themselves very adept in using the pistol and bombs.
In 1925, Durgavati gave birth to a baby boy who they named Sachin. For some time after Sachin was born, Durgavati had to slowdown her active participation in the movement. Now, Bhagwati Charan along with Bhagat Singh and others established the Naujavan Bharat Sabha in which he was propaganda secretary. Later, he, Durgavati and the others joined the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA).
In 1928, there were violent protests in the sub-continent against the Simon Commission which was coming to suggest changes to the Indian Constitution. Ironically, there was not even one Indian member in the commission. So, everywhere, people protested shouting, “Simon Go back!”. The police were trying to suppress the protests using brutal force. In November 1928 at Lahore, the protest was led by Shri Lala Lajpat Rai. As a result of the injuries caused by the lathi-charge of the police on him, he died.
This was a great shock to all the revolutionaries. To take revenge, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru took the responsibility of killing James A Scott (the senior superintendent of police) who had ordered the lathi-charge at Lahore. In December 1928, they carried out the mission. However, by mistake, they shot dead the assistant superintendent of police, Saunders. Posters were put up by the HSRA claiming responsibility for the death of Saunders. In some posters, inadvertently, the name of James A Scott had appeared as that was the original plan.
Eye witnesses had said the shooter was a Sikh youth.
Scott was furious and immediately the police were looking to capture the ‘Sikh youth’ and his accomplice. House to house searches and thorough scanning of all passengers going by rail or road began.
Sukhdev approached Durga Bhabhi, told her of the developments and that Bhagat Singh and Rajguru had to escape from Lahore at the earliest. He requested Durga Bhabhi for money and also asked her to accompany Bhagat Singh disguised as his wife, along with her son Sachin, to Kolkata.
Bhagat Singh had shaved off his hair and beard and sported only a small moustache and was wearing a coat and felt hat, dressed like an anglicized Indian so much so that the British could never recognize him.
At this time Bhagwati Charan had gone to Kolkata to attend the convention of the Indian National Congress. Though he had given enough cash to Durgavati for emergency he could not be contacted and informed of this development.
Durga Bhabhi being a daredevil, readily agreed to the plan knowing fully well how dangerous it could be for both her and her little son if they were caught! Also, a married woman posing as another man’s wife was unthinkable according to the social norms of those times!
But Durga’s only aim was to enable Bhagat Singh and Rajguru to escape and so she went with her little son on this dangerous venture. She dressed up as a rich lady wearing a costly saree and ornaments and accompanied Bhagat as his wife, with her son.
Evading the prying eyes of the hordes of British police on the railway platform, they bought first-class tickets and boarded the train. Rajguru travelled in the third class as their ‘servant’. All of them were carrying loaded pistols.
On the train, they were pursued by a police official who insisted to see their identity cards. Durga Bhabhi noticed Bhagat Singh’s hand going to the pistol he had concealed in his trouser. With great presence of mind, she pinched her son so hard that he started crying uncontrollably. She told the police official to hold the child so she could take out the ‘card’. The harried police officer quickly left the coupe.
Getting down at Kanpur, changing trains they reached Kolkata. Bhagat had sent a telegram to Bhagwati Charan from Lucknow station (through his ‘servant’) about his arrival. When Bhagwati Charan, along with his sister received them at the station, he was totally surprised and at the same time, extremely happy and proud of his daring wife. Durgavati later returned to Lahore with her son.
Later, Bhagat and Batukeswar Dutt were arrested at Delhi for throwing bombs inside the Parliament. They were kept in Lahore jail.
Again, Durga, Bhagwati and their associates planned to help Bhagat escape from jail. They planned to throw bombs when Bhagat would be on the way to the court so he could escape in the chaos. But this had to be conveyed to Bhagat in the jail.
Yet again Durga disguised as the ‘Chachi’ of Bhagat Singh went to the jail and gave him the message in the pretext of giving him some sweets. The police realized that after she had left and gave her a chase but Durga Bhabhi had the last laugh.
For this mission, Bhagwati Charan himself was making the bombs at their home. On 28th May 1930, he, along with two of his friends went to the banks of the river Ravi to test the bombs. Unfortunately, one of the bombs exploded in the hands of Bhagwati and he died instantaneously.
This was a great jolt to Durga Bhabhi, especially as she could not even see her husband one last time. She mourned her loss in isolation for a few weeks. But soon enough, she took it upon herself to fulfil his dream to free Bharat.
The revolutionaries wanted to show to the British that their revolution would continue even without Bhagat Singh. So they planned to shoot the Punjab Governor Sir William Hailey who was posted in Mumbai then. Durga with a revolutionary (also called Sukhdev), went to Mumbai for this. Unexpectedly, they could not carry out the plan.
While they were there, on the 7th of October 1930, the judgement of death sentence for Bhagat Singh and his friends was pronounced. Unable to digest this news, on night of 8th October 1930, Durgavati and Sukhdev, while driving past a British couple, Sergeant Taylor and his wife, fired a number of shots at them injuring them.
The police found in the car they had abandoned, a piece of Durga’s black saree which had torn when the car door was shut. That gave away to the authorities for the first time, the fact that a lady revolutionary was actively involved and they started looking out for her.
After escaping from Mumbai, Durga was coordinating with the lawyers for the release of the jailed revolutionaries. She spent a lot of her personal money for this purpose. In early 1931 she went on a secret mission to meet Gandhiji to request him to take up with Lord Irwin the issue of freeing the revolutionaries. Gandhiji did not oblige. Durga was deeply disappointed.
Meanwhile in February 1931, Chandrasekhar Azad, chased by the police shot himself dead. Bhagat Singh along with Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged in March 1931.
With this the HSRA was in shambles. Added to that, there was heavy surveillance all the time on Durga Bhabhi’s movements. So on 14th September, 1932, Durga, leaving her young son with some relative, went and surrendered to the police.
Due to lack of solid evidence, she was given only six months’ imprisonment and a three-year restriction on going to Delhi or Punjab. She therefore came to Ghaziabad and stayed there. In 1937, she was approached by the Indian National Congress to work for them at Delhi, but she declined the offer. She went to Madras (Chennai) in 1939 and underwent training for Montessori education and opened the first Montessori school at Lucknow with just four children.
Now she opted out of the life of a revolutionary and concentrated on educating the future citizens of Bharat. In course of time, the school grew. But she preferred to remain behind the scenes though she earned the name of ‘Agni of India’.
Durga Bhabhi, died in anonymity at Ghaziabad in 1999 at the age of 92. Along with her freedom-fighter husband and many other freedom fighters, sadly, we have missed her in our nation’s history books.
Note: References for this story have been taken from the public domain including that of Ministry of Culture and films and audio clips of Doordarshan and AlR available on public domain.