30 April 2016

SAHMAT Statement Against the Attack on Bipan Chandra's Book

Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust 
29, Feroze Shah Road,New Delhi-110001 
Telephone- 23381276/ 23070787 
Date 30.4.2016 
In recent days it seems to have become a habit of some latter-day “nationalists” to raise divisive or non-substantial issues to parade their patriotism. The most recent example of this is the attack on a major history of our National Movement authored by the distinguished historian Professor Bipan Chandra and his colleagues, titled India’s Struggle for Independence, published 28 years ago in 1988. The objection is that Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his comrades have been described there as “revolutionary terrorists”. The critics, however, forget that this was really a term the martyrs had practically used for themselves. The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, to which Bhagat Singh and his colleagues belonged, said in its Manifesto (1929): “We have been taken to task for our terrorist policy. No doubt, the revolutionaries think and rightly that it is only by resorting to terrorism that they can find a most effective means of retaliation… Terrorism has its international aspect also. England’s enemies, which are many, are drawn towards us by effective demonstration of our strength. That in itself is a great advantage”. To Gandhiji’s critical article ‘Cult of the Bomb’, the Association answered through a statement titled “Philosophy of the Bomb”. Here it was asserted that it was owing to British repression that “terrorism [has] been born in this country. It is a phase, a necessary and inevitable phase of the revolution. Terrorism is not the complete revolution, and the revolution is not complete without terrorism”. 

It is true that in his later phase Bhagat Singh stated: “Apparently, I have acted like a terrorist; But I am not a terrorist”. Clearly, two definitions of the word ‘terror’ were already at work, and Bhagat Singh was being influenced by his reading of Lenin’s teachings against individual terror. But the main point is that the entire movement to which Shaheed Bhagat Singh belonged, terror had till then seemed a revolutionary path that they were wholly committed to. 

Their conception of “terror” as a method of revolutionary action actually derived from a tradition that went back to the Russian revolutionaries’ struggle against Czarist tyranny. Now, however, in the last two or three decades, terror has come to mean almost all over the world the killing of innocent men, women and children. And it has thus assumed a heavily pejorative sense, not necessarily borne by it in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Clearly, today many of us would not like to call our national heroes Bhagat Singh or Surya Sen or Chandrasekhar Azad, “terrorists”. But if we claim to be nationalists we should at least know more about our National Movement and not forget that there was a time when this tag was borne with pride by people who actually died for the cause of this country. And so let us not go about demanding changes in books, or banning them altogether and so display our own ignorance to the world. The withdrawal of the translation of the book by the Delhi University and the hounding of the authors on TV shows and at law courts that has now begun is particularly odious and only too characteristic of such campaigns by the RSS and its various fronts. 

Irfan Habib 
Romila Thapar 
Amar Farooqui 
Arjun Dev 
Biswamoy Pati 
D N Jha 
Iqtidar Alam Khan 
K M Shrimali 
Lata Singh 
Prabhat Shukla 
R C Thakran 
Shireen Moosvi 
Suvira Jaiswal 
Vishwamohan Jha 
R P Bahuguna 
K L Tuteja 
Rajesh Singh 
Kesavan Veluthat 
A K Sinha 
Santosh Rai 
Shalin Jain 
H C Satyarthi 
V Ramakrishna 
Ramakrishna Chatterjee 
Arun Bandopadhyaya 
S Z Jafri 
Vivan Sundaram 
Prabhat Patnaik 
Mushirul Hasan 
Mihir bhattacharya 
Sashi Kumar 
Ram Rahman 
Sukumar Murlidharan 
Anil Bhatti 
Anuradha Kapur 
Archana Prasad 
Badri Raina 
C P Chandrasekhar 
Geeta Kapur 
Indira Chandrasekhar 
Jayati Ghosh 
M K Raina 
Madangopal Singh 
Madhu Prasad 
Malini Bhattacharya 
Moloyshree Hashmi 
N K Sharma 
Nilima Sheikh 
Nina Rao 
Parthiv Shah 
Praveen Jha 
Rahul Verma 
S Kalidas 
Saeed MIrza 
Saif Mahmood 
Shakti Kak 
Sohail Hashmi 
Ari Sitas 
Thierry Costanzo 
Veer Munshi 
Vikas Rawal 
Indira Arjun Dev 
S Irfan Habib 
Shireen Gandhy 
Rajat Datta 
Mukul Kesavan 
Zoya Hasan 
Tadd Fernee 
Shantha Sinha 
C P Bhambri 
Rahul Mukherji 
Krishna Ananth 
Chandi Prasad Nanda 
Shri Krishna 
Pritish Acharya 
Neerja Singh 
Najaf Haidar 
Bhupendra Yadav 
Richa Malhotra 
Alok Bajpai
Richa Raj 
Deepa Sinha 
Amit Mishra 
Rizwan Qaiser 
Bodh Prakash 
Rakesh Batabyal 
R Mahalakshmi 
Saurabh Bajpai 
Ranjana Das 
J V Naik 
Ajay Patnaik 
Subodh Malakar 
Girish Mishra 
Archana Hande 
Neeladri Bhattacharya 
Ania Loomba P. Bilimale 
Sujoy Ghosh G. Arunima 
Ayesha Kidwai 
Syed Ali 
Nadeem Rezavi 
Jawaid Akhtar 
Ishrat Alam 
Ruquiya K Husain 
Ramesh Rawat

