For Durga Das Khanna, former Chairman, Punjab Legislative Council, the urge for freedom was sufficiently strong to take him quite close to the gallows. In 1931, he was sentenced to death by the Lahore Sessions Judge for his part in the conspiracy to assassinate the Governor of Punjab. He was acquitted later by the High Court.
Scion of an orthodox family, Khanna became very close to Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev. In an interview recorded by the Nehru Memorial Library, eight years before his death in 1984, he describes how he was induced to give up his conservative moorings and drawn into the revolutionary band that sought to end the British rule in India by use of force:
I belong to a family which had no political background. It was an orthodox Hindu family. I was born in 1908. My father and grandfather were doing money-lending business. One of my uncles was a senior advocate of the Lahore High Court.
My reaction to the profession my father and grandfather were engaged in was rather adverse right from childhood. I remember people coming and being advanced all kinds of amounts and paying high rates of interest and I always used to wonder if my family was not living on the wants and miseries of others. This created almost a revolution in my mind, but I thought it wiser to keep my counsel to myself, though once or twice I did argue with my grandfather why he could not give up the profession. He said that this was something done not only by him, but by so many others and that it was a traditional way of helping people to carry out their needs.
I had a religious bent of mind from the very beginning. My one attraction was the Guru Granth Sahib, which my father used to read daily. I began to visit the gurdwara, opposite Lahore Fort, which had been established in the memory of Guru Arjan Dev. Somehow of all the 10 gurus of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev impressed me the most and I would go there every Sunday and listen to the bani [Sikh holy texts].
When I passed my matriculation in 1924 I applied to two colleges — Government College, Lahore, and Forman Christian College. I was not admitted in Government College and I am glad I was not. In FC College I found a very free atmosphere. The Principal, Dr E D Lucas, was a wonderful man and if I can think of the first influence on my mind about the national movement, it was from him.
This, of course, does not take into account the days of the martial law in 1919. I was very young at that time, but I have a vivid recollection of the way a certain magistrate in Lahore fired on unarmed processionists in Hira Mandi Bazaar. There was a hartal [strike] and the enthusiasm which I witnessed among the people could not but influence me against the British Raj.
One morning I noticed a couple of booklets — one entitled Great Thoughts of Lala Hardyal and the other Selections from the Writings of Bande Matram — with my friend Hans Raj Vohra. He passed those books to me while sitting in the Physics gallery of FC College. Dr V S Puri was giving a lecture and we were talking about these books. He noticed that and scolded us. I then took the books from him and, after reading them, felt inspired as if some hidden hand was directing my movements.
I would go and seek interviews with Dr Lucas (he was an American) and tried to know how things were in America. He said: “You cannot compare the position prevailing in your country with the free atmosphere in the USA.” That was a free country. And once he said, “Unless you young men do something to shake off the shackles, you cannot improve.” And this had tremendous influence on my mind.
Once, in 1927 or 1928, I had written out my answers in history. Dr Wilson was the professor. This was the time of house examinations. After he had marked the answer papers of all the students, they were distributed to them. I was the only one who did not receive his answer book. I asked Dr Wilson the reason.
He said: “The Principal will hand over the paper to you.”
When I met Dr Lucas, he said: “Where did you get all the material you have written in your answer? This is not from the prescribed textbooks.”
I said it was from Basu’s Rise of Christian Power in India. As I was talking about the book, Dr Wilson came in. He said: ‘“From where did you get that book? I had told Sant Ram, the librarian, not to issue the book to anyone.”
I said I got it from the Dwarka Das Library (which had been set up by Lala Lajpat Rai).
Dr Lucas said: “It is perfectly alright.” But he asked me to request my uncle (who was the standing counsel of the college) to see him.
When both my uncle and I went to Dr Lucas’ office, he said: “Tirath Ram, I warn you that your nephew is going to be hanged one of these days! Because you are our counsel I just want to warn you that he may not go to extremes.”
Meanwhile after reading the two books given by Hans Raj, I asked him where he had got them from. He said: “Would you like to meet the gentlemen from whom I got them?”
Naturally, I expressed my desire to meet them. An appointment was fixed for the evening in Gol Bagh, opposite the municipal offices.
I was introduced to ‘Shri Bhagat Singh’ and ‘Shri Sukhdev’. They both laughed saying, “What is this ‘Shri’?”, and added that they should be known by just their names.
Then we talked about the prevailing political situation in the country. Gandhiji came in for a lot of criticism. It was said that he aroused the passions of the people, promised that swaraj [self rule] will be achieved by the country within a year, in 1921, but later withdrew the movement.
