Life story of the Rani of Jhansi

  • By Saurav Basu
  • November 2007

Mutiny and Massacre, Rani framed

Going into the causes of the mutiny is beyond the scope of this article. Yet the definition by R C Majumdar regarding 1857 is perhaps most appropriate “To regard the outbreak of 1857 simply as a mutiny of sepoys is probably as great an error as to look upon it as a national war of independence” [12]

The garrison at Jhansi, commanded by Captain Skene consisted of part of the 12th Bengal Native infantry and the 14th irregular cavalry.

News of events in Meerut and Delhi must have trickled into Jhansi. But the British officers of Jhansi were caught completely off guard on the 5th of June, when the star fort was captured by the rebels along with the treasury amounting to 4.5 lakh rupees. The British forced to retreat to the cantonment, made the decisive mistake of evacuating it and seeking refuge in the fort of Jhansi. Their paramount concern was naturally the women and children. Gordon and Skene appealed to the neighboring Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha for help.

But rebels led by Bakshish Ali surrounded the fort. It was just a matter of time, before the fort would run out of provisions and the British would be compelled to surrender. The few British officers like Taylor who were detached from the fort in attempting to placate the sepoys were killed. Gordon probably committed suicide in the fort. In desperation, Skene in a last ditch effort appealed to the Rani for help. And it is here that the picture gets murky……

The British though heavily outnumbered and short of supplies, as usual put up a stiff resistance.

What is now known with certainty is that the Rani could do nothing either due to the circumstances or due to her own volition and the British after being offered safe passage in exchange for the Jhansi fort by the rebels were mercilessly slaughtered in cold blood in the nearly Jokhun Bagh. All, including innocent British women and children except one Mrs Mutlow a half caste Anglo Indian woman managed to escape by putting on the garb of a native, accentuated by her rather dark complexion.

Massacre and Muslim role  

The massacre at Jhansi is not the only incidence of barbaric brutality displayed during the revolt of 1857. At Cawnpore; the massacre at Sati Chowra on June 27, 1857 of British prisoners of war subsequently was followed by a fresh extermination of British women and children held hostage at Bibligarh. It is extremely painful, especially for an Indian to read the tyranny of his own countrymen which was displayed during the revolt of 1857; where every semblance of civility was cut asunder by the sword of fanaticism being wielded by the Indian sepoys.

Unfortunately, Indian Historians of all schools have sidelined the role of religion which shaped the ruthless character of the sepoys. In all these massacres; one invariably finds the Muslim sepoys and their leaders being the chief instruments for instigating and perpetrating the atrocities against the British civilians especially women and children of the sepoys. For instance, it was Azimullah Khan who ordered the extermination of English women and children held hostage at Bibligarh in Cawnpore.

This comes from an eminently respectable source like Andrew Ward himself [13]

Nana said “he had taken the most solemn oath to allow the British to leave in safety, and therefore would not accord his consent to their slaughter. But no one listened to him. To the Hindus, he was a figurehead, to the Muslims, a non-entity. Even the ambivalent Nunne Sahib was preferable; at least he was a Moslem and native of the Doab. Their allegiance to Nana was entirely dependent upon Azimullah Khan. Jwala Prasad sided with Azimullah and Moslems of the 2nd native cavalry. They said they were not bound by oaths and promises. Azimullah at sunset ordered the extermination of the British.”

The Muslim view of the revolt was an opportunity to re-establish Dar-ul-Islam in India.

That the revolt would coincide with the communal Wahabi movement, is no coincidence as pointed out by R. C. Majumdar. Naturally, what consummated was jihad against the Christian foe. And in jihad it was perfectly legitimate for a Muslim to wield his sword against the infidel, to strike him until they submit that there was no god but Allah. Similarly, the rapes, which took place, were mostly committed by the Muslim sepoys chiefly because the Brahmin sepoys would have nothing do with impure English women. The latter were fighting chiefly to prevent losing their caste, and any mixing with the white women would cause them to lose caste. Secondly, they could not directly condone slaughter of women and children because they were wedded to their beliefs in the intangible law of karma, which inevitably would shape their destinies and when erred rebound fatally upon themselves. Finally the concept of holy war was totally alien to Hindus.

Therefore, atrocities from the Hindu side were few . But the so-called secular historians conveniently choose to whitewash these facts, instead diverting attention by an incessant cacophony solely highlighting the vindictive British atrocities leveled against thousands of Indians.

