MEHRU JAFFER | 1 DECEMBER, 2016
Women of Courage Who Challenged the British
Many books were launched at the recently concluded Lucknow Literature Festival but the one in hand is a fascinating account of female fighters in the 1857 uprising against the British.
Much is already known of the courage of Begum Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow and the Rani of Jhansi and how they stood up to the might of the British during the first war of independence.
However in her book Participation and Position of Women Uprising of 1857: Redefinition of Social Status:Then and Now historian Dr Kirti Narain brings to light numerous other women from around the country and from different walks of life who had also fought and often sacrificed their life, kingdom and family in an effort to prevent the British from colonising India.
There is an interesting chapter on times, before the actual uprising in 1857 of women who spent decades creating an atmosphere of hostility to the government. In the Midnapore district of West Bengal Rani Shiromani, queen of the chuar or tribal farmers led the first revolt of tribal farmers against the British in 1798. The Rani refused to pay revenue to the British East India Company and proclaimed that whoever dared to come to ask for money from them would not leave the village alive.
The centre of the revolt was Birbhoom against the zamindar or landlord who looked down upon the chuar. The gifting of agricultural land belonging to tribals to the loyal zamindar resulted in an armed rebellion when the chuar looted 124 villages and destroyed papers that said that the zamindar was owner of the land. The chuar also built a fort from where an attack was planned on Midnapore in March 1798.
Wrote the collector of Midnapore in panic to the head office in Calcutta:
Today the chuar will attack Midnapore. Therefore I want to send the treasury to your safe custody.
However a local loyalist of the British spread rumours that a large army was about to descend upon the villagers who decided not to attack Midnapore. In the following month in April the British attacked and captured the chuar forts. The Rani was arrested. The retaliation by rebels was immediate and they laid siege to the British in the fort and starved them of food provisions. The British were left with choice but to give up and in a diplomatic move had returned land to the tribals who were ready to fight to the end under the leadership of the Rani.
Leading to the uprising there is the struggle of other brave hearts like the Bibi Sahib Kaur of Patiala, Bhimabai Holkar and Begum Samru.
In a foreword to the book, Dr. Mushirul Hasan, former vice chancellor of New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University writes that the crucial role women played in the landmark event is historic but a neglected phenomenon. He praises the author for unearthing the role of women belonging to almost all echelons of society. There is the royalty and the landed aristocracy who formed the natural leaders of the uprising but equally impressive is the contribution of female warriors, courtesans, common women and the singing minstrels.
What is most interesting about the book are stories collected of the mobilisation of nameless women who gave grass root support and became symbols of popular resistance. Amongst courtesans there is mention of Rahimi who was part of the army raised by Begum Hazrat Mahal in Lucknow. She disguised herself as a man with a sword in her hand. She also taught other women how to use a sword and the cannon. Several women joined her group. The British arrested her and her trial did not last long as the court took little time in ordering that she be hanged.
Amongst prostitutes there was a Mees Dolly who was captured and hanged in Meerut. She was a pure bred European and widow of a sergeant in the British army who earned a living by running a 'house of refreshment of sorts' in the Bazaar.
PJO Taylor who has written extensively on the Revolt, believed that the Revolt that started prematurely because of the spark that fell from female lips-those lips could have been of Mees Dolly!
There is Juhi, commander of the forces of Rani Lakshmibai, displaying unique valour and bravery. She remained with the Rani right up to the end. Juhi had left the Jhansi Fort with the Rani when the forces of General Sir Hugh Rose had threatened them. Juhi had fired the cannons and absolutely ravaged the British forces. Hugh Rose ordered his soldiers to surround her and Juhi died fighting at the battle in Gwalior.
The participation of marginalised sections of society gave the uprising a universal character. The Dalit and tribal women stand out. Two of these women Rani Laxmibai of the Gond tribe of Ahiri and Rani Avanti of the Lodhi clan, a Dalit queen of Ramgarh also in Madhya Pradesh are mentioned. There is a chapter on the contribution of ordinary Dalits to the 1857 movement like Jhalkari Bai of the kori caste; Uda Devi, a pasi; Avanti Bai, a lodhi; Mahabiri Devi, a bhangi and Asha Devi, a gurjari are remembered for their bravery and embedded in the collective Dalit imagination and pride. Jhalkari Bai continues to inspire a lot of Dalit writers to this day.
Another myth debunked in the book is the notion that the uprising took place only in certain pockets of north India. The spirit of the revolt, in fact touched the entire country.
Included in the book is a chapter on Diaries and Eyewitness Accounts of the Uprising, including by men.
In 1858, William H. Russell, first war correspondent came to report on the Mutiny in India for The Times. In 1860 he published two volumes of My Diary in India for the Year 1857-59.
The diary is a social document as through words and sketches, he leaves the reader with a vivid impression of his day to day involvement with a small segment of the society of which he was a part. His relationship with surgeons, doctors and officers, superiors and subordinates are vividly portrayed in the diary.
The tales of the plunder of Lucknow describe the wanton destruction of priceless furnishings and treasures. Millions of rupees worth of gems, coins and objects were looted or destroyed by the conquering troops. Buildings were razed by bombardment mining and firing.
'Men and women left their houses and fled, and such confusion and distress ensured that people who saw it tremble today at its memory. Women who had lived all their lives in purdah whose faces had never been touched by the sun now stirred up the dust of the countryside with their bare feet and in their forlorn state clung to each other...'
There are numerous other stories of ordinary women unsung and unreported till now who after the restoration of British authority in various parts of the country had preferred death to dishonour. Then victorious soldiers had gone on a rampage to rape and to loot Lucknow, once one of the most noble, and affluent cities in the world.
Participation and Position of Women Uprising of 1857: Redefinition of Social Status:Then and Now by Kirti Narain is published by Himalaya Publishing House.
(Cover Photograh: An artist’s depiction of Rani Laxmi Bai, now at the Allahabad Museum)