27 April 2016

Bipan Chandra’s Views on Bhagat Singh in India’s Struggle for Independence: Rejoinder by the Co-authors

Prof. Mridula Mukherjee, Prof. Aditya Mukherjee and Prof. Sucheta Mahajan

A vicious attack was launched by BJP MP, Anurag Thakur in the Lok Sabha in Zero hour and in a section of the media on “India’s Struggle for Independence”, a book published in 1988, 28 years ago, by Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, KN Panikkar and Sucheta Mahajan. Deliberate misrepresentation of Bipan Chandra’s views on Shaheed Bhagat Singh is being done by saying he used the term ‘revolutionary terrorism’ to denigrate the martyr. In fact the first time the term ‘revolutionary terrorism’ is used in the book on p 142, Bipan Chandra, who wrote two chapters on the Revolutionary movement, clearly said that it is “a term we use without any pejorative meaning and for want of a different term.” In his later writings, Bipan Chandra himself   stopped using this term as the word terrorism had aquired a very negative meaning in recent years. For example, in  his introduction to Bhagat Singh’s Why I am an Atheist,  published in 2006, Bipan Chandra does not use the word terrorism and says, “Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialist, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues.” Chandra added further, “Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalist have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies, the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such Chandrasekhar Azad.” (Quoted from The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India, From Marx to Gandhi,  Orient Blackswan, 2012.) 

He had also wanted to make the change in India’s Struggle for Independence and had said so publicly. However due to ill health and failing eyesight he could not revise the book as he had planned before his death.  The co-authors had planned that the volume in its revised version will use the formulation that Bipan Chandra himself made in his later writings.

To attack a great scholar when he is no more, a scholar who did so much to bring Bhagat Singh to centre stage, appears to be part of a larger design to silence critics. He was the person who first found and published in 1970 as a pamphlet at his own expense Bhagat Singh’s now famous essay, “Why I am an Atheist”. His last public lecture was the Inaugural Lecture for the Bhagat Singh Chair at JNU in April 2011, in which he said that Bhagat Singh, if he had lived, would have been the Lenin of India, and his last (unfinished) book was a biography of Bhagat Singh. 
Prof. Bipan Chandra
A completely unfounded attack on the book by a section of  is that it valorizes Jawaharlal Nehru to the exclusion of other leaders. In fact, a special feature of “India’s Struggle for Independence” is the balanced treatment of all political trends, from Liberals to Socialists and Communists, and of all movements, from 1857 to Ghadar to INA, Swadeshi to Quit India, peasant and trade union movements, anti-caste movements and states’ peoples’ movements, and of all leaders, from Dadabhai Naoroji to Birsa Munda, and Lokmanya Tilak, and from Gandhiji and Sardar Patel to Jayaprakash Narayan and Aruna Asaf Ali. 
Another completely baseless allegation made in the Lok Sabha is that while denigrating Bhagat Singh, the authors have praised Rahul Gandhi as a charismatic leader, an allegation that we strongly deny since none of the authors have written anything on Rahul Gandhi. 

