A Begum and A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857Rudrangshu Mukherjee
256 pages|₹ 699
A 19th century Kalighat painting depicting Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi (Photo: Alamy)
WHEN, ON THE night of 4 April 1858, Rani Lakshmibai escaped on horseback from the fort in Jhansi, she rode into history. And when, on 17 June, she died fighting in Kota ki-Serai, she became a legend. It is assumed that the British in their thirst for vengeance demonised her. This, however, is not entirely true. When the British encountered her in battle, their assessment of her was very different. Hugh Rose in his official despatch on the taking of Kalpi observed: ‘The high descent of the Ranee, her unbounded liberality to her Troops and retainers, and her fortitude which no reverses could shake, rendered her an influential and dangerous adversary.’ This sentence is revelatory about both Lakshmibai and the attitude of the British towards her. They admired her courage in the face of adversity. She was a force to reckon with, and therefore she was a formidable enemy. The influence she commanded was based on the way she treated and looked after her troops and retainers. Their loyalty towards her was grounded in her patronage and generosity. There was, however, another source of her influence that Rose drew attention to in the very first five words of his statement, where he spoke about Lakshmibai’s pedigree—‘high descent’. By this Rose was not referring to her parental provenance, which was not aristocratic. He was obviously referring to the fact that she was a queen, a rani. As a rani, Lakshmibai commanded the loyalty of her people because as a rani she deemed it her responsibility to look after them. The British may have dethroned the dynasty into which Lakshmibai had married, but they could not ignore the loyalty she enjoyed, because the raj in Jhansi was indeed Lakshmibai’s.
The British admired Lakshmibai’s courage in the face of adversity. She was a force to reckon with, and therefore she was a formidable enemy. The influence she commanded was based on the way she treated and looked after her troops and retainers
Share this on
The love and faithfulness of the people towards Lakshmibai were expressed in many folk songs that began to do the rounds in and around Jhansi within a few years after her death. Folk memory immortalised Lakshmibai by making her into a legend. During the 1857 centenary, PC Joshi, leader and quondam General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, tramped around Jhansi to collect these songs. They show how she was revered and eventually immortalised. One song, whose refrain would become famous in a very popular twentieth-century poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, eulogised Lakshmibai thus:
How valiantly like a man fought she, the Rani of Jhansi! On every parapet a gun she set, Raining fire of hell, How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi, How valiantly and well!
According to folk memory, the chief gunner in Lakshmibai’s artillery was one Ghulam Gaus Khan, whose friend Khudadad Khan guarded the main gate of the Jhansi fort. Both were killed while defending the fort. A song commemorated their deaths through Khudadad Khan’s dying words:
We have to die one day, brother and I shall choose today For our queen I shall lay down my life. I shall hack the Firanghi with my sword/ And the world will forever remember me.
Another song remembered that Lakshmibai’s army was a people’s army raised from among the common people:
From clay and stones She moulded her army. From mere wood She made swords. And the mountain she transformed into a steed. Thus she marched to Gwalior.
One song recorded how Lakshmibai had ordered the felling of trees between Jalaun and Kalpi:
Fell the trees, commanded the Rani of Jhansi Lest the Firanghis hang our soldiers on them So that the coward British may not be able to shout: ‘Hang! Hang them in the trees!’ So that, in the hot sun they may have no shade.
The reference here is obviously to the acts of vengeance that the troops under James Neill carried out as they marched down the Grand Trunk Road from Allahabad to Kanpur. William Howard Russell, the correspondent for The Times, recorded that an officer who had been part of Neill’s column told him, ‘In two days forty-two men were hanged on the roadside, and a batch of twelve men were executed because their faces were ‘turned the wrong way’ when they were met on the march.’ Another report acknowledged ‘the indiscriminate hanging not only of persons of all shades of guilt but of those whose guilt was at the least very doubtful…the innocent as well as the guilty, without regard to age or sex, were indiscriminately punished and in some cases sacrificed.’ PC Joshi pointed out that by ordering the cutting of trees, Lakshmibai, as a military strategist, was carrying out a ‘scorched earth’ policy. One might add that trees could also be obstacles to a free line of fire. Lakshmibai may have been thinking of that, if indeed she had given the orders to have the trees felled. There was another angle that is suggested in the last two lines of the song: ‘So that, in the hot sun / they may have no shade.’ It is on record that Hugh Rose was alarmed by the heat and the absence of water as his troops neared Kalpi. He observed in his official despatch: ‘They [the troops] had to encounter also a new antagonist, a Bengal Sun, at its maximum heat…Forage also was as scant as water…The scarcity of water had another disadvantage; it prevented concentration of my Force, when the strength of the enemy, and my difficulties rendered it necessary for a rapid advance against Culpee.’ Lakshmibai’s tactics, as described in the song, seemed to have paid dividends. The plight of the British was captured in another song:
Amidst tears from his eyes Proud Hugh Rose spoke: I beg you for one pot of water To quench my thirst With the first potful and ask for more (To get that covered pot) Hand over the guns the ammunition And also your sword.
