Excerpted from the book The Queen's Last Salute: The story of the Rani of Jhansee and the 1857 mutiny, written by Moupia Basu and published by Juggernaut in January 2019
The people of Jhansee [Jhansi] loved Maharani Lakshmibai and the few liberties she took even as a widow were either ignored or forgiven by everyone. She would walk into the durbar brisk and confident, flashing her sunny smile. She was neither shy nor diffident. In her bid to take on the guardianship of the state of Jhansee, she had cast away the stereotypical notions of her gender. But Chandraki was not too happy about it. She was now a familiar figure beside the queen. The queen often shared her worries and problems with her. Chandraki was always around if Lakshmibai needed something to be done, be it running errands, carrying messages, or looking after the prince while the queen addressed matters of the court. She often helped the queen dress up for special events, and on those occasions, Chandraki would insist that Lakshmibai dress more as a queen and less as a widow.
‘You have not worn this for a long time, Your Majesty! Wear it today. Let your firanghee guest know how beautiful you are,’ Chandraki said as she handed the queen a nose ring studded with pearls and rubies and a singular emerald that hung like a teardrop.
‘I can’t wear this, Chandraki! Only women whose husbands are alive can wear it.’
Chandraki frowned as she kept the ring back in its box. ‘Why not? Is it your fault that the Maharaj died? If you died before him, would he have stopped wearing colourful clothes or jewellery?’
Lakshmibai smiled. ‘I haven’t invented these customs. Who am I to question them? But I didn’t shave my head, did I? Nor do I wear white clothes all the time,’ she pointed out to Chandraki.
‘Your clothes are hardly colourful. You dress like a man and when you dress like a queen, you wear only white saris. Here is your white sari,’ Chandraki said angrily as she shoved a white piece of clothing made from very fine muslin into the queen’s hands. Lakshmibai took it from her and kept it away.
‘Won’t you wear your favourite white sari?’ Chandraki mocked.
‘Not now,’ the queen replied, ignoring the sarcasm. ‘There are some military matters that need immediate attention. I will change into the sari when I meet Major Malcolm in the afternoon.’
Lakshmibai strode into the courtroom purposefully, sporting pyjamas, a jacket, her long hair gathered up and covered by a turban, her bejewelled sword dangling by her side. She did not wear any jewels other than a pearl necklace, a diamond ring and diamond bangles around her wrists.
‘Kaale Khan, I would like to inspect the armoury tomorrow. Have you drawn up the list for the new rifles that we require?’ she asked her commander-in-chief as she sat on the throne.
‘Yes, Your Highness. Also, the new consignment for the Beaumont Adams Revolver arrived last evening.’
‘Good! I will also visit the stables tomorrow. Nana Sahib has sent two thoroughbreds. I want to take a look at them,’ the queen announced. Then turning to Chandraki, she asked, ‘What news of the traders, Chandraki? Any more requisitions being made in the name of the firanghee officers?’
‘Your Majesty, Lallan Powar, who owns a shop on the eastern side of the city was approached by the thanedar to supply wood to the two regiments that passed through Jhansee in the last few days. The neighbouring shop has been asked to supply weapons to the British troops.’ Chandraki drew in her breath sharply.
‘Your Highness, the firanghees are fully aware that these vendors are not being paid. Even if some senior officers do pass orders for the payment to be made, the underlings don’t hand over the money and pocket it themselves. I spoke to the vendors myself. In disguise, of course.’ She smiled, eyes sparkling.
‘Good girl, but be careful,’ Maharani Lakshmibai warned. ‘Send a note to Lieutenant Governor Colvin that I want to meet him at the earliest,’ the queen said.
Major Colvin hated these meetings with the queen. She always made him feel that he was inefficient and incompetent even if the matter at hand wasn’t his fault. He squirmed under the fiery gaze of Maharani Lakshmibai.
‘Why are your officers paid so little? The tehsildar gets just 250 rupees a month, but he’s expected to maintain a lavish lifestyle as per his position. And the thanedar gets only fifteen to twenty rupees as salary? No wonder they resort to these practices,’ Lakshmibai said.
‘That’s not in my jurisdiction, Your Majesty,’ Major Colvin replied somewhat brusquely. ‘All this is decided by those sitting in Fort William!’
‘But it’s my people who are suffering,’ she said. There was silence for some time. Major Colvin shifted nervously. He could feel Lakshmibai’s piercing gaze on him.
‘Since you have been most inefficient in resolving this problem either on purpose or because you’ve been incompetent, I’m forced to write Lord Hamilton a letter to acquaint him with the situation and the financial losses being faced by my subjects.’
Colvin sighed. He knew the letter would further reinforce Hamilton’s belief in his incompetence as an officer, and his days here were numbered. But there was little he could do. In any case, the earlier he left this place, the better it would be for him.
