Life story of the Rani of Jhansi

  • By Saurav Basu
  • November 2007

Dalhousie, the Doctrine of Lapse & annexation of Jhansi  

Dalhousie was perhaps the most ambitious of the governor generals in India. He was the first to destroy the power of the Punjab, and annex it. He ordered fresh enlistment in the army for expeditions into Burma. His final stroke was the annexation of Oudh, reasons being gross mismanagement by the Nawab. But his most audacious gamble was to proclaim the doctrine of lapse, which in Major Bell’s words “a disastrous and rapacious policy.”  

According to this promulgation, the British government would directly annex any state whose king left no natural heirs, although traditional Hindu law allowed kings to adopt sons, to continue their rule and lineage. Surprisingly, the so called ‘British fairplay’ was nowhere in sight, as not even a single question was raised in the British parliament against this move of Dalhousie’s. Blinded by greed, and the 4 million pounds in excess revenue generated in its wake, the queen and the British public left no stone unturned in eulogizing Dalhousie and deluging him with congratulatory texts. Indeed, at that moment, Britain for all its intellectual traditions, betrayed its real worth as a parochial nation of shopkeepers.

Satara, a kingdom in Maharashtra became the first victim of this farcical policy. It was soon followed by Jaitpur and Sambalpur in 1849. The next in line was the kingdom of Jhansi.

The Fate of Jhansi

Gangadhar Rao’s condition progressively worsened, and sensing the approaching danger, and to prevent the state from lapsing into British hands, he decided to adopt Damodar Rao, a child of around five, from the same family tree of the Nevalkar family. The deed was done in the presence of the principal nobles of his court and Major Ellis, political agent of Jhansi and Captain Martin, officer commanding Jhansi contingents [7] the king asked the British to remember his fidelity towards them, and treat the child and the widow to whom he had vested administrative rights with utmost kindness. Gangadhar Rao died in November, 1853, and rendered Lakshmi Bai, widow and queen possibly under the illusion that the ‘native fidelity would be rewarded’ by the British masters.  

Lakshmi Bai as Queen

The position of widows in the Indian civilization has always been gloomy, and it reached its nadir in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, she, as one belonging to a traditional Brahmin family was expected to fulfill the norms of a virtuous wife which included shaving her head, wearing white, and remaining in seclusion. But the emancipative spirit of the Rani refused to comply with mores, which essentially hindered her administrative prowess. She kept wearing her hair long, often wore jewelry, and put aside the custom of Purdah, which although originally unessential in India, had become the norm in Islamic India especially among high caste Hindu and Islamic women. Yet, in a shrewd move she maintained Purdah while communicating with the British officers.

Getting rid of the Purdah was also a vital mean to establish a winning rapport with the public. british writer, Meadows Taylor writes “she had no affections of personal concealment, and she sat daily on the throne of her deceased husband, hearing reports, giving directions, hearing petitions, and comforting herself as a brave minded woman had to do under the circumstances.”

Vishnu Godse’s eyewitness account says of her “she rose as early as three in the morning, and after ablutions, sat for religious meditation till eight. Then for three hours she supervised the work in the political and military offices ; when it was finished she distributed alms to the needy and distressed. She took her meal at midday and appeared again at the court at 3. The afternoon was devoted to the administration of the various departments of justice, revenue and accounts which lasted till sunset. She read the scriptures in the evening, and after a simple dinner, retired for the night

The Rani’s unostentatious lifestyle is in stark contrast, to the decadent lifestyle of contemporary kings. For instance, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was so decadent that he had his slave girls perform his morning ablutions for him. Yet, for some inexplicable reason the historian William Dalrymple in his recent book “The last mug Hal”, finds a Sufi mystic enshrined in the same fellow!