20 April 2016

The Ambedkar-Congress Relationship

Mani Shankar Aiyar

The Sangh Parivar passionately cherishes our Hindu heritage as the foundation of India's nationhood. Ambedkar, on the other hand, was of the firm conviction that it was precisely that heritage which was the ruin of the nation. 

"You must tell the Hindus," he said, "that what is wrong with them is their religion." Caste divisions and the caste hierarchy were woven into the warp and woof of the Hindu way of life. In consequence, "the ideal Hindu must be like a rat living in his own hole". What is more, "Hindus observe caste not because they are inhuman or wrong-headed" but precisely because "they are deeply religious." He, therefore, had "no hesitation in saying that such a religion must be destroyed". (These quotations are from his most celebrated tract, Annihilation of Caste).

He loathed Hindutva and all it stood for. He more seriously engaged with Gandhi. The two profoundly disagreed. Where Gandhi held that the reform of Hindu society was both possible and necessary, Ambedkar, quoting chapter and verse from the Hindu shastras, held that such reform was not feasible as it was the Hindu religion that had "inculcated this notion of caste." 

He patiently explained: "Reformers working for the removal of Untouchability, including Mahatma Gandhi, do not seem to realize that the acts of people are merely the result of their beliefs, inculcated in their minds by the shastras, and that people will not change their conduct until they cease to believe in the sanctity of the shastras on which their conduct is founded." Therefore, concluded Ambedkar, "You must not only discard the shastras, you must deny their authority". 

Holding the diametrically contrary view that "caste has nothing to do with religion," Gandhi, in his response to Annihilation of Caste, asserted that caste "is harmful both to spiritual and national growth". But while they disagreed fundamentally on whether Hindu society could or could not be reformed, and whether caste was indeed integral to Hindu religious conviction, they were also similar in many ways. Most importantly, both believed profoundly in the importance of religion and spirituality. They shared none of the agnosticism of Nehru. Yet, if there was a spiritual tradition that Nehru found appealing, it was the same as Ambedkar's: Buddhism.

To therefore limit the Ambedkar-Gandhi, or, more broadly, the Ambedkar-Congress relationship, to a simple binary of mutual dislike is to miss the democratic dialectic that enabled us to become a democracy at the dawn of Independence and to sustain that democracy over seven decades of fierce political disputation. Where, in other countries, charismatic leaders single-handedly led unitary independence movements and one-party rule on the morrow of victory became the norm, often in the shape of vicious dictatorships, it was only because our freedom movement saw endless disagreement between those otherwise united on the goal of national liberation from the colonial yoke that we have survived as the Republic of Argumentative Indians.

Not only Gandhi-Ambedkar, throughout his life as India's unchallenged leader, Gandhi was entangled in deep public and well-publicized controversies with his closest associates - Nehru; Patel; Rajaji; Subhas Chandra Bose, to name just a very few. It is, therefore, no surprise that Gandhi should have insisted on the inclusion of Babasaheb Ambedkar in Nehru's first cabinet or Nehru's unequivocal acceptance of the suggestion. Both agreed that despite Ambedkar's impassioned anti-Congressism that Ambedkar had never sought to hide, it was he who was best qualified to so draft the Constitution as to promote a thoroughgoing social revolution by legislation without resort to violence. And when the exercise was over, Ambedkar paid generous tribute to the constructive cooperation he had received from dyed-in-the-wool Congressmen with whom he had worked in committee and the Constituent Assembly, successfully promoting to majority opinion, and often unanimous endorsement, his initially minority views. 

The first test of the efficaciousness of the new Ambedkar-drafted Constitution for root-and-branch social reform came with the Hindu Code Bill, tabled in 1951 but under preparation ever since Ambedkar became Law Minister in 1947. For Ambedkar, not the Constitution but this legislation was the touchstone for determining whether the law could bring justice to the oppressed millions. The immediate and vocal opposition to the proposed legislation, both within and outside the House, persuaded Ambedkar that reforming Hinduism by law was a chimera. The Hindu would not change. 

