Life story of the Rani of Jhansi

  • By Saurav Basu
  • November 2007

The British Assault & battle for Jhansi

General Rose, with a distinguished military career was entrusted the campaign to secure Jhansi. With a wealth of military experience, he was equipped with the finest two brigades along with British cavalry, infantry and firepower.

He opened his campaign in January 1858, capturing first Sehore, and Rahatgur. Next, the Raja of Banpur, an ally of the Rani was defeated. Then he reached Sagar. The merchants of Sagar welcomed the arrival of General Rose. But from here, covering 125 miles to Jhansi proved to be a Herculean task and it is a tribute to the people of Bundelkhand, who displayed a tenacious resistance to the British march. The intense hostility of the common people here towards the British forces was way more intense than from their reluctance to be involved in the struggle anywhere else in India, and may be interpreted as taking shape of a national consciousness, and consummating into a popular uprising. One cannot help but admire the leadership skills of General Rose, who withstood such hostility and led the British govt. troops to victory.

The bloody fighting continued unabated and General Rose skillfully maneuvered his troops through the heart of Bundelkhand overpowering one by one, all his enemies before he received a message from the governor general that Charkhari, a kingdom allied to the British had been besieged by Tatya Tope. But Rose, in a masterstroke refused to go to the aid of Charkhari, and continued his march onto Jhansi.

The Rani had meanwhile summoned help from her old friends, Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope. But Tatya Tope made the first of his many blunders in not reaching her in time, and General Rose unintermittedtly arrived at the gates of Jhansi on the 20th of March, 1858

The Battle for Jhansi

Lakshmi Bai knew that her fate was sealed, if and when she was captured alive. Yet, in a truly democratic spirit she announced a representative meeting, and consulted with the representatives whether to prepare for battle or sue for peace. But the people enthusiastically reposed complete faith in her. It again emphasizes the sensitivity of the Rani towards her people, due to which she was even willing to surrender, if only that would save her people. In the entire episode of 1857, there is no other such leader, who can lay claim to the same sensitivity and sensibility. It is doubtful that there would be many such leaders in the annals of human history.

The Rani thanked her people. According to Vishnu Godse, she said “we will fight for our freedom. If we are victorious we will enjoy our freedom, if defeated in the battlefield, we attain eternal glory and salvation…..” [22]

On the 25th of March; 1858; the guns of general Rose started bombarding the city from the East and the South. But the Rani’s gunners matched shot for shot. For five days, intense bombardment continued from both sides, but the British were able to make little headway. Even when the native guns were damaged, the women of Jhansi would repair them overnight. As Lowe says “we had silenced several of their guns and as often as they were silenced so often did they re-open from them to our astonishment

Interception: The Battle on the Betwa river

On the 31st of May, Tatya Tope arrived at the banks of the Betwa river with over 20,000 troops, containing the Gwalior contingent and several guns and ammunition. On his arrival, he lit a large bonfire to signal his arrival. The Rani answered by firing salvos from all the batteries of the fort and city.

Tatya Tope is regarded by some as the most gifted of the leaders of 1857 from the Indian side. He fought in the old Maratha way, never committing his entire force to any battle, frequent retiring even from excellent prepared positions, before a general engagement in the hope of wearing down the enemy. His guerilla tactics ensured the prolongation of the revolt in Central India, long after its last ember had extinguished in the North as well as Oudh, his claim to fame can be said to be his decisive victory over the forces of General Wyndham near Cawnpore. [23]

General Rose had also anticipated the arrival of Tatya. He realized he was now sandwiched between the twin forces of the Rani and Tatya. In an ingenious move, he decided to split his forces, and around 1500 of his troops now moved to encounter the forces of Tatya while the rest continued their relentless assault on the fort of Jhansi.

On April 1, 1858, General Rose’s forces secured a decisive victory over Tatya, and the latter’s forces lost over 3000 men, and were compelled to flee. The British merely lost a 100 men and once again, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Indians had come to naught.  

