Remembering the Forgotten: The Women of the Revolt of 1857
It has been 159 years since the Revolt of 1857. While it is often seen as the 'First War of Independence' by some, others see it only as a rebellion against the East India Company for destroying a way of life that had been prevalent in the subcontinent for centuries. Either way, the Revolt was a landmark moment in modern Indian history.
Many people fought for what they believed was right in the Revolt. While the number of men fighting outnumbered the women by far, there were many women who stood shoulder to shoulder with men when they rode into battle. If they didn't ride into battle, they aided those who did. For some reason, the names of these women often elude the pages of history or don't get enough credit even when they are mentioned.
Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi
The most well-known woman of the Revolt was actually born Manikarnika, and was nicknamed Manu. She was named Laxmibai after marriage, and was commonly known as the Rani of Jhansi. In 1854, her adopted son, Damodar Rao, was not allowed to succeed her husband because of the British East India Company's Doctrine of Lapse. Through 1857, Jhansi was still peaceful. It was in 1858, when the British arrived and demanded the city be surrendered, that the Rani proclaimed that she would fight for independence. According to legend, she escaped with her son on horseback when the British gained the upper hand in the fight. From outside, the Rani continued to fight along with allies like Tatya Tope. On June 17, 1858, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi reportedly died in battle.
Begum Hazrat Mahal
The primary cause of the Revolt was the annexation of Awadh by the British on the pretext of maladministration by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. When the Revolt began, Begum Hazrat Mahal led her followers against the British while she ruled Awadh as regent. The longest resistance to the British was given by the Begum. She commanded the largest army of rebels in the Revolt, and rejected three offers of truce by the British, who even offered to return the kingdom to her husband under British suzerainty. She continued to fight for complete independence for as long as she could. When the British came out on top in the Revolt, she found asylum in Nepal, where she died in 1879.
Rani Avantibai Lodhi of Ramgarh
Avantibai was yet another Rani who took up arms after the British took over her husband's kingdom when he died without leaving an heir. She was able to raise an army of 4,000 to fight the British. According to some sources, she personally entered the battlefield on horseback. After a few months of fighting, when defeat was certain, Rani Avantibai is said to have killed herself with her own sword.
Rani Jindan Kaur
In 1846, the British, through a treaty, became the effective rulers of Punjab. The queen of the Lahore kingdom, Rani Jindan Kaur, continued to quietly resist the British in subtle ways. When the British found out, she escaped before they could act. During the Revolt, Rani Jindan Kaur was in exile in Nepal, from where she sent coded letters to the Maharaja of Kashmir, urging him to take part in the rebellion and informing him of a plan of a two-pronged attack involving him and Jung Bahadur. However, these letters were intercepted by the British, and the plan never reached fruition. After this, her health failed, and she was allowed by the British to live in England with her son, Maharaja Dalip Singh, where she died in 1863.
Not much is known about Asghari Begum. According to some sources, she was born in 1811, and was around 45 years old at the time of the Revolt. She is said to have played an important role in fighting the British in present day western Uttar Pradesh. She was eventually captured by the British in 1858, and supposedly burned alive.
Despite being only a soldier in the ranks of Rani Laxmibai, Jhalkaribai played an important role in the Revolt. Her father raised her as a boy, and she received training in horse-riding, archery, and swordplay, which helped her be a part of the Durga Dal – the women's brigade of Jhansi. Jhalkari resembled Rani Laxmibai, and the latter used this to come up with a smart strategy to fight the British. Jhalkari dressed up as the Rani and led the troops into battle. The British received a shock when they caught her and realised who she was. Legend says that they released her, and she went on to live till 1890.
Uda Devi is one of those women of the Revolt about whom we mainly know through legend. It was in the Battle of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow in November 1857 that the British realised that the person firing at them from a tree was a woman. She was identified as Uda Devi from the Pasi caste, which was considered to be untouchable. According to a personal account, she killed more than half-a-dozen men.
Azizun Bai was a courtesan in Kanpur, which was a theatre of conflict between Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope on one side, and the British on the other. Her house became a meeting point for the rebel soldiers, and she made a gun battery her headquarters to collect and distribute arms and ammunition to the soldiers. She is also said to have ridden into battle in male attire.
A woman called Habiba, supposedly from a Muslim Gujjar family, fought in several battles against the British in the Muzaffarnagar area. When the British won, she was hanged along with 11 other female rebels. She was supposedly only 25 years old at the time.
Other names of women of the Revolt are known through personal accounts and legends. Asha Devi, Bakhtavari, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Indra Kaur, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Raj Kaur, Shobha Devi, Umda – these are only names, and not much else is known about them. These women stood up and fought for what they believed in 159 years ago, in a time when women were barely recognised as anything other than mothers, wives, or daughters. Let's give them the respect that history has not always given them.