1857: Heroes and heroines
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1857: Heroines of
Heroines of 1857
By M. Abul Fazl
OUR first war of independence started as a mutiny in the Bengal Army of the East India Company but was sustained by the sympathy and support of the masses. In Awadh, it became a popular movement, as talukadars, peasants and artisans all participated in the struggle there.
It is true that pre-capitalist South Asia was innocent of the feelings of nationalism. But the masses could see that the English, total strangers, had taken over the government of the country and resented their behaviour. Again, they may not have grasped the mechanism of unequal exchange between South Asia and England which was put in place after the Battle of Plassey.
The women participated equally with the men in the rebellion, mainly by taking over cultivation of land when the men were away, helping with supplies to the warriors and looking after the wounded. Some women took part in combat too. According to Hodson, as quoted by Christopher Hibbert, in The Great Mutiny — India 1857, during the British siege of Delhi, a woman used to emerge with other soldiers who fought against the British ‘like a fiend.’ There were also two withered Muslim women from Rampur who led the rebels from the front and, when not fighting, fetched cartridges for them.
Qurratul Ain Hyder quotes Muzaffar Ali to the effect that one Azizan Bai, who had been brought up by Umrao Jan Ada, took part in fighting in Kanpur, dressed and armed like a cavalier. A Hussaini Khanam planned and organised the massacre of 200 English in the same town. Hibbert recounts that, during the first British assault on Lucknow to raise the siege of the British Residency, there was savage hand-to-hand fighting in Sikandar Bagh before the rebels were overcome. Then a sniper remained in a pepal tree. When shot down, it turned out to be a woman, carrying a pair of pistols.
The two best-known heroines of the independence struggle were Laxmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi and Hazrat Mahal, a Begum of Awadh. One fell fighting on the field of honour and the other led Awadh throughout the fighting, withdrawing to Nepal, still defiant, only after defeat. The English referred routinely to one as ‘Jezebel’ and to the other as the ‘nautch girl.’ Europeans mention other such heroines of their own with pride, such as Napoleon’s description of Queen Louise as ‘the only real man in Prussia,’although she had never seen a battlefield.
As to the epithets applied to them: the original Jezebel, a pagan princess of Levant, married Ahab, the king of Judah but refused to convert to Judaism. When she tried to spread the worship of Baal, she was murdered and calumniated, her name turned into an insult. Thus she was, in reality, a woman of courage and principles. The British use of her name as an insult was crude religious bigotry. Hazrat Mahal, a peasant’s daughter, was a member of the royal dancing troupe in Lucknow. She later became a royal companion and, after bearing a son, was made queen.
Jhansi was one of the principalities which broke away from the disintegrating Maratha kingdom. It later became a protectorate of the East India Company, like Awadh, indeed, and Delhi itself. When Laxmi Bai’s husband died without a male heir, Dalhousie, refusing her request that their adopted son be recognised as a successor, annexed the kingdom in 1854.
The Rani had, meanwhile, raised a private force, not identifying herself with the popular forces. However, the British now marched on Jhansi. The Rani allied herself with the successful uprising and organised the rebels in proper military formations, including a women’s battalion. She rejected the British demand of surrender and declared Jhansi’s independence. She also appealed to other rulers to come to Jhansi’s aid. Only Tantia Topi moved south from Kanpur in response. The British, who had, meanwhile, laid siege to Jhansi, were able to defeat him without lifting the siege. On the ninth day, they were let into town by a traitor.
The Rani was able to steal out with a small force and gain Kalpi, where she was joined by Tantia Topi. It was agreed to fight the British at Kunch in the south, as it was surrounded by temples, gardens and a wall. They were again defeated and their army disintegrated.
The Rani’s suggestion to move on to Awadh was turned down and it was decided to take Gwalior, whose ruler was British but whose army had been won over by Tantia Topi. They were now also joined by the Nawab of Banda with 2,000 cavalry. However they were again defeated by the British near Gwalior, where the Rani fell on the battlefield on June 17,1858, with two of her women guards. She had been wounded in the chest and not in the back, as propagated by the British.
The people of South Asia never forgot their great daughter, in spite of British efforts to blacken her memory. The Indian National Army, created by Subhash Chandra Bose during the Second World War to liberate South Asia, had a women’s battalion named after her.
Frederick Engels wrote, upon learning of the fall of Lucknow, that now the rebels would spread out over the countryside and the resistance would continue long and the fighting did not die down in Awadh until the mid-1859.
Awadh’s people were the ‘martial race’ of that period, in the sense that two-thirds of the mercenaries for the British Bengal Army, mainly Hindu Brahmins, were recruited from there until 1857. They fought for the British against their own countrymen, defeating Nepal and conquering Punjab and NWFP for colonialism.
