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The revolutionary of Chandni Chowk

R.V. SMITH


TURN INTO a gali in Chandni Chowk and walk up a flight of stairs. The room is there but the old man is missing. Yes, Lala Hanumant Sahai, an accused in the Hardinge Bomb conspiracy case, once lived here. The last time this writer met him was in 1965. It was winter and he was eating gajar-ka-halwa, wrapped up in a blanket and looking very feeble indeed. Now 39 years later the "kothri" still has poignant memories of him.

Lalaji belonged to a well-known Kayastha family of Delhi. His uncle was the Kotwal of Mehrauli and his other ancestors occupied equally important positions at the Moghul court. His boyhood was passed in the shade of the neem and peepul trees which grew on both sides of the main Chandni Chowk road. The road was of gravel, and when coal tar replaced it there was a hue and cry as the hooves of tonga and ekka horses used to get stuck in it. That was in 1895. All the shops in the Chowk had arcades and most of the buildings were not more than a storey high.

When trams were introduced in 1907, Hanumant Sahai was old enough to take part in the movement against them. He had just passed the High School examination. The movement failed but Lalaji was drawn deeper into the freedom struggle, along with his teacher, Master Amir Chand. The room in which he stayed most of his life became the haunt of revolutionaries who had vowed to kill the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, when he drove in State in December 1912.

As one stood on the staircase one could remember Lalaji's words: "Great preparations were made for the Viceroy's sawari. Seats were arranged in the middle of Chandni Chowk and tickets ranged from Rs.50 to 300 in the black market. My beat was Esplanade Road. Suddenly, as the procession neared Moti Bazar, there was a loud explosion. People thought a canon had been fired but I knew what had happened and came running to the scene. The Viceroy lay unconscious and bleeding. The servant who had been sitting behind him had been blown to pieces by the homemade bomb and Lady Hardinge, though unhurt, also lay unconscious. They were taken to the Red Fort but the procession continued."

Life imprisonment

Later Lalaji, Master Amir Chand, Master Awadh Behari, Bhai Balmukund and Basant Kumar Biswas were arrested and tried. Lalaji was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Andamans and the others to death. On appeal Lalaji's sentence was reduced to seven years' rigorous imprisonment, while the supreme sacrifice of his associates is still recalled every year when homage is paid to the Hardinge Bomb Case martyrs behind the Khooni Darwaza, near which the Delhi Jail once stood. After his release from jail, Lala Hanumant Sahai joined the Congress and from then on he was in and out of prison for various cases connected with the freedom movement.

When this writer met him, Lalaji was an invalid and was more or less confined to his room. He spoke little, but when his ire was aroused the light returned to his eyes and the years fell back to give a glimpse of the man he must have been in his youth. He pointed to the balcony near his room and recalled that the women of his family, his mother and aunt among them, had been standing there watching the procession of the Viceroy. When the bomb exploded all ran inside, and some time later he too joined them because they were unaware of his involvement in the explosion.

However, aware of the fact that all able-bodied young men were usually rounded up by the police after such incidents, they prevailed upon him to hide in the zenana until things settled down. He remembered that he ate khichri sitting under a cot, with his mother's sari draped around his head to conceal his identity. The other "conspirators" hid in the Punjab National Bank building.

During the course of the investigations somebody disclosed his name (could have been Basant Kumar who was tortured in the Lahore Jail and then molly-coddled in an effort to make him an approver with the promise of the King's pardon). But Lalaji was not the one to believe in stories against fellow-revolutionaries, whose leader had been Rashbehari Bose. Even the people of Delhi did not agree with the British condemnation of Master Amir Chand "as a corrupter of young men". He was, however, sent to the gallows.

The Hardinge Bomb conspiracy was the direct offshoot of the transfer of the Capital to Delhi from Calcutta. Not that the people of Delhi did not like the move but they were opposed to the British seeking mileage out of it. Stories that a lakh Bengalis would be settled in Delhi also added fuel to the fire and stirred up local resentment. But then how does one explain the involvement of Rashbehari Bose and Basant Kumar in the conspiracy?

To his dying day Sahai did not disclose the name of the person who had actually thrown the bomb. "That secret will go down to the grave with me," he declared. And he kept his word!

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