In the 100 years between the mid-19th and mid-20th century, in direct response to the injustices of the colonial administration, a thread of rebellion came into being in India that was so strong, so tenacious and principled, that its chief protagonists will forever remain emblematic of courage and conscience. It was a thread that culminated in the realisation of a nationhood whose chief architects were Gandhi and Nehru, but perhaps was first discernible in the then parochial, regional concerns of Lakshmi Bai – Queen of Jhansi.
The Rani (Queen)-to-be was born into a Brahmin family in Kashi (Benares, Varanasi) in 1828. Her father worked at court in Bithoor, and his status afforded her an unusual and privileged upbringing. Her mother died when she was four, and perhaps because of this, she quickly became known as a headstrong and determined girl, unwilling to settle into the demure and shy persona that might have been expected of her. Instead of being and becoming the person others anticipated her to be, she acted in accordance with her own ethics and her own understanding of justice, rather than that passed down from her forebears.
From early in her childhood she took a determined interest in activities at the time usually reserved for boys – learning reading and writing as well as wrestling and horsemanship. Her interest extended to other martial disciplines, and she was soon noted for her skill with an array of weapons. At the same time, however, she was reputed for her grace and beauty, and was not shy or unskilled in using her charms to turn events her way. She was also pious and respectful, spending long hours studying the Vedas and Upanishads, able to quote long passages verbatim.
Through her father’s connections, she was married at 14 to Gangadhar Rao, the Raja of Jhansi, became Rani and took the name by which she is remembered. Her husband was an eccentric and unusual man, but while his habits raised eyebrows amongst his peers and subjects, he was, by common consent, a conscientious and kind ruler – and began the long-overdue process of restoring a sense of Jhansi pride and independence, following decades of mismanagement and in-fighting. The Rani, meanwhile, was active and independent in matters of state, and well-known amongst the townspeople. While their marriage may not have been conventional, and their match not the romance of fairy tales it is perhaps safe to conclude that for a while at least, their ambitions ran in parallel, coupled and mutually strengthened by a shared sense of purpose and responsibility to the land and the people of Jhansi.
Several years into their marriage, the Rani conceived for the first time, but miscarried part-way through her pregnancy, in 1851. It was a blow from which Gangadhar Rao never recovered; his behaviour became increasingly erratic and unpredictable, and his health began to deteriorate.
In 1848, Lord Dalhousie had been made Governor General of India, and had immediately set about extending British control and wealth in the country. He created the Doctrine of Lapse, which contradicted Hindu tradition by denying the legal validity of royal succession that did not pass directly from a Raja to his first-born son. Thenceforth, any kingdom without a natural male heir would, on the death of the Raja, pass into the hands of the British. In 1852, perhaps, in an effort to sidestep the consequences of Dalhousie’s reform, Gangadhar and Lakshmi adopted the son of the Raja’s cousin, who would therefore (under Hindu tradition) become heir to the Jhansi state.
The following year, the Raja died – reputedly never having recovered from the heartbreak of his unborn child’s death. The Rani was essentially cast adrift, as the British took control of Jhansi and pensioned Lakshmi off to live on the outskirts of the town. Jhansi entered a period of decay and degradation, as the state’s wealth was gradually siphoned into British coffers. Trade floundered, and the once thriving city descended into abjection and poverty. Meanwhile, however, left alone to raise her young son, while the town she loved grew sick, the stubbornness and rebelliousness of spirit for which Lakshmi is remembered was reawakened. For three years, she fought unerringly for her people’s rights, petitioning the British establishment, and taking their case to court. Despite the presence of numerous sympathisers within the colonial administration – irrespective of the favourable precedent set in neighbouring states for bypassing Dalhousie’s Doctrine – Jhansi’s fate was sealed, and Lakshmi’s efforts were in vein.
Everything was to change, however, in 1857 with the outbreak of the Sepoy mutiny first in Meerut, then Delhi, and soon after in much of Northern India. It would signal the first steps on India’s path to independence. With the British garrison at Jhansi pinned in the fort by a volunteer force, the British forces were stretched thin. After being promised safe passage to leave the town, the British men (along with all the accompanying women and children) were massacred as they fled. Lakshmi’s complicity in the massacre, once hotly disputed, is now widely discredited. What is certain, however, is that it sealed her fate. The British instigated a slur campaign against her, and the final year of her life was spent preparing for and engaging in combat with them.
With the British gone, the Rani once again assumed control of the town, and quickly established the trust and fealty of her townspeople. For the latter half of 1857, Jhansi was at peace, as Rani presided over an open court – her subjects free to enter and leave, and to debate and discuss the concerns of the day. She paid heed to neither status nor creed, and sought to re-establish the traditions and practices of an older, fairer time. Time was running though. Aware that the British would be back, Lakshmi ordered the construction of munitions factories in the town, and raised a volunteer army 14,000 strong.
In March of 1858 a British force under General Rose reached Jhansi and laid siege to the city. In a protracted battle, and despite the arrival of Tatya Tope’s army who joined the fight, Lakshmi was forced to flee as the city was overwhelmed. Her journey to Kalpi is the stuff of legend. She rode more than a hundred miles in a day over treacherous, rock-strewn terrain, her son in front of her in the saddle, fighting off the British cavalry on all sides. This is the quintessential image of the Rani, sitting tall and proud on her white charger in the midst of battle: the sound and the fury – the clash of metal, the drumming of hooves, the snorting and shouting, the spit, the blood and the rising dust. And she, erect and fierce, a righteous sword-arm fending off unending waves of attacks, a fearsome battle-cry urging her troops back into the fray, a strong and tender arm clutching her young son to her breast .
In Kalpi, she and her now severely depleted followers galvanised a flagging army, reorganising its structure and dictating new tactics. The British were repelled for a number of weeks, before again overwhelming the city and forcing Lakshmi to flee.
This time she retreated to Gwailor, ousted the British-loyal Maharajah and won over the army. It was here she made her last stand. Towards the end of a fierce and chaotic battle, at the height of the Indian summer, she was shot in the back on June 17. She died on the battlefield.
Her determination, self-assurance and inner strength were legendary. These, however, are traits common to despots as well as saints: ethics are the product of principles as well as character. Rani Lakshmi Bai is surely galvanised in cultural memory by the injustice to which she was subject and the ultimate tragedy of her early death. However, she is remembered today, where she is remembered, with a fierceness of affection that reaches beyond the heroism of her deeds, and speaks of an unshakeable recognition of what is right. Her admirers came from across the spectrum: from her subjects and peers, to members of the British establishment in India, and historians. She is that rare historical figure: seldom remembered, but remembered so well.
Artwork by John Mcloughlin