I found myself not totally disagreeing with the views expressed by Bhagat Singh. Sukhdev was a bit more trenchant in his criticism. He said: “If you look into Gandhji’s conduct you will come to the conclusion that he was acting more like an agent of the British than a leader of the national movement.”
I revolted against the accusation. But he persisted. I said he could keep his opinions to himself, but I was entitled to maintain my respect for the great leader.
Then we discussed the role of people fighting for freedom in other countries, for instance, in Russia of the Czars or the Irish revolutionaries against the British.
We met the next day and all four of us walked towards Chauburji grounds. This time I was more of a listener. But at one time I did intervene and say that I would like to study freedom movements in other countries before I expressed any opinion on the methods we should employ in our country.
Bhagat Singh was happy to see that I was willing to read more on this matter. But Sukhdev said that so far as the means to fight evil were concerned, “You must also refer to your Bhagavadgita.”
He said: “Your Krishna gave a definite answer to the means to be employed in such matters and that was to meet force with force if reason failed.”
I said: “I accept your position entirely, but reason has to be employed in the first place.”
Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev would be very discreet with me. They found that I was opposed to employing violent means and was influenced by Gandhiji therefore they neither disclosed what their affiliations were, nor what they were doing. It appeared to me to be more of an academic discussion.
Later, I did inquire from Hans Raj as to who these johnnies were, but he also did not disclose the nature of their involvement in any particular movement.
They asked me to read My Fight for Irish Freedom and the Life of Barrister Savarkar. The other book I read was ABC of Communism. I could understand the phenomena of the Russian revolution of 1919 in the background of this book.
We met next towards the end of 1926. I told them of the books I had read. One of them, on the Russian revolution, was Ten Days That Shook the World. Its opening sentence was, “Chaos is necessary for the birth of a new star.” Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev were very happy with the way I had started.
After my FSc examinations, we began having more frequent meetings with each other. They appeared to me to be very sincere, able men of very high caliber who professed what they were prepared to act upon. They were not in the movement for getting any benefit out of it. They were there to sacrifice their lives if they could bring the goal of freedom nearer.
Today as I look back it appears that they assessed my feelings and my intellectual capacity very correctly and knew that I would not like anything to be imposed upon me.
After my examinations (in March 1926), we began to meet each other more frequently. It was in one of the meetings that Sukhdev put the proposition very boldly to me. He said that they were members of a secret revolutionary organization known as the Hindustan Republic Association (the word Socialist was added later) and gave me a printed leaflet as regard their views, organization etc. It stressed the dire necessity to resort to forceful means to meet the challenge of the British who were doing everything to demoralize our people by oppression. When I was asked if I was prepared to join them and sacrifice my life if necessary for the sake of freedom, it was really a big question for me. I said I would like some time to ponder over the whole thing.
When we met after a month or so again, I told them that there was no alternative to the method suggested by them. Gandhian philosophy and non-violence at that time appeared to me to be not very effective in meeting the organized force of the government. Therefore I said: “You can take me as one of your members.”
Before I gave this word I had written to Gandhiji, stating that there were two alternatives before me. One was to join the revolutionaries and the other was to join him at his ashram and devote my life to the cause of freedom under his guidance.
After some time I received a reply from Mahadev Desai that Gandhiji desired that for the time being I should be guided by the advice of my parents. This was the last straw because it shattered my faith in the theory of non-violence and the apprehensions suggested by Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev seemed to be true. When I met them again I became a full-fledged member of the party.
Postscript: After working for the revolutionary party for a few months in Lahore, Durga Das Khanna was asked to proceed to Rawalpindi. It was decided that he would do this on his wedding night so that he could elope without his bride, but with all the cash and jewellery that comes the groom’s way on such occasions, for the cash-starved party.
Khanna slipped out of his house for his midnight rendezvous with Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev. However, after asking a few searching questions about what impact his going away would have on his family, Bhagat Singh advised him to return home.
In 1930, after the top leaders of the movement had been put out of action by the government, Khanna along with Virendra and Ranvir (later editors of the Pratap and Milap, respectively) hatched the conspiracy to assassinate a prominent symbol of British rule in India — the Governor of Punjab, Sir Geoffery de Montmorency.
This article was printed in the The Tribune (India) Saturday Plus on Saturday 23 January 1999. It can be retrieved from http://www.tribuneindia.com/1999/99jan23/saturday/head4.htm.
Photograph of Durga Das Khanna from The Tribune (India) Saturday Extra on Saturday 2 August 2008, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2008/20080802/saturday/main3.htm.