Lakshmi Bai (c. 1835-1858), the Rani of Jhansi, is a national hero in India for her fight against the injustices of the British Raj.
As the reigning queen (Rani) of the Jhansi province of India, Bai was killed in a battle during the Indian First War of Independence provoked by the reigning British invocation of lapse, a policy by which the British claimed the lands of Indian kings (Rajas) without male heirs. She has since become emblematic of Indian rebellion against the encroachment of British imperialism and is celebrated by her country people as a woman who lived contrary to the perceived notions of nineteenth-century Indian feminine decorum. Many contradictory stories have been written about Bai that depict her as either an honorable head of state or as a ruthless, deceitful, and cunning warrior. Likewise physical descriptions of Bai vary; some describing her as possessing beautiful facial features, and others describing her as badly scarred by smallpox. Nevertheless, she is considered an Indian national hero for leading the Jahnsi army against the British, resulting in many embellished stories and legends relating her attributes and accomplishments.
Rani of Jhansi
Bai was the daughter of Moropant Tabme, a court advisor, and his wife, Bhagirathi, who was reportedly a very learned woman. Born in Poona, her birth date is believed to be November 19, 1835. Named Maninkarnika and nicknamed Manu at birth, Bai moved with her high-caste Hindu parents to Varanasi in the northern portion of India from Poona in Western India at an early age. Her mother died when she was still very young, and her father inexplicably raised his daughter in the manner more customarily associated with sons. Two of her childhood friends were Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope, both of whom were active participants in the Great Rebellion. She learned to ride elephants and horses as well as how to handle weapons. While still a child, probably seven-years-old, she was promised in marriage to Raja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi, a recently widowed king between the ages of forty and fifty. Upon her wedding, she took the name Lakshmibai or, alternately, Lakshmi Bai. When she was fourteen-years-old in 1849, Bai and Rao consummated their marriage, and Bai subsequently gave birth to a son who died three months later. Rao refused to allow Bai to continue her military studies with male students, and, undeterred, she assembled a regiment of female soldiers from her maidservants. Her husband's grief over the death of his heir was said to be so great that he took ill and died in 1853, making Bai the ruler of Jhansi when she was eighteen-years-old. Before his death, Rao named a male relative, Damodar Rao, his successor. Following her husband's death, Bai resumed her military training and recruited more women for her all-female militia.
In the nineteenth-century, the British government was intent on expanding and protecting its political and economic presence in India, which often resulted in it forcefully taking over entire states. Governor-General (later Lord) James Dalhousie also implemented the rule of lapse, which allowed the British to seize control of all land holdings by deceased Rajas without male heirs. In the case of Jhansi following the death of Rao, Dalhousie chose not to accept the adoption of Damodar Rao and proceeded to annex the kingdom in February 1854. The insult was furthered on religious grounds; according to Hindu law, a father's heir is responsible for performing specific rites ensuring that the father's soul is saved from punishment. By denying the legitimacy of Damodar's adoption, Dalhousie jeopardized the fate of Rao's soul. Bai is credited with drafting several letters to Dalhousie that are noted for their sound and reasoned arguments against annexing, including reminding him that a British official had been present when Rao adopted Damodar. When Dalhousie refused her requests anyway, she wrote him: "It is notorious, my Lord, that the more powerful a state … the less disposed it is to acknowledge an error or an act of arbitrary character." She later appealed to the Court of Directors of London, writing that the lapse represented a "gross violation and negation of the Treaties of the Government of India." She continued that if the actions were "persisted in they must involve a gross violation and negation of British faith and honor." In May 1854, Jahnsi lapsed to the British, and Bai was allowed to keep her palace and a pension of 60,000 rupees. She was forced to abdicate rule and abandon the fort in Jahnsi. Damodar Rao was allowed to inherit Rao's estate. Shortly thereafter, Bai was notified that the British expected her to repay her husband's debts out of her pension.
Insurrection and Revolution
During the next three years, Indian resentment and hostility grew toward the British. The Great Rebellion, or the First War for Independence, began in May 1857 in Upper India. Indian soldiers working for the British Raj rebelled violently, massacring British soldiers and their families. Within a month, the Indian soldiers had rebelled at the fort in Jhansi. History at this point relies on conjecture to accurately portray the true nature of what happened. Some sources note that Bai was cooperative with the British and offered to protect them in her palace although her authority could not, in the end, protect them from the essential massacre. Others say she was motivated by revenge and invited the families to her palace in order that they would be ambushed and killed en route. One of her defenders, Major W. C. Erskine, Commissioner of the Sagar Division, defended her as a ruler caught in an untenable situation. He wrote that Bai regretted her inability to help the British, and that the Indian mutineers had threatened to blow up her palace if she did not comply with their monetary requests. Erskine eventually changed his position, however, writing that Bai had instigated the mutiny.
Bai had reestablished herself as ruler of the state, enlisted and trained fourteen-thousand troops, and prepared for war by moving back into the fort at Jahnsi. In retaliation for the mutiny, the British sent an army to Jahnsi led by Major-General Sir Hugh Rose and laid siege upon the fort. After battling for more than two weeks, the British overran the fort. Total casualties for both sides were estimated at five thousand. Bai escaped and was tracked to Banda, where Rose's forces reported that "her escort made a hard fight of it, and though the fellows did their utmost and killed every man she got away. … She is a wonderful woman, very brave and determined. It is fortunate for us that the men are not all like her." Bai joined forces with her childhood friend Tatya Tope and they retreated to Kalpi, which also fell to Rose's forces in May 1858. The Indian rebels mounted an attack on the Rose's forces outside Gwalior in June 1958, and Bai was killed in battle in Gwalior on June 17, 1858. Reports of her death vary, with some stating that she was knocked from her horse by a bayonet or sword and shot at her assailant but missed. He, in turn, allegedly shot her, failing to realize who she was because she was dressed in men's clothing. Some reports say that Bai was not killed instantly, but was removed to a mango grove where she reportedly distributed her jewels to her subordinates. Her servants cremated her body according to Hindu custom. Rose wrote about his foe: "The Ranee was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generocity to her Subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders."
Commire, Anne, editor, "Lakshmibai," in Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Vol. 9: Laa-Lydu, Yorkin Publications and The Gale Group, 2001.
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James, Lawrence, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
"Lakshmi Bai," Distinguised Women,http:www.distinguishedwomen.com/biographies/bai.html, (January 29, 2002). □