So anguished have nationalists like Veer Savarkar been of the episode, that he labeled all of them as a bunch of traitors and cowards. But the records prove that Tatya Tope’s men didn’t give a quarter in battle. Yet, it was Tatya Tope’s lack of daring and initiative, his inability to utilize his numerical superiority through ruthless all out frontal attacks, which paved the way for British success.  

The retreating of the great army of Tatya came as a great blow to the people of Jhansi. Their last hope was fleeting away in the distance. The British fire now redoubled with the inclusion of Tatya’s guns, were blazing at full force, and slowly but surely Jhansi was wilting.

The Rani also made perhaps her first and only mistake, in not sending a sortie to intercept the forces of Rose. But it must be admitted that, she would have been less than human in not being flabbergasted on watching the vast army of Tatya being decimated by the paltry British troops.

The Fall of Jhansi

The Rani realized the flagging morale of her troops and once again rallied her forces. She, riding a white charger, personally went on supervising the fortifications. She distributed gold and money to her soldiers, and they unanimously vowed to fight the enemy until death. The Rani was everywhere, and the British called her the ubiquitous queen. The walls were now collapsing. It is here, that the British made a bold gambit, but even this was aided by a traitor Dulaji Thakur who pointed out the breech to them. In recognition of his services, he received a gift of two villages from the British!

The British troops secured a launching in the ramparts, although they were fiercely resisted and lost at least four high ranking officers in the process. Meanwhile, the breech had been exploited and hundreds of British soldiers moved in. The Rani surveyed the scene, and in a daredevil move attacked the British in a hand-to-hand fight, where swords clashed and men rolled down.

The Rani personally killed several of the enemy including Colonel Turnbull. So fierce was the attack and chiefly due to its unexpectedness, that the British had to retreat, and hide and fire from their revolvers. The Rani was coerced by a 70 yr old chief to withdraw from the scene as the British had now started firing from the safety of the houses and death was a certainty under those circumstances. Even in this episode she displayed reckless courage, totally absent from other contemporary Indian leaders in whose company she had the misfortune to fight in the Indian war of 1857.

The Rani back in her palace, wept bitterly on the fate of her city. The British had now set fire on the richest parts of the city, and hundreds of her men, women and children were being roasted alive in those fires. The heart rendering cries, shrieks could be heard all over the place. At this juncture, the Rani decided to commit suicide by blowing herself up with gunpowder. She asked her men to flee, and take best care of them. Once again, the sagacious old chief convinced her to forego her decision for suicide was sin. It is he who suggested to her than she should now flee and join forces with the Peshwa at Kalpi where the remaining forces of Tatya had holed up.

The Rani agreed for she realized that a warrior’s death in the battlefield was infinitesimally better than to commit the cowardice act of suicide.  

Meanwhile, the men of Jhansi were now literally defending their homes. Those who could not escape threw their women and children into wells. Rose’s forces showed no mercy to soldier or civilian alike, and many children and women became victims of their assault. The British forces also tortured some women, but naturally no such mention can be found in the diaries of those hypocritical British officers. All in all, 5000 civilians of Jhansi were killed in this British siege.  

Street fighting continued in Jhansi as the city burned. Liutenant Parke was shot dead, as the most determined resistance was offered to the British. The Rani’s personal bodyguards defended the city until their last, even as they lay dying, they struck back!

But by the fourth of April, the Rani had made the decisive decision to escape with her adopted son. She carried no money with her. It is one of the most audacious military feats, as she evaded the British pickets who all were waiting to pounce on her. Her disguise helped her, but the skillful use of her revolver also helped her make her way through. Rose was furious at the loss……Liutenant Dowker was in her hot pursuit, but the Rani in one stunning blow of her sword, caused him to fall off. He was saved by his cavalrymen, as the Rani fled.

She had reached the Rao Saheb Peshwa’s headquarters at Kalpi before midnight. British authors marveled at the Rani’s ability to cover more than a 102 miles in less than twenty four hours on horseback, through the treacherous rocky terrain of Bundelkhand, all the way being engaged in desperate fighting, with her adopted son in saddle. [24]

The Rani Fights Back

The Rani on reaching Kalpi lost no time in urging Rao Saheb and Tatya Tope to chalk out new plans. She implored them to take a decisive initiative, and insisted on securing the flanks rather than the center; for she had realized that cutting off the flanks was one of the prime reasons for Indian forces to be defeated time and again. Yet, the Peshwa, Rao Saheb for reasons best know to them, over-ruled her and inadvertently embraced defeat in the battle of Koonch. The disgusted Rani, realized that the time had come to take matters in her own hands for now infighting had set in the Indian camp.