That the British insinuated Indian sepoys through their high handedness in matters; both religious and economical is an understatement. Moreover, the British massacred loyal sepoys at Kashi only on the suspicion of them possibly revolting in the future, must have caused a great consternation among the other sepoys. Eventually, the British, possessed by the bloodthirsty zeal for vengeance, wrecked their revenge on the guilty and the innocent alike; which in the annals of modern history one can safely presume to be nonpareil.

The so called ‘Christian spirit’ and ‘British sense of justice’ was replaced with the solitary cry of “remember Cawnpore”; and Hindu and Muslim villages were burnt to ashes; women raped at will and children murdered in cold blood. The hypocrisy of the British could be gauged from this telling statement by R C Majumdar; “While every English child is taught through his history books; the horrors of Cawnpore; very few outside the circle of history of modern India have any knowledge of the massacre in cold blood of Indian men, women and children a 100 times of those who perished at Cawnpore

The Rani Framed

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 given to intemperance. That she was not a mere child was demonstrated by her conversation; and her intemperance seems to be a myth” Kaye, A history of the Sepoy War, Volume III, Pg, 361-62 

It is absolutely improbable that the Rani had anything to do with the decision to cut down the British officers, the women and children. [15] Her vilification was based on the presumption that since her dethronement, she naturally harbored a fiery hatred against the British and she used the opportunity to avenge the insult meted out to her. However there is nothing to support this view But the testimony produced to bolster up this charge was based mostly on hearsay and the witnesses contradicted themselves even in matters of personal knowledge [15]

The Rani would have been more or less a human being if she had not cherished strong sentiment against the British government for setting aside the adoption made by her husband and annexing Jhansi. Yet, the Rani was no friend of the sepoys. She was forced by the mutineers to help them with money, guns and elephants. The Rani herself says that she was threatened by the sepoys that if she hesitated to comply with their requests, they would blow up her palace with guns; and she was therefore “obliged to consent to their demands to pay large sums to save her life and honor”.  

The Rani’s statement that she acted under duress is also proved by the independent evidence, including early official reports about the mutiny of Jhansi. It is further supported by Rani’s conduct and attitude after the mutiny when she herself came in communication with the British authorities, sending a full report of the mutiny and condemning the conduct of the sepoys, particularly the massacre of the Europeans. [16]

Major Erskine and the deputy commissioner of Sagar who believed and fully endorsed the Rani’s version of events, asked her to take temporary charge of Jhansi. Unlike him, his superiors cannot be said to have been over credulous. Moreover, had she been in the league with the sepoys, the best course for her would have been to persuade the sepoys to stay with her; for their departure left her helpless not only against the British vengeance but against the aggression of her neighbors and the machinations of her relatives.

The Rani Exonerated

The British suspended their sentence until the moment they had secured victory over Kanpur and Delhi. But a scapegoat was to be found, of sufficient importance, and last but not the least, a grotesque character assassination was to be carried out. The calumny often carried out racial and religious slurs against her, “She was a heaten, forgiveness of injuries was no article in her creed.”

She was of a high character and this fact was not unknown to the British as major Malcom mentioned, “The rani is of high character and respected by everyone at Jhansi.”[17]

Yet the same Rani had transformed herself; to quote Forrest on behalf of Macpherson “into an ardent, young, licentious woman” [18] One can understand young and ardent but why on earth licentious. And why cast aspersions on her sexual conduct?  

The reason lies in the 19th century Victorian psychology. The Rani certainly was not born and brought up as an average British female of the Victorian era- expected only to throw lavish tea parties and gossip with alacrity. Sexual prudence was the norm, and for sullying the image of an oriental queen casting aspersions on her sexual mores could have been the easiest thing to do. It is therefore not surprising that a couple of the then contemporary European pulp fiction novels based on her are themed on the ultimate ‘white man fantasy’; the oriental queen being unable to resist the sexual omnipotence of the white man and being rendered a perpetual slave to her desires.  

The Rani’s exoneration was actually concluded in the early 20th century by the hagiographic nationalist accounts of authors like Mahendralal Verma. They portrayed the Rani in opposition of the British, conspiring for months against them and actively instigating the so called first war of independence. This obviously queered their pitch; for if the Rani was in league with the sepoys, she must be held responsible for the massacre; and if she was not, then she could not certainly be the initiator of the revolt. The nationalist historians could not reconcile with their cherished theories of the Rani aspiring for a free India.

It is now absolutely certain and thus, historically untenable to keep equating the Rani as a leading figure in the national war of independence while at the same time, proving her innocence and maintaining friendly relationships with the British as proven by several letters she wrote to them during that period.

