Heroines of the Independence Movement
Mark Twain famously called India the mother of history and the grandmother of legend. Yet when we talk of the Indian independence movement, which spans hundreds of years, we think of Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, and the like. We think of men. We call them the fathers of our nation and celebrate them on special commemorative days and speak of their valor and vision.
Although their celebration is well-deserved, this version of history, taught in classrooms and told in children’s storybooks, sadly paints only a fraction of the picture.
Hundreds and thousands of women: queens, courtesans, soldiers, and ordinary ladies from all over India, though largely ignored in mainstream discourse, were an instrumental part of the Indian freedom movement. Their stories are enthralling, inspiring, and the women are every bit as worthy of being eulogized. Here are the stories of just five of them:
1. Begum Hazrat Mahal
Begum Hazrat Mahal, a courtesan who later became the fourth wife of the tenth Nawab of Awadh, was the only prominent leader of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857 to never surrender to the British. When the Nawab was forced into exile to Calcutta, Hazrat Mahal came out of purdah and continued to push to regain control of the kingdom. She made her son, Prince Birjis Qadr, the ruler of Awadh, and established herself as guardian and regent. She enlisted the support of both her Hindu and Muslim people, drew battle plans, and deployed troops in revolt. Under her leadership, her troops chased the British out of Lucknow. Some records state that she attacked Lt. General James Outram, who had been stationed at Alambagh palace nine times. She repeatedly rejected calls for a peace treaty even when it came with a promise of a pension of one lakh rupees. Eventually, though, Hazrat Mahal had to find safe passage to Nepal, where she passed away.
2. Captain Lakshmi Sahgal
A young doctor drawn into the Indian Independence movement, Captain Lakshmi Sahgal spent three years in Singapore before she met Subhash Chandra Bose. Upon hearing of his intentions to set up an all-women regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj (or the Indian National Army), she requested a meeting with him that turned into a five-hour interview. She became the leader of the first all-woman regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj, called the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Five thousand women strong, and consisting of women from the Indian diaspora in Malaya, Burma, and Singapore; the regiment, according to Captain Lakshmi hadn’t accomplished much militarily, but it had a huge psychological impact on women in India at the time. Up until that point, the participation of women in the freedom fight had been scattered at best. Captain Lakshmi was later captured by the British and spent almost a year under house arrest in Burma.
3. Uda Devi and the Dalit Viranganas
Uda Devi was an associate of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of the then exiled ruler of the kingdom of Awadh. A Dalit woman, she formed her own army (known as the Dalit Viranganas or ‘heroic women’) and, attired in male dress, met the British at the historic site of Sikander Bagh in Lucknow in 1857.
The Dalit Viranganas, British officer W Gordon Alexander wrote of this army, “…fought like wild cats, and it was not till after they were killed that their sex was even suspected.”
During the battle, Uda Devi clambered up a peepul tree and shot anywhere between 32 and 36 British soldiers dead. According to historian Charu Gupta, such narratives of Dalit Viranganas abound, and “…Dalit female icons, engaged in radical armed struggles, far outnumber Dalit men in 1857.”
Her statue still stands at Sikander Bagh today.
4. Azizun Nisa
In history, there are several accounts of Azizun Nisa, a daring courtesan who was instrumental in facilitating the 1857 revolt in Kanpur. She consorted with sepoys and held meetings at her house. She was an informer and messenger and even took to the streets during the revolt on horseback among her admirers, in male attire and armed with pistols decorated with medals. Aside from this, she formed a group of women, who fearlessly went around cheering the men in arms, attending to their wounds and distributing arms and ammunition.” Beautiful and brave, she was also a morale booster and a natural leader. V.D Savarkar wrote of her: “How a delightful smile from her beautiful face encouraged fighting heroes and how a slight frown from her dark eyebrows hastily sent back to the field cowards, who had come away.”
5. Kanaklata Baruah
Many women who laid their lives for the Independence movement were tragically young. Among them was (barely) eighteen-year-old orphan Kanaklata Baruah from Assam. In 1942, when the Quit India movement was at fever pitch, she joined a group of freedom fighters called the Mrityu Bahini, a death squad. She led around 5,000 unarmed individuals (primarily students) in a march towards Gohpur Police station to hoist the Tricolour in support of the Quit India Movement. The British made it clear that should the procession advance, shots would fire, and people would be killed. Kanaklata famously retorted that they could “kill their human bodies but not their souls.”
Police at the station opened indiscriminate fire on the group, and Kanaklata Barua was shot with the Tricolour still in her hands.
Pratika Yashaswi is an independent journalist mainly covering design, lifestyle and culture. Her words have appeared in Vice, Huffington Post, Dezeen, and Seema. She’s passionate about canines and mental health and writes with a perpetually peckish golden retriever at her feet.