Nothing proved this more than the 79 meetings held by the RSS in a single year, 1949, "where" to quote Ramachandra Guha, "effigies of Nehru and Ambedkar were burnt, and where the new bill was denounced as an attack on Hindu culture and tradition". Guha adds that "there were also some respectable opponents of the new Code, who included Rajendra Prasad" and although "in 1950 and 1951 several attempts were made to get the Bill passed...the opposition was so intense that it had to be dropped." Ambedkar resigned "in disgust" saying Nehru lacked the "earnestness and determination" to push the Bill through. This parting of ways between Ambedkar and Nehru is generally regarded as the definitive proof that Ambedkar and Nehru were not on the same page, that if the Ambedkar-Gandhi differences are well-documented, the much less-documented Ambedkar-Nehru differences are no less decisive.  

This, however, is not true. Nehru, in 1950-51, was faced with a virtually British-nominated assembly to which elections of a sort had been held, but on extremely limited franchise hedged in by numerous segmentations. It had a large feudal, conservative and even reactionary component, quite unprepared for radical change, especially when it came to their religion-based customs and usages. Ambedkar decided that this cross-section was representative of the Hindus and, therefore, incapable of being brought to their senses. Nehru, on the other hand, recognizing realistically and pragmatically his lack of influence as a religious skeptic on those who passionately upheld hallowed tradition, however cruel and unjust, believed his voice would count for much more in a legislature elected on the basis of full adult franchise, untrammeled by no social restrictions other than reservations for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which he welcomed. 

Nehru was right. In the first truly democratic elections held in India in 1952, a few months after Ambedkar walked out of Nehru's cabinet, Nehru so routed the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly-formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the political forces representing the RSS, that he was able to also overcome the large and influential conservative element among Congress MPs. Splitting the original singular Hindu Code Bill into five sets of legislation, by 1956 he pushed through the most thoroughgoing revolution in Hindu personal law. 

Meanwhile, Ambedkar, with an estimated four lakh of his followers. quit the Hindu fold and became votaries of a new school of Buddhism that Ambedkar described as Navayana (to distinguish his new school of Buddhist thought from both the Mahayana and the Hinayana and the two other schools of Buddhist theology). He passed away a few months later.

Nehru, a religious skeptic unlike Ambedkar, was, however, like Ambedkar, much repelled by much of contemporary Hindu practice and much attracted to the philosophy of the Buddha. He gave eloquent expression to this in his monumental work, The Discovery of India, written while in incarceration in Ahmednagar Fort jail, and published in 1946 on the eve of Independence.

He describes Buddhism as a "rational ethical doctrine" and evokes the Buddha's voice urging us "not to run away from the struggle but, calm-eyed, to face it, and to see in life ever greater opportunities for growth and advancement." Nehru adds, "a person who has impressed himself on the thought of mankind as the Buddha has, must have been a wonderful man." Praising the Buddha for having "had the courage to attack popular religion, superstition, ceremonial, and priestcraft", Nehru was unconsciously aligning himself with Ambedkar whose life was a similar saga against all these evils. The Buddha's "appeal was to logic, reason and experience; his emphasis was on ethics". Ambedkar, I believe, would have agreed. Perhaps he would also have agreed with Nehru that by "Buddhism, not adapting itself to caste, and more independent in thought and outlook, (it) ultimately passes away from India". Thus, Nehru implicitly endorses Ambedkar's view that Hinduism and castelessness could not co-exist. 

Of enduring academic and practical interest is Nehru in a footnote on the same page, 125, quoting Gandhi as saying "quite recently": "The caste system, as we know, is an anachronism. It must go if both Hinduism and India are to live and grow from day to day."

The Hegelian dialectic holds that the clash of "thesis" and "anti-thesis" eventually resolves itself in "synthesis". That is what appears, in the light of an objective reading of the evolution of Gandhi's thinking, to have happened at the end of Gandhi's epic ideological battles with Ambedkar, battles in which Nehru was always closer to Ambedkar than to his own mentor, Gandhi. This is what justifies the Congress adopting Ambedkar as a national icon, "a scholar of comparative religions...far more systematic than Gandhi, far more thorough than Nehru as an amateur historian of India, far more imaginative and conflicted than the talented Tagores." (Ananya Vajpeyi, Righteous Republic, Harvard, 2012, p. 209) 

What is bewildering is Modi and his cohort attempting to do the same. There never was, and never can be, any synthesis between Hindutva, the avowed philosophy of the Sangh Parivar, and the sophisticated, subtle thought processes of Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who detested the traditions they celebrate and the socio-political agenda of a Hindu Rashtra that they so eulogise. Modi's utterances are no more than vulgar vote-bank politics.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Rajya Sabha.)

