The 1857 Indian war of Independence projects a host of heroes and heroines who valiantly fought against the atrocious British Imperialism. Unfortunately, very little is known about them. British believed in the mythical concept of their being a master race with divine right to rule over others. They humiliated and insulted Indians and branded them barbarians. Their absolute power over the Indians turned their heads.
Sir Thomas Munro records, " ... The consequence therefore of the conquest of India by army would be, in place of raising to debase a whole people. There is, perhaps, no example of any conquest in which the nations have been so completely excluded from all from all share of Government of their country as in British India".
While, on the one side some, respected English historian like Kaye, Malleson, Thomas Garret and Sir Thomas Munro have lifted the veil of the British atrocities on Indians and ridiculed the British concept of "Master Race" on the other side there have been real herrenvolks like Lord Dalhousie who ruled India as Governor General between 1848-56. During his eight year' rule Dalhousie pierced his sharp teeth into the Indian States and grabbed Sambalpur, Jaitpur, Bagpat, Udaipur, Jhansi, Nagpur, Tanjore, the Karnataka throne of Nana Saheb and last but not least deprived Wajid Ali Shah of his throne in Oudh.
By 1856 the British were firmly saddled in India, still there exited very many independent princely states.
The traders who once sought merely pleasure and patronage of the Mughal Emperors made the best use of their decaying authority to enslave India and laid plans to become its masters, Possessed with superior weapons, and drilled in diplomacy the British fared better against the forces of these princely states which they eliminated one by one and brought under Company's rule. With the annexation of Oudh on February 4, 1856 the soldiers of the British Army in Bengal who comprised both Hindus and Muslims of Oudh found themselves homeless and insecure, Not only this, every Indian soldier merely came to occupy the position of a sophisticated slave losing status and privileges enjoyed by a Britisher of the same rank. The greased cartridges containing fat of cows and pigs fuelled their anger. Restlessness gripped the peasantry as higher rates of revenue unknown to the cultivators during princely rule, were imposed on them.
The policy of ruining Indian trade and industry hit all and sundry collectively; artisans ran for cultivation, traders changed their occupation, industrialists became employees.
Ruthless and oppressive agrarian policy, discontent due to social, religious and administrative injustice and disaffection of sepoys, erupted into an open revolt. And Mangal Pandey, of Faizabad, of 34 Infantry fired blank at a Sergeant Major and Lieutenant on March 29, 1857 at Barrackpore, in Bengal.
The British disbanded Bengal Army, disbanded Sepoys, while returning home revealed that the sole aim of British was to conquer the country and spread Christianity. This caused resentment among already restless Army and civilian population spontaneously and a sea of revolt from all sections of society erupted which crumbled the British authority like a house of cards.
Simultaneously the Rani of Jhansi, Tatya Tope, Nana Saheb, Maulvi Ahmedullah Shah, Raja Jai Lal, Raja Loni Singh, Raja Benie Madhav, Mehdi Hussain, Raja Devi Singh, Khan Bhadur Khan, Shahzada Firoze Shah, Kunwar Singh and other grappled with the British with fire and sword.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was proclaimed Shah-en-Shah of India at Delhi on 30 June the same year British troops under the command of Sir Henry Lawrence marched to stop advancing sepoys at Chinhut at Faizabad road but were defeated. The English forces fled for their life to the residency. Thus Lucknow slipped away from the British.
The victorious troops led by sepoys needed a king. They approached all Begums of Wajid Ali Shah and their sons to provide one but none except Begum Hazrat Mahal rose to the occasion and agreed to crown her 10 years old son Birjis Qadr as king and herself to act as his regent.
Under the seal of Birjis Qadr Begum Hazrat Mahal inspired all revolutionaries and exhibited great ability an a administrator and a military general.
On February 25, 1858 she led her army on elephant backs and defeated British forces Alambagh.
The symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity and filled with patriotic fervour Begum Hazrat Mahal got the evocative help of Hindus and Muslims alike and succeeded in inflicting defeat after defeat on the British army.
The Begum who used to live behind seven curtains in the comfortable palaces flung into action and with her valour and ability electrified the whole nation.
Wherever she went, she addressed people and won their support. Sword in hand, Begum Hazrat Mahal led forces herself and directed army operations.
...In a meeting of all the chiefs, held on December 22, she severely harangued the leaders and denounced them for their indifference. She is recorded to have said : Great things were promised from the all powerful Delhi, and my heart used to be gladdened by the communications I used to receive from that city, but so soon the king has been dispossessed and his army scattered. The English have bought over the Sikhs and Jats.. and communications are cut off. The Nana has been vanquished, Lucknow is endangered... what is to be done? The whole army is in Lucknow, but it is without courage. Why does it not attack Alambagh ? Is it waiting for the British to be reinforced and Lucknow to be surrounded ? Answer me now, if fight you won't.
The chief answered: Fear not Madam, we shall fight, for if we do not, we shall be hanged one by one. We have that fear before our eyes. They swore to stand by one by one another and then dispersed.
She trained women into the mechanics of warfare and converted them into a disciplined force. She ruled Lucknow from July 5, 1857 to March 1, 1858 when the British outmaneuvered her forces. Though vanquished, she did not accept defeat. She left Lucknow on the night of March 1, 1857 with 1600 army and 45 guns and treasure and entered the fort of Baundi to regroup her forces.
It is from this fort that Begum Hazrat Mahal engineered series of attacks on the British and provided the toughest fight in the entire history of the 1987 uprising.
In the meantime Queen Victoria issued a proclamation ending the rule of East India Company and bringing India directly under the British crown. Side by side she declared general clemency.
British offered Begum Hazrat Mahal clemency and pension but the spirited Begum while denouncing the offer, issued counter-proclamation and exposed the British designs. The Begum's counter-proclamation read.
At this time certain weak-minded, foolish people have spread a report that the English have forgiven the faults and crimes of the people of Hindustan: this appears very astounding, for it is the unvarying trait of the English never to fault, be it great or small; so much so that if a small offence is committed through ignorance they never forgive it.....Therefore, we the never abiding Government, parents of the people of Oudh, with great consideration, put forth the great consideration, put forth the present proclamation, in order that the real object of the British policy may be exposed, and our subjects be placed on their guard.
The British were insulted. They chalked out a military strategy, reinforced themselves and pressed into action superior arms to compel Begum Hazrat Mahal to surrender but the valiant queen close to wander into the dense forests of Himalayan terrain along with a handful of ill-fed, ill-equipped faithful soldiers, after abandoning the Baundi fort during December, 1858.
In the Himalayan terrai the Begum and her faithful soldiers wandered from place to place and with the help of local people of Nepal somehow survived . It is here that she composed the only song of hers. In spite of malaria that killed most of her soldiers, the shortage of food and no shelter the spirited Begum preferred to break than to bow and while wandering in Nepal terrai, she declared: "This was not the end of India's freedom struggle but only the beginning".
India's struggle for freedom started from this moment. And on August 15, 1947, finally the famous Tryst with Destiny was heard by world and India became independent.
(She crossed over to Kathmandu, Nepal during the last quarter of 1859 where she was granted asylum. She constructed a house at Burf Bagh at Kathmandu where she stayed along with her son Birjis Qadr till 1879.
Unfurling the Indian flag atop her house in BurfBagh Kathmandu, Begum Hazrat Mahal fell into the lap of earth in the Himalayas heightening the hopes of independence.)