The Rani’s defence against Dalhousie’s plot  

Realizing the gravity of the situation, the Rani immediately set forth a self composed legal document arguing forth her case. She referred to the treaties of 1817 and 1842, granted in recognition to the ‘uniform and faithful’ attachment of Britain of the ruling house of Jhansi. The second article of the treaty of 1817 confirmed the title of Ramachandra Rao and his heirs and successors which included adoption. Next, the Rani showcased the Hindu scriptures granting absolute legitimacy to adopted sons, for offering liberation to the departed manes. But the most compelling argument she reserved for the last. Adoption made by three Rajas in the neighborhood of Jhansi [Including the Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha] were sanctioned by the British government, although the term ‘perpetuity’ did not occur in their treaties as it did in the treaties with Jhansi.

Ellis took the points well and wrote to Malcolm on 24th Dec, 1853 “we have a treaty of alliance and friendship with the Jhansi as well as Orcha states, and I cannot discover any difference in the terms of the two states which would justify our withholding the privilege of adoption from one state and allowing it to the other.”

On the 16th of Feb, 1854, she further rammed the point home in a second petition to avoid any misconstruction of the language used in the treaties. The words warison [heirs] and janishinan [successors] where the former referred to natural and the latter to adopted heirs, in the event of there being no natural heir. She continued “treaties are studied with the utmost care before ratification; and it is not supposed that the term janishinan used to contradistinction to warison was introduced in an important document of this kind, of the authority almost of a revelation from heaven without a precise understanding of meaning” [9]

Indeed, in both these petitions, one comes across another vital ingredient of the Rani’s character and that is her intellectual acumen. One cannot help admire her skills of petitioning; accuracy in their facts, clarity in their logic and moderate in tone, something even more remarkable for the times in which she ruled; where intellectual traditions among Indian women were almost nonexistent. As Tahmankar sums up “It might be true to say that this remarkable young woman entered single handedly on her contest with Lord Dalhousie and if he had ever any intention of letting the decision depend on the merits of the case; she would have won it; hands down.”

Lord Dalhousie’s intention was solely to usurp the kingdom of Jhansi, and for this he was prepared to wage any number of pseudo legal arguments. The specious argument proposed by him was unlike Datia and Orcha which were Rajput kingdoms; Jhansi was never an independent principality.

This argument which abounds in fallacies and distortions has been effectively demolished by Indian writers such as Basu and Parasnis. even a British writer of Dalhousie’s day, Major Evans Bell proved conclusively that the Raja of Jhansi was a hereditary sovereign. [9]

Dethronement: Annexation of Jhansi  

J W Dalrymple; the under secretary to the governor general sent specific instructions to Malcolm who in February 1854 issued a promulgation which merely said that “the governor general had declined to confirm and sanction the said adoption.” The difficult task of breaking the news to the Rani fell on Major Ellis, the man who had always maintained a soft corner both for her and the kingdom of Jhansi.

Ellis called on Rani, on the 16th of March. Without much ado, he read the contents of the letter. The news came as a thunderbolt to the already apprehensive Rani but she said in a firm and determined voice “Apni Jhansi nahi dungi” – “I will not give up my Jhansi

Some vulgar Marxist historians have made much of the above statement. They have claimed that it betrays a feudal mindset on the part of the Rani. On the contrary, this statement asserts that the bond Rani shared with her kingdom and her citizens was of the highest order; she belonged to Jhansi and all of Jhansi belonged to her; their affection towards each and every one was perfectly mutual. people found the embodiment of the perfect ruler in her and in them, she saw her lifeblood. Moreover, the very fact that the Rani led an inconspicuous lifestyle, oblivious to the decadent charms, that feudal lordship had to offer naturally smashes to smithereens all doubts cast on her motives behind desiring to retain Jhansi.

As the news spread, gloom and sorrow spread across the town. It was the day of Holi; the festival of colour; of gaiety and wild abandon. But people of Jhansi did not play Holi that day; and since then Holi is not celebrated in Jhansi as a mark of remembrance for the solemn occasion. [10] Elsewhere, it was a day of mourning. The shops remained closed, no fires were lit. Thousands of people went to the palace barefoot and bareheaded. (the Hindu sign of grief.) The Rani consoled them, and asked them to return home.

