Rani of Jhansi: Taking on the might of the Raj


How valiantly like a man fought she, 
The Rani of Jhansi 
On every parapet a gun she set 
Raining fire of hell, 
How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi 
How valiantly and well!

One name that cannot be missed when we skim through the annals of India's struggle for freedom is that of the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai - whose indomitable courage won grudging admiration even from the enemy.
Named Manikarnika at birth, her beginnings were humble: her father, Moropant Tambe, was a part of Chimnaji Appa's retinue and lived in Benares. Her date of birth, however, is still debated. Known to be quite a tomboy from childhood, Manu was well versed in horse riding and swordsmanship, proving to be stiff competition to her playmates Tantia Tope and Nana Saheb.
At an early age of 14, she was married to Gangadhar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi, a small Maratha principality in Bundelkhand and took the name Lakshmibai. The king, who wasn't able to have children from his first marriage, was unable to beget an heir to his kingdom even after his marriage to Lakshmibai. Finally, a day before his death, Gangadhar Rao adopted a minor son and vested the administration of the state to his widow. 
The British had a policy of 'lapse' whereby when an Indian ruler died without an heir the principality would be annexed and come under direct British administration. The British government under the annexing zeal of Lord Dalhousie decided to seize this opportunity and annex the state of Jhansi on the pretext that British rule would be good for the state and its people. 
The Rani's appeals against the decision were rejected, and Rani Lakshmibai was forced into retirement to live in her palace, with a monthly pension of Rs 5,000. 

In exile, she was said to have been meticulous in her religious observances. She also practiced rifle and pistol shooting, horse riding and physical exercise every day. In the accounts of Turab Ali, (who lived to be 113 and who died in 1943), he recalls watching the Rani practice horse riding with the reins held in her teeth with a sword in each hand.

In 1857, four years after the death of Gangadhar Rao, mutiny broke out among some sepoys of the Army. The mutiny was limited to the north of India, mainly the Gangetic Plain, starting in Meerut. There were several instances of mutineers turning on their prisoners, and the European women and children. Some escaped with the aid of local people. 
Some time after the mutiny spread, members of the Jhansi garrison also joined in, took the more important of the two forts in the town, killing two of the British officers and wounding another. They plundered the town, and released the prisoners from jail. The remaining British and Eurasians sheltered in the other fort, the Town Fort. There were 61 people, over half of them women and children. The survivors in the Town Fort appealed to the Rani for help. Lakshmibai's response to this is still under debate, but the fact remains that though safe passage was granted by the mutineers, just outside Jhansi, one of the rebel leaders ordered their deaths.

The Rani wrote to the British giving an account of what had happened, the steps she has taken to stabilize the situation and asking for help. She received orders from the British administration, asking her to manage Jhansi until a new superintendent could be sent. The Rani formed a government, which included her father and stabilized the situation. Almost immediately she had to deal with a rival claimant to the Raja's throne, and estate besides defending Jhansi against attacks by Orchha and Datia. The British ignored her pleas for help in defending Jhansi.
Interestingly, the indifference of the British helped the Rani. As a result she was learning the art of generalship, and improving the army and defenses of Jhansi. It also obliged her to have contact with the rebels who were the only force who could provide her with the military aid she needed. Events were preparing her for the final confrontation with the British. Away from the battlefield and court, she restored the library of her late husband and encouraged plays at the court, the theater having been her late husband's prime interest.
By the end of 1857, the British had dealt with the bigger problems of Delhi and Oudh enabling them to turn their attention on the smaller ones like Jhansi. Meanwhile, the Rani had received no further communication from the British and wrote to Sir Robert Hamilton to clarify the position of Jhansi that availed no response. A British force under Sir Hugh Rose, accompanied by Hamilton, marched northwards towards Jhansi, mopping up as they went. Having received no clarification, and knowing of this force advancing towards her, the Rani could only assume, and prepare for, the worst.
She raised a force of 14,000 volunteers from the population and 1,500 sepoys, made contact with the rebels, strengthened the defenses and otherwise prepared for the arrival of the British. 

An intelligence report dated the 7th of Feb, 1858, from Sir Robert Hamilton says:
Although the Rani proposes not to fight the British government yet she makes every hostile arrangement. Six new large guns have been manufactured, carriages for these and old guns are in the course of construction. About 200 mounds of saltpeter being purchased in the Gwalior district had been brought into the fort. Gunpowder is daily made within the fort. Eight gunners from the Moorar rebels were sent from Kalpi and have been taken into service.