7 April 2016

The Forgotten Women of 1857

THE WIRE, 07/04/2016

Not just Begum Hazrat Mahal and Rani Lakshmibai but dozens of women participated in active fighting against the British. Their stories are largely unrecorded.
begum hazrat mahal
Begum Hazrat Mahal. Credit:Youtube

April 7 marks the 137th death anniversary of Begum Hazrat Mahal, a woman who has gone down in history for her valour and courage in standing up to the might of the British forces in India’s first war of independence in 1857. This is as good a time as any to remember not the begum but also all the other women who sacrificed their lives in 1857 – many of whom are unknown and unheralded.

When we talk about women’s roles in 1857 we immediately think of Rani Lakshmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal. But were these the only women who contributed to the struggle?  There were women from the depressed classes (called dalit veeranganas by scholars), there were numerous bhatiyarins, or innkeepers, in whose inns plots were hatched by the rebels, aided by performers and courtesans who passed on news and information and even financed them.

But why is it that we hardly ever talk about these women? Is it because they were from the margins of society and so their sacrifices weren’t taken into account, or because no one propagated their stories of courage? Or is the reason for their “absence” that, in traditional patriarchal society, women were not seen as warriors?

The victors rewrote post-1857 history to suit their own interests. Eulogising or glorifying those who participated in the uprising against them wasn’t on their agenda, of course. The reason Jhansi ki Rani is so popular is because of the oral tradition and the dozens of folk songs that are still sung about her. The elite of Awadh kept Begum Hazrat’s legacy alive, though their ways didn’t prove to be as powerful as the folk songs. Nowadays comic books, especially the Amar Chitra Katha series, keep the legends of a select few alive.

But, apart for having their names registered in British records, most women remain unknown.

Begum Hazrat Mahal

Begum Hazrat Mahal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Begum Hazrat Mahal

On May 10, 1857, the “sepoys” of Meerut rebelled against the British East India Company. Very soon, others joined them under the banner of Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal emperor, to whom the rebels gave the title Shahenshah-e-Hind. The rebellion became a full-fledged uprising against the British, with kings, nobles, landlords, peasants, tribals, and ordinary people fighting together. Yet historians tend to ignore, and to completely forget, the role of the women who came out of their homes and joined the men in fighting the Company Bahadur.

In Awadh, Begum Hazrat, wife of the deposed Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, took on the might of the East India Company and almost succeeded. The longest resistance to the British was offered by the begum and her trusted band of followers, Sarafad-daulah, Maharaj Bal Krishna, Raja Jai Lal and, above all, Mammu Khan. Her associates included Rana Beni Madho Baksh of Baiswara, Raja Drig Bijai Singh of Mahona, Maulvi Ahmad Ullah Shah of Faizabad, Raja Man Singh and Raja Jailal Singh.

She crowned her 11-year-old son Birjis Qadar the ruler of Awadh, under Mughal suzerainty, on June 5, 1857, after a spectacular victory by the rebel forces in the Battle of Chinhat. The British were forced to take refuge in the Lucknow Residency, a series of events that became famous as the Siege of Lucknow, while her diktat ran in Awadh as regent of Birjis Qadar.

William Howard Russell writes in his memoir My Indian Mutiny Diary: “This Begam exhibits great energy and ability. She has excited all Oudh to take up the interests of her son, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.”

The British made three offers of truce, even offering to return her husband’s dominions under British suzerainty. But for the begum, it was all or nothing. The longest and fiercest battles of the First War of Independence were fought in Lucknow. The begum ruled for 10 months as regent and had the biggest army of any of the rebel leaders that fought the British in 1857. The zamindars and peasants who had been reluctant to pay taxes to the British gave them to her voluntarily.

