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Rani of Jhansi, the Rebel Queen

The true story of a brave young girl who believed freedom was her birthright.

Today, on November 19, 2021, we celebrate the birthday of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi. An icon of bravery and courage, she became one of the leading figures of the first War of Indian Independence in 1857. This war began the Indian Independence Movement, which lasted 90 years and finally put the British rule in India to an end in 1947.

This story takes place in the mid-19th century, when what became the modern nation of India was dotted with hundreds of princely states, many of which were under British rule.

On November 19, 1828 in Varanasi, a city in northeast India on the banks of the river Ganges was born Manikarnika, called "Manu" by her family. She was born to a high-caste prominent Brahmin family, and was brought up in the household of the local ruler.

She received an unusual education for a girl in India’s patriarchal society: while most girls were being trained to deal with domestic responsibilities and to be good wives, Manu grew up with the boys at court, where she was taught to read and write, train in martial arts, and become proficient in sword fighting and riding.

At the age of 14, Manu is married to Maharaja Gangadhar Rao, the 45-year-old Prince of Jhansi, a small state in northern India. Following the local custom of women receiving a new name after marriage, she takes on the name of Rani (Queen) Laxmibai, in honour of the Hindu goddess of Prosperity, Lakshmi.

At age 23, she gives birth to a small boy, who unfortunately dies four months later. Soon after, her husband the Maharaja falls seriously ill. Feeling his end draw near and anxious for an heir to succeed him on the throne of Jhansi, he adopts a son: his 5-year-old cousin Damodar.

Gangadhar Rao dies on the following day, leaving Rani Laxmibai to rule the kingdom as regent for young Damodar.

With the ongoing British colonisation of India, India’s British governor general has been annexing many Indian states. He now sees an opportunity to seize Jhansi by taking advantage of the Maharaja's death. He sends notice to Rani Laxmibai, rejecting her son Damodar's claim to the throne because he is not the biological son of the previous ruler.

Jhansi is taken over by the British. Laxmibai is paid a pension and ordered to leave the fort. Furious, she refuses and exclaims: “Meri Jhansi nahin dungee!”“I will not surrender my Jhansi!” — a Hindi phrase that to this day is etched into India’s memory, stirring up feelings of pride and patriotism.

Meanwhile, rebellion brews beyond Jhansi’s borders. Indians feel crushed under the regime of the British, who impose their social and Christian practices, and ban Indian customs. For instance, all Indian recruits are required to go overseas if ordered, an act that would cause a Hindu to lose caste and result in social excommunication. Violence starts spreading through North and Central India.

Spring 1857: the first War of Indian Independence begins. Rebellion against the British spreads from town to town and reaches Jhansi, where Indian soldiers mutiny and massacre several British officers, along with their wives and children.

Joining the uprising against the British, 29-year-old Laxmibai takes charge of the rebels in the region and assembles an army, enlisting both men and women. Mutineers in the neighbouring areas head toward Jhansi to offer her support.

For the next six months, as the British are busy battling rebels elsewhere, Jhansi is left at peace under the Rani's rule.

Laxmibai is an unconventional queen, wearing a turban — an accessory more common among men — and training women to ride and fight. She is also compassionate, attending to the poor regardless of their caste. She was an excellent administrator and the people of Jhansi loved their spirited queen.

But the British believe that she was responsible for the mutiny and the massacre — they accuse her of conspiring with the rebels to seek revenge for their refusal to recognize her son's claim to the throne.

1858: nine months after the Jhansi mutiny which had cost dozens of British lives, British troops lay siege to Jhansi. The commander of the British forces demands the surrender of the city — if this is refused the town will be destroyed and the Rani of Jhansi executed.

After due deliberation, Laxmibai issues a proclamation: "We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, if we are victorious we will enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation."

The British attack. The Rani of Jhansi goes to war with everything she has. She leads from the front, dressed in combat clothes and armed with a sword and shield. While soldiers fire their guns, women care for the wounded and rush to repair walls hit by enemy cannon balls. When ammunition runs out, they hurl stones and logs at the enemy below.

Eventually the British place their cannons in front of one of Jhansi's temples, so the defenders cannot fire back without destroying their places of worship. A few days later, the British breach the walls and storm the fortress. Women take up arms alongside their men, fighting for their lives.

“Street fighting was going on in every quarter,” the British army’s field surgeon writes in his memoir, years later. “Heaps of dead lay all along the rampart and in the streets below. Those who could not escape threw their women and babies down wells and then jumped down themselves.”

As the town burns, Rani Laxmibai lashes her 10-year-old son to her back and jumps off the fort wall on her horse, escaping into the night. Her closest friend disguises herself as the queen to distract the British, buying her time to get away.

The British sack Jhansi for the next three days, turning it into a graveyard. An estimated 5,000 people died — the majority of the population — and no quarter was given, not even to women and children.

Left with no other options, the Rani of Jhansi decides to join the rebel forces and begins training an army in the nearby state of Gwalior.

A month later, the British troops, close on her heels, attack Gwalior on a scorching summer morning. Rani Laxmibai, Queen of Jhansi, dressed as a cavalry soldier, bravely leads what remains of her contingent into battle. Even her maids, wearing men's uniform, take to the battlefield.

Sword in hand, she fights fiercely but is shot from her horse. As she sits bleeding by the roadside, she recognises the soldier who has wounded her and fires at him with a pistol, whereupon he "dispatched the young lady with his carbine." She was 30 years old.

“The Indian Mutiny produced but one man,” the leader of the British troops reportedly said when fighting ended, “and that man was a woman. The Rani was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness, and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders. Although she was a lady," he wrote, “she was the bravest and best military leader of the rebels."

Today, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi has been immortalized in India. Streets, colleges and universities are named after her. Statues of her on horseback, with her son tied to her back, have been erected in many cities. And, almost a century after her death, the Indian National Army formed an all-female unit that aided the country in its battle for independence in the 1940s.

It was called the Rani of Jhansi regiment.

— Rani of Jhansi, the Rebel Queen —

retold in French by Saraswati

WELCOME TO INDIA event, celebrating 75 years of Indian lndependence, filmed on november 13, 2021 at Espace Lumin&Sens — under the patronage of the embassy of India in France, presented by association Saptak India and Welcome to Yoga.

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