The imprint that Lakshmibai left on folk memory is in sharp contrast to the absence of any such recollection of Hazrat Mahal and her resistance to the British in the culture and traditions of the people of Awadh. The ICS officer William Crooke, who went around north India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries collecting folk songs about the rebellion, Wajid Ali Shah, the imposition of British rule and so on did not record a single song about Hazrat Mahal and Birjis Qadr, with the exception of a passing mention of them in a verse of a long song. Crooke called the song ‘The Settlement of Oudh’ and the relevant verse goes like this:
What kind of bravery did Birjis Qadr, the Queen show? Her name has remained in the world. Who will ever show such courage? When the Queen had fled what fight was possible?
Other than this one verse the resistance left no visible mark on folk memory. Ironically, the second line of the verse predicted ‘Her name has remained in the world.’ But it hasn’t. The reason for this strange forgetting is perhaps suggested in the last line of the verse: ‘When the Queen had fled what fight was possible?’ Hazrat Mahal had given up the battle to protect her life, and her escape made any resistance meaningless. Hazrat Mahal had been a rebel from the beginning and had displayed, as the song records, unbelievable courage—a courage that would have made her name immortal. But in the end she became a fugitive—she fled, leaving her people with no choice other than to renounce the resistance. Lakshmibai, on the other hand, had been initially reluctant to join the rebellion but once she had joined the revolt, she did not flee; she died in battle like her people. Lakshmibai was thus eulogised in folk memory through songs; Hazrat Mahal’s bravery was not forgotten but she was remembered, and her state lamented in the verse of a song. Death deifies; flight is an amnesiac.
THE HIGH PRAISE that Hugh Rose bestowed on Lakshmibai’s pedigree and her impact was echoed by John William Kaye in his history of what he dubbed the ‘Sepoy War’. Kaye wrote, ‘Evil things were said of her; for it is a custom among us—odisse quem laeseris—to take a Native ruler’s kingdom and then to revile the deposed ruler or his would-be-successor. It was alleged that the Ranee was a mere child under the influence of others, and that she was much given to intemperance. That she was not a mere child was demonstrated by her conversation; and her intemperance seems to be a myth.’ The volume of Kaye’s history that contained these observations was published in 1876. It would not be wrong to conclude from what Kaye wrote that in the immediate aftermath of the uprising, there were canards floating around about Lakshmibai. Kaye did not spell out the nature of her alleged intemperance: the word can be an indicator of many sins, from a volatile temper to a fondness for liquor to sexual promiscuity. Kaye dismissed the allegation in the softest possible terms—‘seems to be a myth’, not is a myth. It need hardly be emphasised that intemperance, in Victorian times, was a euphemism for promiscuity.
In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, there were canards floating around about Lakshmibai. She was guilty without evidence and this sanctioned the spread of any kind of calumny about her character. Vengeance, even more than fifty years after the event, triumphed over fact
Share this on
This depiction of Lakshmibai as an intemperate person— possibly in the sexual sense—can be traced back to the way her appearance was described by John Lang, the first white person to see her. Lang wrote:
She was a woman of about middle size—rather stout but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms—though according to my idea of beauty, it was too round. The expression was also very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black. She had no ornaments, strange to say, upon her person, except for a pair of gold ear-rings. Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture, and drawn about her in such a way, and so tightly, that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible—and a remarkably fine figure she had.
