ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reluctant Yet Courageous Rebel

The contention that neo-religious selfassertion is not defined by society is surprising. The introduction to the photographs makes an unnecessary point about Kerala women not covering their heads and bodies unlike other parts of the country.

BOOK REVIEW

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Reluctant Yet Courageous Rebel

Pramod K Nayar

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that, at this point, the rani was “not part of any devious scheme or plot”(46). Indeed, through and after the massacre she had locked herself up in the palace in fear (49). But the British suspected that the rani was

T
he problem with historical figures is that over a period of time fact mixes with myth and the figure a cquires an aura that is a later attribute – perhaps even a wish-fulfilment, a dreamprojection – on the part of later enthusiasts. This has happened with numerous figures of the 1857 “mutiny” like Mangal Pandey, Nana Saheb and Rani Lakshmibai. Rainer Jerosch seeks to explore the aura around the rani of Jhansi, the warriorqueen who proved to be such a massive obstacle to the British in north India.

Jerosch opens with a standard account of the first moments of the “mutiny” and paints a harsh portrait of the confusion among the British. He then proceeds to provide a chronological account of the events in the Meerut, Delhi, Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Jhansi regions. Jerosch then begins his main work: studying the rani. A biographical account of her early life based on multiple and at times unreliable sources – Jerosch admits that stories of the rani’s childhood

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
March 7, 2009

The Rani of Jhansi: Rebel Against Will by Rainer Jerosch (New Delhi: Aakar), 2008; pp 289, Rs 295.

friendship with Tantya Tope and Nana S aheb is “probably the stuff of legends”

(19) – follows in a chapter provocatively t itled “The Evil Seed”. Jerosch is careful to underscore the fact that the rani’s behaviour with the British did not indicate any animosity. Indeed, he cites reports by British administrators and travellers that while she did plead for privileges for Jhansi, she was always courteous and pleasant. Jerosch argues, quite correctly, that the British attitude and b ehaviour towards the Jhansi state was “less than glorious”(36).

It was the massacre of John Skene and the British in Jhansi starting 6 June 1857 which proved a turning point in the relationship between the rani and the British government. Jerosch notes that the rani had offered the beleaguered British her soldiers, but her offer had been refused because the British did not trust her. Jerosch is certain

vol xliv no 10

involved and this proved to be the energising myth that caused the British to turn on Jhansi and its queen.

Was the rani truly a conspirator in the massacre? Jerosch thinks not. At this early point in the revolt, Jerosch rightly argues, the rani was “neither a sinister conspirator nor an ardent freedom fighter” (61), though she did hold a grudge against the British. In fact, the rani was hoping to keep the British on her side since she was besieged by her own soldiery and her neighbouring states. Numerous letters – such as the 12 June 1857 letter to W C Erskine, the commissioner of Sagar district – exist where the rani pleads for help from the British. Her soldiers, though, were keen to join the “mutineers”. But there was no attempt to make her the leader of the rebels, which was the case with Nana Saheb in Kanpur. This indicates that the rani-as-a-leader was a later development in the course of the “mutiny”. J erosch points out that the rani may have joined the rebels for two reasons; one, that she may have been swayed by the emotions

BOOK REVIEW

arising out of the “rebellion” and two, for her own safety when the soldiers demanded that Jhansi take part in the struggle. Rani Lakshmibai was astute enough to see that she could not survive unless she joined the rebels – and she did.

Jerosch provides a detailed account of the siege of Jhansi, the role of Hugh Rose and the battles. Places, events and dates are all carefully mapped for the reader. Jerosch also notes the tactics of Tantya Tope which, he believes, were calculated to “harass and pester the British without caring all too much whether he (Tope) emerged as the ultimate victor” (188). These insights into the various levels of the events of 1857 are useful and c ommend able because it takes Jerosch’s work beyond a mere dry recital of “facts”(most of which are anyway open to interpretation).

The event most prominently associated with the rani is that of her escape from Jhansi, her son strapped to her back. She is believed to have jumped her horse from the fort and made her escape. Jerosch indicates that this was the stuff of legend because “no horse, not to mention any mortal, would ever have survived” the jump down the steep western walls and cliff (204). The rani’s father, Moropant Tambe was captured and executed.

Jerosch notes that by now the rani had discovered her lost cause: battling the British. When Rao Sahib was engaged in revelries following his victory over the pro-British Scindia, the rani chastised him, arguing that the British would r eturn. By then Hugh Rose had massed his troops for another attack. On the plains outside Morar the rani met Rose’s troops. According to one account, in this battle she was shot and killed by a hussar. The telegram to the governor general merely read: “The Rani of Jhansi was killed”.

Jerosch’s book makes out a case for a reluctant leader in Lakshmibai. That she was forced to join the rebels is beyond dispute. But it is also probably correct that once she had joined them Lakshmibai discovered that she could not turn back. Having reached this understanding, she gave up her life as queen and became a popular leader. From British accounts (and there are many) it comes out that she was a great and fearless leader of her forces, a lways fighting at the head of the troops, something which may have prevented her from escaping at Morar and saving her life. Her courage and charisma are not disputed, even if an assessment of her as a “rebel” – a reluctant one – is open to interpretation. Jerosch’s book, despite the uneasy style, is full of information drawing upon multiple sources. The overall claim that Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, was a reluctant rebel might not be in keeping with popular myth-making around the queen, but is a credible one.

Email: pramodnayar@yahoo.co.uk

March 7, 2009 vol xliv no 10

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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