It is interesting to note that at this juncture, irrespective of her feelings, Lakshmibai was at the nexus of a set of forces propelling her to rebellion and had little choice:

  • The British were convinced of her guilt, and in any case were intent on punishing Jhansi for the massacre of Europeans. 
  • The townspeople had tasted British rule and were better off under their own rulers. In addition the British had failed to respect their customs. 
  • Her army, originally raised to defend Jhansi against Orchha, was predominantly composed of rebels and mutineers for whom surrender meant death. 
  • More personally, it would seem that her father had ambitions to recover the Jhansi throne for her. 

On 21 March 1858 British forces started the siege of Jhansi. The town was given the opportunity to surrender but Lakshmibai had little choice and with the support of the people, refused. The sepoys she had recruited were mutineers and would have been executed. It is likely that so would Lakshmibai and anyone else considered to be a rebel by the British. Further, the people had gained confidence from the defeat of the siege of the city in October of the year before, and would have looked forward to aid from the rebels.
The level of support for Lakshmibai is indicated by the number of volunteers - 14,000, from a population of 250,000. When one considers the number of families involved, say dividing by six to give a figure of 42,000, there was a volunteer from at least one in three families. She also organized the women to keep the troops supplied at the front line; there must have been many casualties among them. The British officers observed an enthusiasm and energy in the defending troops that they had never been able to obtain from their own native soldiers. Sadly, enthusiasm is no substitute for training, discipline, weaponry and leadership in the form of qualified officers. Numerically the British were greatly outnumbered, but militarily they had the advantage.

For 10 days the British bombarded Jhansi with artillery and maintained a constant fire from the infantry. The bombardment is said to have been intense, as was the return fire. In actions prior to this one, the rebels had been able to make good their escape and the British was determined that it should not happen this time and had entirely surrounded Jhansi.
On the 30th March a breach was forced in the town wall, but before the British could enter the town, a rebel force of 20,000 under the command of Tantia Tope arrived. The British split the forces and met and defeated the rebel force at the Betwa river, a few miles east of Jhansi and north of Orchha. The rebels lost hundreds, the British less than one hundred.
With the defeat of the rebel relief force, Rose was able turn his attention back to Jhansi by 2nd April. At 3am, next morning, British troops stormed into Jhansi. The fighting is said to have been intense with the Rani in the thick of it, as she had been during the siege when she, with her ladies, was often visible to the British, directing and encouraging the resistance. At some point she decided to leave Jhansi. Despite precautions, during the night of 3rd and 4th April she was able to make her escape with a small party, which included her father. Legend has it that she rode with her adopted son Damodar tied to her back. How she and her party managed to get through the British lines is uncertain. She rode the 100 miles to Kalpi in 24 hours and managed to escape unhurt, but her father who was wounded leaving Jhansi, was caught and hung by the British.
A rebel force under Tantia Tope went to Koonch where the British, after a delay of 3 weeks to re-supply, went on to meet and defeat them on 6th May. They then advanced on Kalpi. The rebels there were at low ebb, but were heartened by the arrival of the Nawab of Banda, and the nephew of Nana Sahib, Rao Sahib. Encouraged by the reinforcements and Lakshmibai's promise to fight with them to the end, on the 22nd of May they attacked the British. Despite being considerably weakened by the heat and having to fight under the midday sun, the British were able to defeat the rebels who were forced to retreat again. This time they went to Godalpur outside of Gwalior. There, rather than disbanding as the British expected, they audaciously decided to take Gwalior. The fort at Gwalior was considered to be the strongest in India and virtually impregnable. The ruler, the Maharaja Scindia had maintained a pro-British stance throughout the Rebellion. If successful the hope of the rebels was that this would encourage others to throw in their lot with them.
The rebels advanced on Gwalior with 11,000 men and were met at Morar by Maharaja Scindia. After the first shots were fired, the bulk of the Maharaja's army defected to the rebels, and the Maharaja left for the safety of Agra. Rao Sahib was crowned at Gwalior and Lakshmibai was famously given a priceless pearl necklace from the Gwalior Treasury.
The British now turned towards Gwalior. Lakshmibai was given command of the eastern flank, the most difficult to defend, and met the British at Kotah-ki-Serai on the 17th June. How she died, and where, and when, is uncertain - there are several accounts. Some believe that she was killed on the parapets of Gwalior in a hail of gunfire at the beginning of the siege; others say she was killed by a soldier at Kotah-ki-Serai, in a full-blooded battle.
Two days later, the rebels left Gwalior, making no attempt to hold what was a virtually impregnable position. The death of Lakshmibai seems to have utterly demoralized them. The 'impregnable' fort of Gwalior was easily retaken by the British. To all intents and purposes the rebellion was over and it took nearly a hundred years more for India to win its freedom.
Valiant and defiant, shining as one of the brave women who fought and died for her country, Lakshmibai's name lingers on after generations - for having rebelled not only against the British, but also for having defied social conventions imposed on women and fighting for her rights.