'I Too Am Rani Chennamma'
South India’s legendary freedom fighters, must be celebrated
On February 21, over 50 women’s organisations from nearly 600 districts across the country, along with several other independent citizens’ groups, are set to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Kittur Rani Chennamma’s fight against the British. Kittur, a small town in Belagavi in Karnataka, is a prominent tourist spot known for its history especially, Fort Kittur.
The proposal celebrate and use the event as a launch pad to create awareness about women’s rights, in addition to the importance of safeguarding the Constitutional and Fundamental Rights, was initiated by Shabnam Hashmi, who leads ANHAD, a New Delhi based NGO.
It did not take Hashmi long to get the required support from the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) and the Karnataka Rajya Mahila Dourjanya Virodhi Okkuta, and other like minded organisations from across the country. All the organisations are determined to use the opportunity to help women carry forward the legacy of the Kittur Rani: to fight against tyranny,injustice and repression.
Chennamma, the queen of Kittur, a one-time princely state, became a legend, and a symbol of India’s Independence movement in the early 19th Century. She was one of the few women who lead an armed resistance against the British East India Company in 1824 in South India, an act for which she is still remembered and honoured.
Hashmi, who underlined the historical significance of the event, told this writer that Rani Chennamma’s fight against the British continues to be an inspiration for women. According to her, today’s women could learn a lot from Rani Chennamma’s heroism when it came to fighting for their rights and independence.
“I too am Rani Chennamma” (Nanoo Rani Chennamma, in Kannada), is the slogan that will reverberate throughout the event. Several hundred women volunteers and other citizens are expected to gather in front of Kittur Chennamma’s statue on February 21. The groups will then march towards the Kittur fort.
According to Hashmi around 3000 people will take part in the march, to spread awareness of women’s rights. Coupled with this, folktales and songs will be performed, and an exhibition depicting the Kittur queen’s heroic deeds will be held. The exhibition will also travel across the country till mid-April.
A ‘Kittur Declaration’ will be released to highlight the current status of women and their rights. The declaration will reiterate the need to safeguard the values of secularism and democracy enshrined in our constitution .
The commemoration of the Kittur queen’s fight against the British and the February 21 event cannot be undermined, largely because not many know about south India’s contribution towards the revolt against the East India Company and its attempts to control the princely states.
Rani Chennamma had led an armed rebellion against the British in 1824, long before Rani Lakshmibai and the 1857 uprising, known as the first war of Independence.
According to Dr Nanditha Krishna, a Chennai based historian, environmentalist and author, people in south India were unhappy with the British who were seeking to arbitrarily annex lands while destroying flourishing local economies, only to transport these resources back home. The Kittur queen’s revolt followed attempts by the British to annex her territory using the ‘Doctrine of Lapse” as an excuse.
After the death of Chennamma’s biological son and heir to the throne, the British sought to expel her adopted son and heir to the throne, Shivalingappa. The queen, however, did not relent, and fought the British. She was arrested and imprisoned.
Significantly, her defeat came during the second battle against the British, as she had successfully thwarted the East India Company’s (EIC) earlier attempts. Her forces had killed the EIC’s agent , John Thackeray. Despite her defeat, the Rani of Kittur earned her people’s respect for leading an armed revolt against the British.
Rani Abbaka Chowta, the queen of Ullal, is also revered in South India, as a freedom fighter. She was perhaps the first to take on the Europeans, mainly the Portuguese, when they sought to capture Ullal. It was Abbakka’s thriving port, in what is present day Mangalore. This was almost a 100 years before the British came to the country in the form of the East India Company.
Chowta did not give in to the extortion attempts by the Portuguese who were seeking to collect huge sums from her by way of ‘tribute’. Much to their surprise, the Portuguese found the queen a determined foe as she repeatedly repelled their attacks.
Subsequently, she did succumb when the Portuguese were successful in capturing Ullal in 1568, and that too because she was betrayed by people close to her. To this day, residents of Ullal ,and for that matter, Karnataka, celebrate the “Veer Rani Abbakka,” festival every year, as a tribute to her gallantry.
Today, ANHAD and other NGOs concerned are honouring both Kittur Rani Chennamma for fighting for her independence and the right to live life on her own terms, as well as Rani Abbakka Chowta.
Importantly, the Karnataka government has also instituted the Rani Chennamma Awards to honour women excelling in education, sports and literature besides development of women’s causes. The first woman President of the country, Pratibha Patil, had unveiled the Kittur queen’s statue at Parliament House in New Delhi in 2007.
Nanditha Krishna, also refers to the contribution of Puli Thevar, and Veerapandi Kattaboman, who were Palayakkarars (Poligars) or local chieftains of the Madras Presidency in the mid-and late 18th Century. They too fought against the British. Then there were the Marudu Pandyan brothers, of the Sivaganga kingdom who revolted between 1799 and 1801.
The Vellore Sepoy mutiny of 1806, almost 50 years before the first war of Independence in 1857, began on July 10 ,1806 in Vellore (in present day Tamil Nadu). Even though the uprising by the Indian sepoys of the EIC barely lasted a day, it shook the Britishers no end.
Angered by the disregard of their religious sentiments by the commander in chief of the Madras Army, both the Hindu and Muslim sepoys had seized the Vellore Fort, and killed many British troops, before being overpowered.