RANI LAKSHMIBAI OF JHANSI
I couldn’t say when I first learnt about Lakshmibai, Rani (Queen) of Jhansi. All I can say with certainty is that I was still in primary school. But she instantly became the heroine of my childhood.
A 23-year-old woman on horseback, sword in hand, her young son strapped to her back, leading an army into battle against a mighty but unjust empire.
What’s not to idolize? Lakshmibai had everything I could possibly want to see in my hero/ine: courage, strength, leadership, a refusal to be bound by convention, and a determination to fight injustice both in her own behalf and on behalf of others.
A woman in 19th century India, taking on the might of the British empire. First politically, then through the legal system, and finally on the field of battle.
Never, in any of the stories, does one detect a note of self-pity for the hardships and injustice life brought her. Neither does she appear to have considered herself constrained in her actions by the fact that she was a woman.
This, briefly, is her story:
Manikarnika, nick-named Manu, was born in 1835 in the northern Indian town of Varanasi. She lost her mother when she was 4. At 14, she married Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, Raja (king) of Jhansi, a man much older than her. At marriage, she was given the name Lakshmibai (a practice that was fairly common in certain communities in India).
At the age of 16, she gave birth to a son, who died in infancy. To ensure that the ailing raja would have a successor, the couple then adopted a son, whom they named Damodar Rao. Lakshmibai lost her husband when she was 18.
Much of India at this time was ruled by the East India Company on behalf of the British crown, but Jhansi was one of the “princely states” still ruled by Indians. However, the Company was extending its influence wherever it could, seizing on any excuse to annex a state. In this case, the British refused to recognize Lakshmibai or her adopted son as a legitimate successor to the king.
Lakshmibai sought legal recourse, appealing to the Directors of the Company in London through a British lawyer. The appeal was rejected and her territory annexed.
No doubt this young widowed woman was now expected to go back to her father’s home, giving up on her kingdom. But Lakshmibai was not about to give up so easily. She began to prepare her people, including the women, to fight for justice.
In 1857, four years after the death of Lakshmibai’s husband, a rebellion by Indian soldiers in the town of Meerut spread quickly through large sections of northern India to reach the court of the last Mughal emperor – now emperor only in name, with the power firmly vested with the British administration.
Lakshmibai reclaimed the leadership of Jhansi and joined the Indian forces fighting Britain. From June 1957 to April 1958, she defended Jhansi against the British. Forced to escape with her life, she then led newly formed battalions in what was now the Great Indian Mutiny (and would later be called the First War of Independence by Indian historians).
In June 1858, at the age of 23, Lakshmibai fell on the battlefield. Her son survived and was pensioned off by the British. The mutiny/war was crushed and power over India passed formally to the British monarch (rather than the East India Company). The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was exiled to Burma (Myanmar), where he wrote heart-rending poetry about his fate and where he eventually died.
Although the mutiny/war saw many atrocities on both the Indian and British sides, Lakshmibai and her troops remained untainted by this disreputable aspect of the rebellion.
The story of Lakshmibai’s courage lived on. Her short life continued to inspire generations of Indians. When Subhash Chandra Bose raised the Indian National Army to fight for independence in 1942, the women’s unit was named after Lakshmibai.
Thinking of her story now, it strikes me that she was a true karma yogin, walking the path of (right) action without thought of its likely outcome. This path teaches us to do what is right, regardless of outcome. As the Bhagavad Gita says: To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction. (Chapter 2, Verse 47)