As Ellis proceeded to complete the formalities like disbanding the Rani’s army; paying off the servants; the Rani retired into her chambers. She wept bitterly that day; and refused to consume any food or water.

The Rani subsequently moved to a modest three storeyed structure; the Rani Mahal. The only provision favorable to her was that her son was allowed to retain the private property of his father. Even that came with a cache. The rani while being the legal guardian could not use the money or take decisions on her son’s behalf. For instance; when she decided to borrow money for her son’s thread ceremony from the amount; the British government refused it.

The Raja had some outstanding debts, which were settled from his private account rather than the state’s accounts. Rani Laxmibai was offered a petty 5000 rupees lifetime monthly pension. Dalhousie’s absolute disregard for the aspirations of the Rani can be gauged from the fact, that he refused to even hand over the state jewels and private funds remaining after settling the state accounts and which naturally belonged to the Rani. This also once again displays the pathetically pervert mindset of the Marcus of Dalhousie.

Soon, she started writing to several British authorities arguing her case. She was able to convince several people of the injustice that was meted out to her. She also consulted the famous lawyer John Lang, who as a matter of fact told her that futile would be any opposition. Lang was clearly overawed by the occasion for Laxmibai was truly an extraordinary woman, who was at once clever, impulsive and polite and could mix in the right degree of womanly charms and strength of character befitting the ruler concerned, about the interests of her kingdom, her subjects and her son. Her fluctuating moods, changing from anger to light hearted banter, her quick temper melting into a frivolous giggle, fascinated her visitor. [John Lang] 

For the next three years; although uneventful in themselves were to set stage for bigger things to come. A hatred for all things British enveloped the town of Jhansi. The annexation they used to say was worse than the murders committed by the thugs, who robbed and strangled people only one at a time; for Dalhousie had put a noose round the necks of all the people.

British misrule in Jhansi

The British Rule in Jhansi, initiated the process of the insidious but steady decline of Jhansi. The Indian aristocracy and institutions were handed a death blow. The troops were cut; a few British officials replaced several Indian functionaries.

A decline in the traditional economy followed swiftly. There was little market now for the fine carpets, brass work and carved furniture of which Jhansi had boasted; craftsmen became idle along with soldiers and shopkeepers. John Sullivan wrote “with the disappearance of the native court trade languished, the capital decayed, the people became impoverished while the Englishman flourished and acted like a sponge, drawing up riches from the Ganges and squeezing them down upon the banks of the Thames” [11]

Local religious considerations were obnoxiously set aside…cow slaughter was sanctioned. The temple of Lakshmi, for which revenue from two villages was set aside, was deprived of its income despite the Commissioner Gordon’s request to maintain the previous arrangement. In spite of the vigorous protests made by the Rani, on behalf of her people; the appeals were met with either callous contempt or an infuriating indifference.  

Throughout her ordeal, which included losing her husband coupled with her dethronement, her composure and silent resolve to not forego her people and her son’s future were astonishing to say the least. That, she could actually win over both foreigners, who never in their wildest dreams hoped that an Indian woman could present herself so forcefully and coherently; and even the conservative Marathi Brahmins, who despite her less than pious lifestyle, expected a high caste Hindu widow to rule. This was indeed remarkable.

She was compared to Durga and Kali; the Hindu warrior goddesses are ample testimony to the fact that how she had sagaciously wielded religiosity as a political tool; verily the most powerful weapon in her arsenal. Tapti Roy has expressed her views on Laxmibai “She was the archetype of a devoted wife, a devout Hindu woman, a patron of the Brahmins and finally the wronged Rani, smarting under injustice of white rulers and fighting for the cause of her people much like Durga did in Hindu tradition.”

Meanwhile, John Lang, although a casual newcomer to the town could sum up the public feeling the people of Jhansi did not wish to be handed over to the East India company’s rule”

But the British agents like Capt. Skene were in a different zone altogether and could not sense any danger even as late as May 18, 1857. 

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