Itihaas
July 19, 1998
Akhilesh Mithal

1857: Debts of Honor

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Our subject is Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi whose indomitable courage won grudging admiration even from the enemy, the British.

 

 

 

The mettle of a person is tested in times of adversity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 India’s 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 1858.

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 Tope’s 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 Rani’s men.

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 Rani’s charger to bring it to an abrupt halt. The chief said: “Maharaj! Please stop now. Do not throw away your life to a hidden sniper’s 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 out.

“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 sirdar’s words brought the colour back to the Rani’s 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 waist.

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 her.

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 lightning”.

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. Rose’s 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 Rose’s 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.

Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1998. All rights reserved.
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