From Bhagat Singh and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Jawaharlal Nehru, our textbooks are filled with all the freedom fighters who fought for the freedom of India. But have you noticed how we know the details of very few Indian women who had committed to the same freedom struggle, worked hard, sacrificed their lives, and contributed to the Indian freedom movement? Sure, we often hear of a handful of women icons, like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Sarojini Naidu, Lakshmi Sehgal, and other women who emerged during the 1930s and 1940s—the peak of India’s struggle for Independence. But doesn’t this picture seem incomplete to you?
According to the Census of British India, 1881, there were a total of 129.94 million males and 123.94 million females (across all age groups) living in India. A closer look at the sex ratios given by the 1891 and 1901 Census of British India show that there were 958 and 963 women per 1,000 men, respectively. So, if there were indeed millions of Indian women living throughout the British colonial period, what happened to their voices? How can their contribution to the Indian freedom struggle boil down to just a handful of women icons we revere today?
The female icons we should celebrateIt’s time we right this immense wrong, and share the stories of the women who did participate in India’s freedom struggle, but were left unnamed and unsung. After all, why shouldn’t their contributions be equally celebrated? To do this, let’s start at the beginning, with the Revolt of 1857, when the idea of the country—and its men and women—uniting against the British first came up in full force.
If you think about women in 1857, the names of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Begum Hazrat Mahal of Awadh immediately come up. This is not only because these were prominent women in Indian politics who put up a tough fight, but also because their deeds have been immortalised in stories, poems, local folklore, and even movies in the case of Rani Lakshmibai. But there were many others whose brave deeds of rebellion are now known, thanks to historians who have now looked deep into everything from local records to those of the British. Here are all the women freedom fighters of 1857 you should know about.
Rani Lakshmibai of JhansiRani Lakshmibai’s story is, in fact, the most well-known. The young, widowed queen of the state of Jhansi fell prey to the British Doctrine of Lapse after the death of her husband, because this law stipulated that a princely state under the British East India Company (EIC) would lose its status if a ruler died without a male heir. Instead of giving up the rights of her kingdom, she decided to battle against the British, joining the revolting forces of Barrackpore, Meerut, Kanpur, Lucknow, and later Delhi. She died a martyr while engaging in battle with the British, but the image of this Indian queen, riding out with her adopted son behind her back, is imprinted deep in all our minds.
Begum Hazrat Mahal of AwadhThe Doctrine of Lapse also stipulated that an unworthy ruler could be deposed and their state taken over by the EIC, and this is what happened to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, who was exiled in 1856. When the Revolt started in 1857, the Nawab’s ex-wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal, took this opportunity to overthrow the yoke of the British on Awadh. She crowned her 11-year-old son as the Nawab, making herself his regent, and quickly mounted a rebellion against the British army with the help of ministers, traders and loyal masses. So fierce was her force that even the British faltered, and offered her a truce (thrice!) and the prospect of returning Awadh to its rightful rulers. The Begum rejected all offers and continued her fight until the British reinforcements quelled the revolt in 1858, at which time she fled to Nepal, where she died in 1879.
Jhansi’s Durga DalOne of the many achievements of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was the creation of Durga Dal, the women’s military outfit or sena which enlisted women in and around the state. These women belonged to various castes and communities, and yet, came together to throw a unified challenge to the British forces. While we don’t know much about all the women in this group, the names of some have been passed down through folklore and historical records, including Mandarbai, Sundaribai, and Motibai.
While the commander of this force was the queen herself, Jhalkaribai was her second-in-charge. A look-alike of the queen, a popular narrative around this brave figure says that she dressed as the queen and took command of the Durga Dal, which allowed the queen to escape the British. Jhalkaribai was caught by the British, and they later came to know that she was only impersonating the queen. The legend says that the British had to release Jhalkaribai, and she later died in 1890.
The Dalit veeranganas Jhalkaribai of the Durga Dal is often celebrated as one of the Dalit veeranganas (women warriors or heroes) who led the fight against the British in 1857. But she wasn’t the only one. Dalit and social historians have recently discovered the names and deeds of many women across India who contributed to the Revolt. There are some references to women of the Bhatiyara caste (known as Bhatiyarins), who ran inns across the United Provinces, Awadh and other North Indian regions. These women are believed to have hosted rebels and even passed along valuable information to rebel groups.
One of the most well-known Dalit figures of 1857 was, however, an unnamed woman who is celebrated as Uda Devi from the Pasi community—there’s even a bust of hers in Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow today. The legend goes that sitting atop a tree, dressed as a man, Uda Devi took aim at British soldiers, killing many of them until she was shot dead herself. Historians later believed that Uda Devi was of African-Indian descent, but her precise identity was never made.
Courtesans for the countryContemporary reports by British officers reveals that courtesans or sex workers in the kothas of North India worked quite like the innkeepers—as a network through which vital information could be passed among the rebels. Since the British soldiers also frequented the kothas, these women were in a prime position to get internal information about the military establishment. One of the most well-known of these figures was Azizun Nisa of Kanpur.
Inspired by Nana Saheb, this courtesan took to dressing up in male attire and rode out with the rebels to kill British soldiers. Her house was a meeting point for the rebels, and she also formed a group of women who went around attending to injured rebels and distribution ammunitions to them. Armed with pistols herself, Azizun Nisa was with the Indian soldiers throughout the siege of Kanpur, at the end of which, she was killed like many others.
The martyrs of MuzaffarnagarContemporary sources reveal that women based out of Muzaffarnagar district in western United Provinces witnessed the active participation of women in 1857. Mahabiri Devi from Mundbhar formed a group of 22 women, who attacked British soldiers and killed many of them. These women were caught and killed by the British. Another group of women from the district, including some named Asha Devi, Bakhtvari, Habiba, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Asghari Begun, Indra Kaur, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Raj Kaur, Shobha Devi and Umda, also took up arms against the British in 1857. Apart from Asghari Begum, all the women in this group were in their 20s. All were captured, some hanged and some even burnt alive for participating in the Revolt.