It is imperative not to underestimate the astute nature and sensitiveness of this extraordinary ruler. That the half feudal half militant revolt was bound to end in failure could not escape her notice as she was possessed with a divine foresight and an unmatched percipient vision. The sepoys were known for their loot and plunder, and lacked both leadership and any distinct national character. William Dalrymple in his “The Last Mughal” notes that for the common man on Delhi’s streets, the sepoy mutiny stood for danga fasad [rioting, arson and plunder] than any real and consolidated fight for freedom.  

At many places, it would not be far fetched to claim that even the native Indians were praying for British victory in order to put an end to the anarchy created by the sepoys. General Rose, himself was welcomed in parts of Bundelkhand by the native Indians. [HCIP seeking exact reference]

Secondly, progressive Indians of the 19th century unanimously believed that the British intervention in India did have its positive side for eventually it would usher in an Indian Renaissance from the dark ages of Islamic rule. Therefore, it is not without reason to discover that the Rani was not sharing any sincere ideological difference against the British government. Modern science and technology, and the very concept of an Indian nation intertwined with nationalistic ideals were indirect consequences of the British rule.

No wonder, that one of the greatest intellects of the 19th century India, Bankim Chandra, had written in Ananda Math that the British rule constituted a necessary phase of reform, before the real Hindu faith could be re-established. This line was deleted from English translations of the novel during the Quit India Movement in 1942.

Finally, the Rani’s actions in placating the British also point out her concern for her people. She was well aware of the native carnage that inevitably followed in the aftermath of British retribution. Posterity has proven her true. For the British carnage at Jhansi, subsequent to its downfall has been acknowledged by most leading historians. For one possessing nerves of steel; she could not be shaken by the threat to her life and liberty. But the paramount concern for her people compelled her to toe a line of caution and sue for peace, even at the cost of her self-respect. However, by March 1858 she knew that her exertions were in vain as the British under their most able commander in India, General Rose, marched onto Jhansi.  

The Rani’s ultimate exoneration came from unexpected quarters when the historian Parasnis, stumbled onto a letter written by an Englishman Martin in 1889 to Damodar Rao. “your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with-and no one knows her case as well I do. The poor thing took no part whatever in the massacre of the European residents of Jhansi in June 1857

Smyth’s final verdict is “I myself come down on the side of the Rani, partly on the grounds that I think it was out of character, and partly on the evidence which I feel bears out on her innocence of actual complicity

Recently, a British author with unconcealed colonialist leanings, Saul David grudgingly exonerated her;

In true Maratha fashion, she would have been unwilling to enter the mutiny publicly unless success was guaranteed…for this reason, and for this reason alone she was probably not responsible for the massacre” [19]

Return of the Rani

Kaye notes that on 8th July; the sepoys marched through the town of Jhansi and summoned the Rani. They demanded one and a half lakhrupees booty in exchange for her kingdom, or else they threatened to install Sadashiv Rao in her place. The Rani, pleaded and bargained to settle for Rs. 15,000 and the sepoys left on 11th July.

The first thing the Rani did was to inform Major Erskine of the dramatic incident which had unfolded at Jhansi and her deep regret at being unable to prevent the massacre of the English men, women and children. She also subtly sent the message that she had temporarily taken reign on the behalf of the British government. In her subsequent letter on July 14th, she wrote that she desperately needed British troops and reinforcements, for the local Rajput landlords had resorted to arson and plunder in the outskirts of Jhansi, and she with her skeletal troops would not be able to withhold their onslaught for much longer. Also, the enemy kingdom of Orcha was threatening to attack any moment. Orcha as we know was allied with the British throughout the mutiny.

Major Erskine assured her, that he was trying his best to salvage the situation for her and asked her to continue to maintain normalcy. He also sent a letter addressed to the people of Jhansi which stated that “the Rani will rule in the name of the British government, until British troops arrived at Jhansi” [20] But unfortunately , Erskine’s liberal views of her were in vain and thoroughly over-ruled by Malcolm and Dalhousie as soon as they had regained possession of Delhi.

It was only the beginning of the Rani’s troubles. The smarting Sadashiv Rao, with his few troops attacked Jhansi, but she repulsed his attack, and Sadashiv fled never to set foot near Jhansi again.

The Rani’s first challenge was to reinstate a sense of normalcy in her kingdom, which was perilously close to anarchy and ultimate political disintegration. Next, she needed to employ soldiers in her quest for ensuring law and order. She intelligently wooed a few sepoys who had not taken part in the massacre and had not accompanied their rebel counterparts to Delhi. A few disbanded soldiers were next employed. 500 horse mounted bundela soldiers joined her, and nothing but her charisma could explain how these men could be inducted into her army in such a short span of time. Her two trusted lieutenants- Raghunath and Jawahar Singh ably assisted her.