With Riyaz Khan gone, Lakshmibai knew Jhansee had lost one of its best officers. He was capable of executing any task with a force of intent that was most extraordinary. Following Chandraki’s tip-off the year before, Riyaz Khan on the king’s orders had successfully and ruthlessly put an end to the exploitation of Jhansee’s small-time traders and vendors at the hands of the officers of the Company. Most of the officers had been severely reprimanded while Jagat Singh and Sarmad Shah had been removed from office. Even the British officers who had supervised this process had not been spared.
Lakshmibai felt Riyaz Khan’s absence all the time. Sadly, there was no one to fill his place. But, not one to sit and cry over her loss, she took over the governance of the state with much gusto. It was evident that the British officers who were directly associated with her were impressed by her confidence as well as her diplomatic skills. Major DA Malcolm, the political agent in Gwalior for Rewah and Bundelkhand, forwarded her case to Fort William, the headquarters of the East India Company.
‘Maharani Lakshmibai is highly respected and is fully capable of assuming the reins of Jhansee. She has single-handedly stemmed the wave of corruption that had swept across the kingdom and restored to her people what was their right,’ he wrote in his letter to Lord Dalhousie. But Malcolm’s pleas fell on deaf ears. It seemed that Fort William had made up its mind.
Lakshmibai would attend to the matters of the court regularly and stay up late in the night working out various arguments to support her pleas.
‘According to Dalhousie sahib, since Jhansee was once a peshwa stronghold, with the British having taken over the Maratha empire, the Company Sarkar holds supremacy over it,’ she said as she held up a letter in her hand in front of her council of ministers. Suddenly she rose from her seat and started pacing up and down the room. Her ministers looked at each other.
‘On one hand, Major Malcolm says he thinks I’m capable of ruling the state and has spoken to the Company Sarkar in Calcutta. But he is insisting that we keep a regiment of the Native Infantry and Irregular Cavalry stationed here. He’s scared that the zamindars may take advantage of a king’s absence,’ she said, addressing her council.
‘Why? Damodar Rao is the king of Jhansee, isn’t he?’ quipped one of her ministers. ‘Agreed, he is a minor, but you are the ruler until he grows up. Maharaj Gangadhar made that very clear.’
Lakshmibai shook her head. ‘That argument is not being accepted by Fort William. Dalhousie says that Damodar Rao is not the biological son of Maharaj!’ She clapped her hands. A dasi walked in. Lakshmibai turned to her and said, ‘I want to see Mr Lang immediately!’ her face set in a firm expression.
‘Who is Mr Lang?’ one of her ministers asked.
‘He’s my solicitor.’ She grinned.
Lord Dalhousie’s reply arrived a few weeks later, turning down Lakshmibai’s appeal. He argued that Jhansee was a British creation and could be disposed of by British authority.
‘He has cited Sir Charles Metcalfe’s ruling in 1837 which says that adoptions are recognised as “regular” if made by ancient hereditary kingdoms of India, but they will be considered “irregular” if the state exists under a paramount power, which in this case, he says, is the East India Company!’ the queen said, her eyes flashing with fury.
‘So what do you propose to do you’re your Majesty?’ ‘The firanghees think they will quote some obscure ruling made decades ago and use it against me? I will quote several more such obscure rulings and treaties and throw it at them. I’m not going to give in,’ she said emphatically.
The missives went to and fro between Maharani Lakshmibai and Lord Dalhousie for several months. During this time, the queen continued to sit on the throne with aplomb even as she pushed her appeal with a continuous volley of arguments through a string of letters to Fort William.
One morning, in early February 1854, Chandraki went looking for Rani Lakshmibai when she failed to appear in court. Chandraki had decided that it was now time that she told Queen Lakshmibai about Jaywant, who was pushing her to take him to the palace and make him meet the queen. Though she did not want to leave Jhansee, Chandraki could no longer bear to be away from him. She was willing to follow him wherever he went.
But the moment she entered the queen’s chamber, she gave up the idea of talking about Jaywant. She found the queen in a rage, pacing back and forth in her room frantically, holding yet another letter in her hand.
‘Look at this! Just look at what Dalhousie is saying. He quotes his predecessors, Lord Auckland and Lord Ellenborough, saying that Maharaj Gangadhar Rao, when entrusted with the kingdom by the British, “ruled it for eleven years, neither very wisely nor very well”! Can you imagine? He is saying that under the Maharaj’s rule, Jhansee had been misgoverned, revenues had declined and order was not being maintained. Can you believe this?’ She thrust the letter into Chandraki’s hands.
‘It’s a pity you can’t read what is in that letter. I’ll tell you,’ she said, raising her voice and flailing her arms. ‘He further says that Jhansee’s incorporation within the British territory would greatly benefit the people of the state as it had in the past. And . . . that the construction of roads and railroads in India was was one proof of the benefits of civilisation,’ she stammered, voice trembling with anger. ‘Does he mean we were uncivilised before these firanghees came? Were we savages?’ She banged her fists in anger on the various pieces of furniture she passed as she marched up and down her room.