Awadh, the ‘Garden of India,’ as it was then known, was, like everywhere in the Orient, a garden only for the rich. The masses lived in poverty, but loved their kings because only about a third of the assessed taxes were actually collected and the rulers of Awadh were genuinely secular. A militant Muslim group, intending to destroy a temple in Ayodhya, was massacred with the use of extreme violence under the king’s orders.
The population, therefore, resented the annexation of their principality by the Company on February 7, 1856 and the removal of their king to Calcutta. Three-fourths of Awadh’s army of 60,000 was also dissolved. Lastly, the uprising in Meerut in May, 1857 was not an isolated incident, but a product of purely local causes.
There had been expressions of discontentment and attempted rebellions in six places, including Lucknow, before the mutiny of Meerut. As a result, a cavalry regiment of the Company had been disbanded in Lucknow and two infantry regiments in Barackpur. Meerut was followed, over the next month, by mutinies stretching down to Aurangabad. Except for the south, all the mutinies were in the Bengal Army, which consisted overwhelmingly of soldiers from Awadh.
Lucknow’s struggle lasted from June, 1857 to March, 1858, the longest of any in the national uprising, presumably, because, like Jhansi’s, it became a popular fight. In Lucknow, the sepoys laid siege to the British residency in March, 1857 but were unable to take it until the British forces relieved it in November. The British made a final assault in early March, 1858 with an army that was much smaller than the total rebel strength. The battles were certainly bitter at Musa Bagh. But the British had secured Lucknow by March 22.
The struggle in Awadh was led by Nawab Hazrat Mahal, acting as regent for her 10-year-old son, Birjis Qadr, who had been proclaimed king by the resistance. The talukadars swore loyalty to him, as did the commanders of the major fighting units. Hazrat Mahal provided political leadership to the rebel cause, constituting a war council on which Hindus and Muslims were equally represented. She had the support of the landowners, the peasants, the artisans and the religious leaders. Riding an elephant, she led the troops in the Battle of Alambagh. She left Lucknow after its fall, instead of surrendering, opting for exile in Nepal.
Queen Victoria issued a proclamation on November 1, 1858, wherein she promised amnesty and undertook not to annex any more native states. Nawab Hazrat Mahal issued a counter-proclamation, analysing and rejecting Victoria’s proclamation point by point. She said that the word of the English was not to be trusted, as they had broken every treaty they made with the South Asians, violated every word they gave.
1857: Tatya Tope
1857 and all that
Shobhan Saxena | [HTTP://TIMESOFINDIA.INDIATIMES.COM/ARCHIVE.CMS THE TIMES OF INDIA]
The Times of India
India, Tatya Tope 1857
Why would a book on a historical figure – a national hero in the first war of independence – not have a single photo of the man, except for a grainy sketch on the cover? “Because not a single photograph of Tatya Tope is available anywhere. The sketch is an artist’s imagination and the only photograph taken by the British in April 1859 can’t be real because Tatya had died in January 1859, three months before,” says Parag Tope, who is descended from the freedomfighter.
Parag’s “Operation Red Lotus: Tatya and the Anglo-Indian war of 1857” has just been published. He is not a historian and does not claim to be one, but he believes Indian history is too serious a matter to be left to the British. “History is always written with an agenda,” says the engineer and MBA who owns a company in San Francisco. Parag worked with five others to research his famous forebear in an attempt to bring out the “truth….We grew up hearing stories about Tatya’s life and his bravery from old people in our family but we could not find any of this in history books.”
The book investigates the elaborate planning that went into sustaining the war for about two years. It “solves” the puzzle of the mysterious rotis and red lotuses used by Indian rebels as coded messages from village to village across north India. “British officers dismissed these activities as stupid native rituals and modern historians looked at them as folklore,” says Parag.
He throws new light on 1857, not least an eyewitness account of Tatya’s death in the battle of Chhipa Barod on January 1, 1859. “This dispels the British claim that Tatya was arrested and hanged,” says Parag. The book also claims to offer a new explanation for Rani Laxmibai’s “socalled escape from the Jhansi port” and the Scindias’ politics during the war. Baija Bai Scindia is described as a “pragmatic patriot” and Gwalior is held to have clandestinely supported the revolt even as Baija Bai “faked loyalty” to the British.
This book, which was researched and put together by a bunch of professionals, none of whom is a historian, raises interesting questions about history writing. History is often written by victors and read by the vanquished, says Parag, but this account tries to prove that 1857 was not a sepoy mutiny but a wellplanned war for independence.
1857: Heroes and heroines