As the scene turned desperate every hour; the Rani set to conduct a postmortem for the defeat. With strong words, she chastised the combined army for their collective failure and indiscipline. Even in this perilous hour, she had not lost hope of a second revival. In the Battle for Kalpi at the banks of the Jamuna, the Rao Sahib in another of his characteristic goof ups, appeared on the entire front of the British lines, despite repeated warnings by the Rani not to expose his men to the British fire at such a disadvantageous position. The British fire made the peshwa’s men run helter skelter.

The Rani was however in a bold gambit, advanced on the British right wing, catching them completely unaware. The Rani pounced on the enemy like a tigress and soon reached within twenty feet of the enemy’s gun silencing, several of them being in the process. But at this juncture, General Rose appeared with his camel corps, which would be the turning point in the battle for Kalpi. The rebels were finally forced to retreat, and Kalpi, their stronghold with its vast resources all fell into the hands of British on the 22nd of May, 1858.

Yet, it is baffling to realize that the Indian rebels would leave the stores of guns, and ammunition intact instead of destroying them. This proves the hopelessness, which had set in amidst the Indian camp after the string of defeats, especially the last one.

The Rani, the Peshwa and Tatya Tope were now isolated, with only remnants of an army, dispirited, and ready to capitulate any moment. And it is here, that once again the Rani displayed an inimitable grasp of strategy and independence of mind. She had realized that fleeing and evading the British for some time, would only delay the inevitable. The Maratha guerilla tactics would not succeed for long, and moreover, her indomitable spirit refused to evade the enemy like a deer on a run. She was one who was made for battle, whose martyrdom was destined at the heat of the battle. In a suggestion, both original and bold, she decided to play her last gamble in securing the Gwalior fort of Scindia.

Tatya Tope played a crucial role too, in playing on the sentiments of the Scindia army and successfully engineering a revolt. But the Maharaja of Gwalior, a staunch ally of the British, attacked Tatya’s forces with his big booming guns. And once again, it was the Rani to the rescue as she, with only 200 cavalry led an all out attack. Her appearance on the battlefield itself caused division amongst the ranks of Scindia’s soldiers and soon, the rebels had secured the fort of Gwalior. Scindia escaped to Agra.  

Rao Saheb, coronated himself as the new Peshwa. Soon the city of Gwalior was celebrating the re-establishment of Hindu supremacy. Thousands of Brahmins were called on for the occasion. Some of the celebrations were justified as necessary for propaganda purposes especially in the hope of securing an alliance with the princes of the Deccan. But, the lack of initiative was what the Rani found disturbing, and she expressed her disapproval by not taking part in the ceremonies.

The Final Battle  

General Rose meanwhile cancelled his leave and once again set March onto Gwalior. Yet, the Peshwa was consumed in his decadent prattle; vast resources were frittered away on empty pomp and show. The Rani attempted to train the army, and instill confidence and discipline in them. But it was too late, as General Rose with his invincible army was now at the doorsteps of Gwalior, something for which Rao Saheb and Tatya Tope had done little to prevent.

The Rani led a first wave of attack, against Brigadier Smith, catching him unawares, she led the charge and ordered her guns to open fire; and the formidable Smith had to withdraw in the intense heat of the battle. The British were soon reinforced by the 8th hussars. In the last decisive battle, at Kotah-Ki-Serai on June 17, 1858; the Rani of Jhansi dressed as a cavalry soldier was shot in the back by a British Hussar who actually had no idea of what he had done. [25] She was cremated, soon after, and with her martyrdom, the most able leader and fighter of 1857 was gone. Although, the rebel resistance through Tatya Tope would continue for another year, before his ultimate capture and culmination in the hangman’s noose; the revolt for all practical purposes had died with the Rani.

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