Nations, like individuals, have debts
to repay. Debts of honour and debts to history should be accorded priority especially by
nations which were colonised. Unfortunately, the history that was taught by the British
failed to mention the heroism of those who rose to oust the phiranghee in
1857/1858 and Indias debts to the martyrs remain unpaid.
For example, Bahadur Shah II Zafar remains buried in
alien soil even in the 51st year of Independence. Atal Behari Vajpayee is aware of this
outrage. He visited the grave when he was the Foreign Minister in the Janata government.
He even wrote an article in Dharmayug.
But now, after Babri masjid, any admission that there were Muslim
freedom fighters and heroes and martyrs of that ilk would not be acceptable to the real
rulers, Thakre and Thackeray. There is no remedy or recompense in sight. We shall today
talk about a lady who was a hero and a martyr for freedom in 1857/1858.
Our subject is Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi whose indomitable courage
won grudging admiration even from the enemy, the British. Perhaps a description of an
event of the period will serve to make readers aware of what was at stake and also the
atmosphere and the ambience of the times.
The mettle of a person is tested in times of adversity and defeat
in battle is as great a calamity as any. We shall, therefore, relate the occurrences at
the time when the battle for Jhansi town and citadel was lost by the Rani.It was April
Dillee had fallen over six months earlier (20 September, 1857).
Lucknow had also been stormed in March 1858. The trained and tested troops who had
mutinied had lost heart and melted away. The rebel cause had raw recruits and
those bound to the rulers by ties of salt or personal loyalty.
The Brits were mercenary or professional soldiers as were their
Indian sepoys. The outcome of such a fight could now, in 1858, only be a
defeat for the freedom fighter Indians. The behaviour of the Rani should be seen in this
no win context.
It was the last day of defence. The besieged had already lost the
town. No relief was expected as Tatiya Topes troops had been beaten back and their
attempt to relieve Jhansi thwarted. A cannonball had pierced the roof of the powder
magazine and blown up the stocks of ball as well as powder.
The White troops of the Company and their Black sepoys had broken
through the south gate of the city and entered in large numbers.The Rani heard of the
infiltration and put on her battle dress. Stocking boots, record the
chroniclers, besides belts for swords, daggers, ammunition and guns.
She was wearing pyjamas and angarakhaa instead of the saaree she
wore on civilian occasions. Chainmail armour and a shield were also worn for protection.
As the Rani rode out of the fort, a ring was formed around her by her close adherents. The
bodyguard accompanying her were called Wilaayeti.
There were 1,500 hand-picked and well-trained Arab Muslims. As the
Brits were spotted, the Wilaayetis engaged and made mincemeat of them. They fled on their
horses to shelter in the camp outside the city walls. Their infantry, mostly, riflemen
took shelter behind houses and trees and started picking out the chiefs among the
The Rani was advancing without paying any heed to the danger. At
this point an 85-year-old sirdar (chief) caught hold of the reins of the Ranis
charger to bring it to an abrupt halt. The chief said: Maharaj! Please stop now. Do
not throw away your life to a hidden snipers bullet.
"The British have entered the city and thrown open all its
gates. Snipers are concealed all over the place and picking out their victims one by one
without any danger to themselves. Please return to the citadel. We have to use our brains
and work out a plan."
An attempt has to be made to recover lost ground and to cause the
good time that was to return. Most reluctantly the Rani turned her charger homewards and
entered the fort. After a while she summoned all the supporters who remained and addressed
them. It is clear that the British are after me. I alone am their target.
"The rest of you are all at risk because of me. I ask you to
collect all the powder remaining after the explosion of the magazine and stack it in the
palace. Then you should leave and try and save your lives. I shall wait until you are all
safely away and then blow myself and the palace up with the powder.
Silence fraught with great emotional tension enveloped the
gathering. Then, once again, the old sirdar who had intervened in the day spoke up. He
said, Maharaj permit me to speak! Please be calm and still for the time is hard and
requires quiet and serious reflection.
God Almighty has visited this devastation and sorrow upon us.
Against what God wills, man has no recourse or remedy. What we suffer in this birth is the
karmaphal (fruit) of the actions of our past life. It is what we did in our previous life
which causes the rewards and punishments of this life.
"No purpose will be served by adding the sin of aatmahatyaa
(suicide), this will have to be expiated for in the next one. In times visited by calamity
and catastrophe, the wise have to exercise self-restraint and think soberly to find a way
You, Maharaj, are a brave, fearless and doughty warrior. We
should, therefore, use the dark of the night to escape from the stranglehold of the
encircling British forces. We have to hack our way out if we encounter opposition.
"If we fail and die in this attempt, our death will be
meritorious in accordance with the shastras and heritage. It will bring us good fortune in
the next birth and glory in this life. This way is far better than suicide. Do not
sorrow. Betake yourself to your private apartments. Have a bath and something to eat.
"We should attempt our breakthrough at midnight. The old
sirdars words brought the colour back to the Ranis cheeks. She was overwhelmed
with gratitude and touched the feet of the sirdar. She then went inside. At midnight, Rani
Lakshmibai emerged in her usual white apparel and pearl ornaments with a sword at her
She summoned all her non-combatant adherents and supporters and
bade farewell by saying kind words and bestowing gifts and cash on each of them. She then
mounted and her father, Moropant, and other relatives and supporters formed a ring round
They left by the north gate and melted into the night before the
British were aware that their quarry had fled. Perhaps a quotation from a British account
will give the other side of the coin: When the British finally forced their way into
the courtyard of the palace, each room in the building had to be bitterly fought
over, wrote an officer who was present, when I got into the palace, I found it
crowded with soldiery.
"Our men were, some of them, lying down worn out with the heat
and hard work. Others were sauntering about wearing two or three turbans (puggries) on
their heads and had more draped around their waists. The whole place was a scene of quick
ruin and confusion. Windows, doors, boxes and furniture went to wreck like
While the palace was being plundered, a body of rebel cavalry
attacked the British piquets. Failing in their attempt they took a position west of the
fort. When they were attacked, the cavalry killed themselves rather than be taken
prisoner. Heavy street fighting continued until the following day and no quarter was
given, even to women and children.
A contemporary account (British) states: Those of the rebels
who could not escape threw their women and babes into wells and then jumped down them
selves. The British were not just capturing the city but were intent on destroying
what was to them as a much a symbol of cruelty and suffering as the city of Cawnpore.
Dr Lowe writes: No maudlin clemency was shown to mark the
fall of the city (Jhansi). Looting and massacre were freely allowed. But the Rani,
the Jezebel of India, whom the British were led to believe, quite falsely, has been
responsible for the massacre of white women and children, was to escape their vengeance.
After leaving the palace to which she had returned after fighting
the storming party, she had retired into the fort. At midnight on April 4, she and a small
party left the fort and made for the north gate of the city. Passing through it she made
her way through the piquets of Sir Hugh Rose and was many miles from Jhansi before the
British discovered she was gone.
How she got through the cavalry piquets has never been
satisfactorily explained. Roses biographer maintains that it was with the
connivance of the native contingent serving with Sir Hugh. This is possible but not
probable. The more likely explanation is that Roses troops were too busy looting and
murdering to be much concerned with those escaping the city.
As the RSS government cannot be expected to bring the remains of
Zafar back home, they can at least do something for the citadel at Jhansi in memory of
Rani Lakshmibai. She was a Brahmin and a Maratha and much more deserving of honour than
the Hedgewars and Golwalkars because she was a freedom fighter which they were not.