I have just finished reading a fictionalised account of a lady called Begum Hazrat Mahal. That was not her real name, but was the name given to her when she became the fourth wife of ‘the last king of India, Wajid Ali Shah. The King was a fop, and a wimp, in my opinion, and did nothing to resist the annexation of his kingdom – Awadh, the centre of which was the city of Lucknow. He was transferred to Calcutta (Kolkatta) where he lived out his life as a pensioner of the British Empire, ill-treating his family and wanting more and more money to live out his pretty fantasies.
He left his wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal, behind. It seems that she resented the annexation of the kingdom, and resented the fact that her husband did nothing. She was born into a poor family, became a courtesan of sorts and then became Queen and Queen Mother.
What did she do? She then marshalled her resources, built up a steady set of allies, and then launched an offensive against the British forces. She kept up the resistance for more than a year, and finally was defeated, and had to escape to Nepal, largely because of the betrayal of many of the chieftains who preferred amnesty. She was known as a very good Queen as well.
In Nepal, the king/ regent, did not want her, but was too scared to do anything to her because of the fierce loyalty of the people around her. She escaped to Nepal, with whatever gold and jewellery she could take. Over the next 20 years, she gave away much of her money in charities and to support people, and when she died she did not have enough money for a decent grave.
She never compromised, and never surrendered to the British.
The other is the Rani (Queen) Lakshmibai, of Jhansi. She was raised, by her father, to be different. She learned to ride and to fight. When she became Queen, she was also known as a very good Queen. When her kingdom was annexed by the British, she chose to fight. And, fight she did. She lead her troops into battle. Several battles, really.
She died in battle.
When these two women were either finally ‘defeated’ or killed in battle, the final gasp of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was heard, and it died out.
It is a pity that these two remarkable women are not honoured more in India, than they are. It would appear that they were in correspondence with each other.
One Hindu, one Muslim. United by a cause, uncompromising in their ideal, betrayed by some of the men around them, who chose immediate wealth over freedom.
They are, in my opinion, two of the most remarkable women in Indian history.
In the last few years, we have seen the rise of women in India. However, we have also seen an increase in an attitude of intolerance, and rape. Our leaders – if you can call them leaders – speak of women in tones of disparagement, and this is disgusting.
Maybe, some of our leaders should learn from the example that these two women set about 160 years ago. It would augur well for the country.
The British admired these ladies more than they did some of their male contemporaries.