Wajid Ali Shah, when he left for Calcutta in 1856, had foreseen the begum’s fighting spirit and valour:

Gharo’n par tabahi padi saher mein, khude mere bazaar, Hazrat Mahal
Tu hi baais e aisho araam hai garibo’n ki gamkhwaar, Hazrat Mahal

[Calamity fell on the houses in the morn, my bazaars were looted, Hazrat Mahal
You alone are a source of comfort, O comforter of the poor, Hazrat Mahal]

She fought as long as she could and finally found asylum in Nepal, where she died in 1879. These lines are attributed to her:

Likha hoga Hazrat Mahal ki lahad par
Naseebo’n ki jail thi, Falak ki satayi

[It will be written on Hazrat Mahal’s grave
Starcrossed was she, oppressed even by the skies]

Jhansi ki Rani

Rani Laxmibai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Jhansi ki Rani Laxmibai

The bravery of Lakshmibai is the mainstay of many folk stories and songs of Bundelkhand. In the words of Rahi Masoon Raza:

Nagaha chup huye sab, a gayi bahar Rani
Fauj thi ek sadaf, us mein gauhar Rani
Matla-e-jahad pe hai gairat-e-Akhtar, Rani
Azm-e-paikar mein mardo’n ke barabar Rani

[Suddenly there was silence, here comes the Rani
The army was the oyster, the pearl was the Rani
In the battlefield, you could shame the stars, Rani
In bravery and courage, equal to men is the Rani]

Lakshmibai was born Manikarnika in the house of a brahmin priest in Varanasi. She was renamed Lakshmibai after marriage to Maharaja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi in May 1842. After her husband’s death in 1853, Jhansi was annexed by the British under Lord Dalhousie’s infamous Doctrine of Lapse, as the British refused to recognise the right to rule of Laxmibai’s adopted son Damodar Rao.

Lakshmibai was forced out of the Jhansi fort and relegated to the Rani Mahal on a pension. But she was adamant that ‘mera Jhansi nahin dungi’ (‘I will not give up my Jhansi’) and sent several appeals to England against the annexation. All her appeals were rejected. In 1857, faced with attacks by neighbouring principalities and a distant claimant to the throne of Jhansi, Lakshmibai recruited an army and strengthened the city’s defences.

In the words of Makhmoor Jallundhari:

Laxmibai tere hathon mein tegh o sipar
Husn ki sari riwayat ki thi silk-e-gauhar

[Laxmibai the sword and shield in your hands
Is your jewelry, your string of pearls]

In March 1858, the British forces attacked Jhansi and were fiercely opposed. When they finally gained the upper hand, Laxmibai escaped from the fort with her son. She fled to Kalpi, where she joined Tatya Tope. Together, they captured Gwalior. But the British gained the upper hand yet again. The fighting shifted to the outskirts of Gwalior.

On June 17, 1858, during the fighting a Kotah-ki-Serai, five miles south east of Gwalior, the Rani, dressed in male attire, was shot at and fell from her horse.

Jhalkari Bai and the Durga Dal of Jhansi

Statue of Jhalkari Bai in Gwalior. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Jhalkari Bai
Jhalkari Bai was part of the Durga Dal, or women’s brigade, of Jhansi. Her husband was a soldier in the Jhansi army, and Jhalkari too was trained in archery and swordplay. Her striking similarity to Lakshmibai helped the Jhansi army evolve a military strategy to deceive the British. 
To elude the British, Jhalkari dressed up like her queen and took command of the Jhansi army, allowing Lakshmibai to escape unnoticed.
 Jhalkari gave the British quite a shock when she was caught and imprisoned. According to legend, when the British discovered the impersonation, they released her and she went on to live a long life till 1890.

Jhansi, with its Durga Dal, saw the participation of many women who fought alongside their queen and sacrificed their lives for their kingdom. Some of the women we’ve found references to include Mandar, Sundari Bai, Mundari Bai and Moti Bai. These women were not content to wait on the sidelines and embrace widowhood.

Churi forwai ke nevta
Sindoor pochwai ke nevta

[You are invited to break your bangles
You are invited to wipe off the vermillion from your forehead]

Uda Devi, a crack shot and a warrior

Uda Devi. Credit: Wikipedia
Uda Devi

One of the fiercest battles in Lucknow was the Battle in Sikandar Bagh in November 1857. Sikandar Bagh was manned by the rebels and fell along commander Colin Campbell’s route as he marched to rescue the Europeans besieged in the Residency. A bloody battle ensued and thousands of Indian soldiers were killed.