‘I know what the problem is. Dalhousie doesn’t like female rulers. Ellis told me that he’s old-fashioned and a woman sitting on the throne doesn’t agree with his notions of how a woman is supposed to live her life. I’m going to change his way of thinking, just you wait!’
She sat down to draft a letter to Dalhousie, citing examples of how loyal the kings of Jhansee had been to the Company Sarkar, and how equally loyal their representatives had been. She described Jhansee as ‘a powerless native state’, dependent on the protection of the British.
‘My late husband devoted his attention to the arts of peace, not to keeping up even the semblance of a warlike state,’ she wrote.
Lakshmibai stopped and thought for some time. Then she picked up her quill once more and wrote deliberately and carefully. Once she finished, she summoned an attendant. ‘I want this to be sent to Lord Dalhousie immediately!’
Dalhousie read the letter he had just received and laughed loudly once he finished reading it.
‘Queen Lakshmibai is one smart woman. Look what she writes,’ he said to the men who were sitting around him in his office in the East India Company headquarters in Fort William. ‘Can you believe it? She says, ‘Helpless and prostrate, I once more entreat Your Lordship to grant me a hearing . . . ’ Dalhousie read her words aloud. ‘Helpless and prostrate? Maharani Lakshmibai? Now that her arguments hold no steam with me, she is using the tool of the helpless widow! This is not going to work, my dear queen,’ snorted Dalhousie.
His rejection of her plea came as a slap to Lakshmibai. Chandraki watched her day and night as she engaged in these exchanges with Fort William.
‘Why don’t you let them know how much the people of Jhansee loved the Maharaj? Let Mr Dalhousie know, Maharani, how much your subjects love you. If they want you as their ruler, how can he deny them their wish?’
Lakshmibai thought over this. In her next letter she wrote, ‘The people of Jhansee were content under the rule of the late Raja as well as of their queen who writes to you. They are doing as well as those under British rule. Good roads, tanks and bridges had been constructed and spacious bungalows were erected for the accommodation and comfort of travellers passing through the territory. Moreover, a large mansion had been provided rent-free to officials of the Governor General and Jhansee maintained an efficient police force. Under this good government, the people had no complaints nor did they wish to be transferred to the East India Company.’
The British officers were impressed with the way Lakshmibai carefully drafted each letter.
‘I must grant it to her that she has all the makings of a lawyer. Such clear and precise arguments!’ Malcolm told Lord Robert Hamilton.
Hamilton, the Governor General’s agent for central India, had a soft corner for this young queen who looked up to him as a father figure. He admired the way Lakshmibai’s tone changed with each letter – argumentative, angry, pensive, meditative, logical, precise, methodical, unambiguous and even pleading at times.
‘She’s hell-bent on getting her Jhansee back. She loves her people, and she knows they will be the happiest under her rule. For that, whether she has to stoop or raise the sword, she will not dither,’ he remarked.
‘Her people adore her. I’m always scared she may take some step that will trigger resentment in her subjects towards us,’ Ellis observed.
Lakshmibai wrote her next letter in consultation with Barrister Lang. ‘I want all the following treaties to be documented. Don’t miss a single one – 1804, 1817 and 1832,’ she instructed her solicitor. ‘I want them to see that they are dishonouring their own decrees.’
‘If the government wanted to bring the state of Jhansee under its rule, it should have followed the course of negotiation and agreement rather than the exercise of the power, without the right, of the great and strong against the weak and small. The gross violation and negation of the Treaties of the Government of India . . . if persisted in they must involve gross violation and negation of British faith and honour,’ she wrote.
Finally, she alluded to her own distress at the deprivation of her ‘authority, rank and affluence’ and how she had been reduced to a state of ‘subjection, dishonour and poverty’. Lakshmibai pointed out that for four months she had ably conducted the affairs of state in Jhansee.
She told Lang that the government order came to resume the state and seize the property and treasury of Jhansee.
‘Though I have already demonstrated my capacity to continue being in charge of state affairs, the government has ignored my competence to rule,’ she stated in her letter.
Maharani Lakshmibai’s tone by now was insistent and assertive, but Dalhousie did not budge from his decision.
‘I will fight this lapse. I will fight it tooth and nail. I will not hand over my Jhansee to the firanghees. It is a matter that concerns the well -being of my subjects. Please send out the message that I want to address my people,’ Lakshmibai told her ministers resolutely.
Within the next hour Rani Lakshmibai appeared before her subjects.
‘The Company Sarkar says that Jhansee belongs to the British.’ Her high-pitched voice sliced through the evening air as she spoke to her people from the ramparts of the fort. ‘They have even refused me His Majesty’s inheritance. In its place, they have offered me a pension of Rs 5,000 per month from which the state debts will be deducted. But I promise you, my people, you who were much beloved of my late husband, that I will continue to be your queen and fight for our kingdom till my last breath. Main apni Jhansee nahi doongi,’ she bellowed.
Cries of ‘Maharani Lakshmibai ki jai’ erupted in chorus through the multitudes of people who had gathered to listen to their queen.
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Updated Date: Jan 24, 2019 10:16:58 IST