The male gaze is stark in the passage. This, when combined with racial hatred, removed the veil of euphemism. GW Forrest, in 1912, described Lakshmibai as an ‘ardent, daring, licentious woman’. A rebel woman had to be shorn of all morality: she had to be reduced to a whore.
SN Sen pointed out that the adjectives that Forrest used were borrowed from the report of Macpherson, the political agent of Gwalior, written in 1858. Sen tried to justify those words by saying that his report was meant ‘only for official eyes.’ Forrest, according to Sen, ignored the observations of Malcolm that Lakshmibai had a very high character and was loved and respected by everyone in Jhansi. Forrest repeated the conviction shared by contemporary British officials that Lakshmibai was responsible for the massacre in Jhansi—an act, according to Forrest, ‘as revolting and deliberate’ as the massacre in Kanpur. Lakshmibai was guilty without evidence and this sanctioned the spread of any kind of calumny about her character. Vengeance, even more than fifty years after the event, triumphed over fact.
Given this bloodstain on Lakshmibai’s hands, one of the first tasks that Indian historians took upon themselves was to absolve her of the murder of the white population in Jhansi. The Marathi writer-scholar DB Parasnis, who published in 1894 an account of Lakshmibai’s life and career in Marathi—the first by any Indian—claimed that Lakshmibai’s adopted son, Damodar Rao, had shown him a letter written to him by the British officer Martin, stating that Lakshmibai had been falsely charged and was, in fact, completely innocent. In that letter, dated 20 August 1889, Martin wrote:
Your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with—and no one knows her true case as I do. The poor thing took no part whatever in the massacre of the European residents of Jhansi in June 1857. On the contrary she supplied them with food for 2 days after they had gone into the Fort—got 100 match-lock men from Kurrura, and sent them to assist us, but after being kept a day in the Fort, they were sent away in the evening. She then advised Major Skene and Captain Gordon to fly at once to Dattia and place themselves under the Raja’s protection, but this even they would not do; and finally they were all massacred by our own troops—the police, Jail & Cas: Este (sic).
A question mark hangs over the provenance of this letter: in 1957, when Sen wrote his book, he noted in a footnote to the letter just quoted that ‘Damodar Rao’s son lives at Imli Bazar, Indore. Martin’s letter cannot be traced, but Parasnis claims to have seen it.’ How far could these claims be trusted? It needs to be noted that Parasnis did not depend solely on Martin’s letter to Damodar Rao to establish Lakshmibai’s innocence. In the words of Prachi Deshpande, ‘Parasnis’s trump card for establishing Lakshmibai’s innocence in the massacre of Europeans was that no documentary proof pointed to her involvement.’
To understand what Parasnis was trying to do in his biography—an extremely important text since it was the first in an emerging nationalist genre—it is necessary to locate it within the intellectual discourse prevalent in the closing decades of the nineteenth century—a discourse whose thrust was to challenge and overturn the dominance of the writings of British historians over India’s past. It was a battle to control the past. The clarion call for this battle came from the pen of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Bengali writer and intellectual, who wrote in 1880: ‘Bengal must have her own history. Otherwise, there is no hope for Bengal. Who is to write it? You have to write it. I have to write it. All of us have to write it. Anyone who is a Bengali has to write it. Come, let us join our efforts in investigating the history of Bengal…It is not a task that can be done by any one person alone; it is a task for all of us to do together.’
Though written by a Bengali for Bengalis, Ranajit Guha, quoting the passage, pointed out that Bengal and Bengali were notations for India and Indian, and for other regions of the sub-continent. According to Guha, what the statement was setting forth was an agenda—the responsibility for constructing an ‘Indian historiography of India’. Indians had to represent themselves by claiming a past that was free from the distortions and slanders that foreign interpreters and historians had introduced. The very act of self-representation that was entailed in the writing of one’s own history was nothing short of a political act since it challenged the assumption that the British could represent India’s past and its present. There was another aspect of Chattopadhyay’s declaration that did not receive adequate emphasis. This was the question of agency. Who was to write the Indian historiography of India?
The people of India would write it— ‘you, I, all of us’—in Bankimchandra’s words. There was no need for any academic training. The Indian past was free and open to be claimed by any and every Indian.
(This is an edited excerpt from A Begum and A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857 by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Allen Lane; 256 pages; Rs 699)