A story goes that the British heard a crack shot, who was firing from atop a tree. It was only when they managed to fell the tree that they discovered that the person shooting was a woman, who was then identified as Uda Devi from the Pasi community. Her statue graces the square outside Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow today.

Forbes-Mitchell, in Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny, writes of Uda Devi: “She was armed with a pair of heavy old-pattern cavalry pistols, one of which was in her belt still loaded, and her pouch was still about half full of ammunition, while from her perch in the tree, which had been carefully prepared before the attack, she had killed more than half-a-dozen men.”

Koi unko habsin kehta, koi kehta neech achchut.
abla koi unhein batlaye, koi kahe unhe majboot.

[Some called them Africans, some untouchable.
Some called them feeble, others strong.]

Many African women were employed in the court of the Awadh nawabs to guard the harem. They too perished in the battles in Lucknow during 1857.

A particular feature of the great uprising was the participation not just of women from royal and noble backgrounds but of women from depressed classes too. Another dalit veerangana  was Mahabiri Devi from the village of Mundbhar in the district of Muzaffarnagar. Mahabiri formed a group of 22 women, who together attacked and killed many British soldiers in 1857. The women were all caught and killed.

Azizun Bai

Azizun bai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Azizun Bai

But perhaps one of the most fascinating stories is that of the courtesan Azizun Bai of Kanpur.

Kanpur saw fierce battles between the forces of Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope against the British.

Tere yalghar mein tameer thi takhrib na thi
Tere isar mein targheeb thi taadeeb na thi

Your war cry was one of construction, not destruction
Your sacrifice was to inspire, not admonish
– Makhmoor Jallundhar

Colonial and Indian historians have mentioned Azizun’s role during the battles of Kanpur. She had personally nothing to gain and no personal grudges, unlike many of the other women who had joined in the uprising. She was simply inspired by Nana Sahib.

Her memory is still alive among the people of Kanpur. She dressed in male attire like Lakshmibai and rode on horseback with the soldiers, armed with a brace of pistols. She was part of the procession the day the flag was raised in Kanpur to celebrate the initial victory of Nana Sahib.

Lata Singh writes in her article “Making the ‘Margin’ Visible” that Azizun was a favourite among the sepoys of the 2nd cavalry posted in Kanpur, and was particularly close to one of the soldiers, Shamsuddin. Her house was a meeting point of the sepoys. She also formed a group of women, who went around fearlessly cheering the men in arms, attended to their wounds, and distributed arms and ammunition. She made one of the gun batteries her headquarters for this work. During the entire period of the siege of Kanpur, she was with the soldiers, who she considered her friends, and she was always armed with pistols herself.

Other valiant women

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘On the City Wall’ refers to the anti-British activities of the courtesans during 1857.

In fact, many of the courtesans’ kothas were meeting points for the rebels. Post 1857, the full might of the British Empire descended on these kothas. The courtesans who had been the repositories of old culture and fine arts were relegated to the status of common prostitutes and their vast properties seized.

The Muzaffarnagar area in western UP saw the active participation of women. Some of the names of the women rebels are Asha Devi, Bakhtavari, Habiba, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Indra Kaur, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Raj Kaur, Shobha Devi and Umda, all of whom sacrificed their lives in active fighting.

According to the records, all these women, with the exception of one Asghari Begum, were in their 20s. They were hanged and, in some cases, burnt alive.

There were two other queens whose kingdoms were the victims of the Doctrine of Lapse and who rose against the British. They were were Avantibai Lodhi of Raigarh and Rani Draupadi of Dhar.

Sadly, not much has been written about these other brave freedom fighters of 1857 and resources on them are scarce. One such resource is Shamsul Islam’s article ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity: Participation of Common People and Women in India’s First War Of Independence,’ which mentions the names of many women who are today only relegated to the pages of the 1857 records.

It is time India remembered, and saluted, these brave women

Rana Safvi is a writer, and author of Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, First City of Delhi

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