The Rani now decided to move back into the Jhansi fort. She had now taken a solemn decision to stand by her people for the faith they had reposed in her and this was the highest benediction a ruler could expect of his people. She would not let them down under any circumstances. Vishnu Godse writes “for nearly eleven months, during the return of the Rani of Jhansi, it seemed that British rule had ceased to exist in the whole of Northern India

But it was her misfortune that at the same time, the rulers of Datia and Orcha repeatedly threatened to attack her and liberally aided the dacoits of Puar who set in pandemonium amidst Jhansi. At this juncture, the Rani had to string alliances with whosoever offered support. By then all hopes of help from the British had ceased and she had realized that in the latter’s eyes she was the numero uno enemy, marked for total annihilation. If death was a certainty, then to go down fighting till the end was the only option as the word subjugation was not in her dictionary.  

The ruler of Orcha set in with a large army under the leadership of the brutal Nathay Khan to capture Jhansi. For months, the Rani had been preparing in securing her defenses but lack of resources meant she had not more than 1000 soldiers at her disposal. Her soldiers put up a great fight, partially repulsing the attack, but her enemies began regrouping to prepare for the final assault.

While Tapti Roy has claimed that Laxmibai’s defense preparations before and after the war, were intended only to protect Jhansi from her neighbouring enemy kingdom of Orcha; I cannot understand how the visionary Rani could not have been aware of the British threat to her kingdom? She must have been preparing for the ultimate battle, once the British had, for all practical purposes, indicted her of the massacre, by refusing to aid her against her neighbors, inspite of the numerous exertions to exonerate herself off the gruesome charges leveled against her.

Nathay Khan made a renewed bid to capture Jhansi but by then, Jhansi had secured the support of some more Bundela chiefs. In another brilliant move, she put little resistance on Nathay Khan’s advancements until he came within the range of her big guns mounted atop the fort. Nathay Khan was vanquished and this proved to be a great morale booster for Jhansi. There must have been voices expressing concerns over her ability to lead especially because she was young, inexperienced and most importantly a widowed Brahmin woman; but the victory managed to silence all her critics.

The Rani generously rewarded her soldiers and with time, it has become proverbial. Soon, she had restored the grandeur of the original Jhansi court. She held open courts, and anyone could walk in and present his or her case. She also took utmost care to uphold religious considerations of her subjects, whether Hindu or Muslim. For instance, she had put a ban on cow slaughter again, which the English had revoked.

From August 1857 to January 1858, while Northern India was in the grips of the bloody revolt, Jhansi was at peace. All this time, she further reinforced her defenses. Unlike other leaders of the revolt, she wasted no time in underestimating the strength of her enemy. A fire brigade was mustered, and she started a factory exclusively for the manufacture of ammunitions and gunpowder. She had no guns, for the old ones had rusted. She started from scratch, by starting two factories to manufacture rifles, pistols and lances. The fort walls were strengthened. Emergency provision of food was made, especially for the poor.

As war seemed imminent, she called on men to enroll in her army. It is a tribute to her charisma that out of a population of 2,20, 000, a volunteer force of 14,000 was raised. [21]

Even more unique was the induction of women in her army as troopers and gunners. In a socially constricted 19th century Indian society, were a chaste woman was expected to be restricted indoors, she had the vision to see the potential in those bonded women. In this regard, she emerged as a potent feminine symbol, emancipating her sistren from degenerated mores of yore. These women, would fight side by side men, take on watch duties, carry ammunition to the guns, relieve gunners and care for the wounded. So complete was their apparent liberation that Vrindavan Varma, mentions that practically every woman of Jhansi was taught to ride, shoot and fence.

Another political masterstroke of hers was the celebration of the festival of Haladi-Kunku with great pomp and show. This re-established a sense of security in the already jittery citizens of Jhansi, who every day were anticipating the arrival of the British army and their subsequent carnage that was to follow. News of the defeat of the rebels at Delhi, and Cawnpore must have trickled into the ears of Jhansi’s citizens. But the celebration of the ancient festival, acted as a catalyst to boost the morale of the people of Jhansi. Even more importantly, women and men from all parts of the city took part in the festivities, and no caste distinctions were observed. Ladies of high ranking officials and Sikhs mingled with the wives and daughters of workmen and shopkeepers. This move was something remarkably radical for her age.

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