Begum Hazrat Mahal: An unsung revolutionary queen forgotten in Kathmandu
By: M Ahmad
On the occasion of 75th year of Independence, let me remember this Muslim woman, Begum Hazrat Mahal, who proved her strength, enthusiasm and determinism in the fight for freedom. She broke the stereotype of Muslim women in the society and participated in the India’s struggle for independence and is known for the leading role she had in the rebellion against the British East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. She was one of India’s first female freedom fighters, leading the battle in the First Indian War of Independence in 1857.
Begum Hazrat Mahal, also known as the Begum of Awadh, a prominent woman of 1857 rebellion, was born in 1820 in Faizabad of Uttar Pradesh. Her actual name was Muhammadi Khanum & her father was Gulam Hussain of Faizabad, UP. She was married to Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, as his second wife. The King gave her the title of Iftikhar-un-Nisa (the Pride of all Women) at the time of marriage. After her only child BirjisQuder was born, her husband gave her the title of “Hazrat Mahal”. Begum of Awadh, as she was commonly called, along with Rani Jhansi Lakshmi Bhai hogged the limelight in the Indian history of early freedom movements. These women were not only highly spirited, but also were courageous and fought against the British forces though the odds were against them.
Her courage and guts were rare among the women in those days in a men-dominated world. Her firm resolve to save Awadh was unprecedented and she put in as much efforts as she could recapture the kingdom from the English company by taking the role of her son’s regent. She ran the affairs of the kingdom effectively and at the same time organized a well-trained army of women under Uda Devi as its commander.
Rebellion of 1857
In the 1850’s, when the British were ruthlessly expanding their control across India, the “sepoys” of Meerut rebelled against the British East India Company. Very soon, others joined them under the banner of Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal emperor, to whom the rebels gave the title Shahenshah-e-Hind. The rebellion became a full-fledged uprising against the British, with kings, nobles, landlords, peasants, tribals, and ordinary people fighting together in the mean time they came across the province of Oudh, which was then an erstwhile seat of art, culture and literature. They eventually annexed Oudh in 1856, exiling Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta (Kolkata), thus leaving the kingdom without a leader and in a chaotic mess.
On 13 February, 1856, the British troops imprisoned Wajid Ali Shah. They sent him to Calcutta (Kolkatta) on 13 March 1856 and occupied Awadh illegitimately. This irked the people and native rulers. They revolted against the British under the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal. They taught a lesson to the British troops and wiped out their power in Lucknow. Later, Begum Hazrat Mahal declared her son BirjisKhadir as the Nawab of Awadh on 7 July, 1857.
Soon Lucknow also became vulnerable to the mutiny as the most bitterly contested constitution in the first war against the British. This was when Hazrat Mahal stood her ground, despite formal orders from Queen Victoria to officially transfer Awadh to the East India Company. Begum Hazrat Mahal not only issued a counter proclamation refusing to do so but also united the population of Awadh to launch uniform military rebellion in Awadh. “To eat pigs and drink wine, to bite greased cartridges and to mix pig’s fat with sweetmeats, to destroy temples on the pretence of making roads, to build churches, to send clergymen into the streets to preach the Christian religion, to institute English schools, and pay people a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while the places of worship of Hindus and Mussalmans are to this day entirely neglected; with all this, how can people believe that religion will not be interfered with by the British”
Her inspiring words successfully created a harmonized atmosphere and brought all sections of the society to fight the English tyrants. Her words led to the great uprising of people and the impressions of this are still drilled in the walls of The British Residency in Lucknow. Breaking gender norms and social hierarchy, the Begum proved when life gives you lemons, you squeeze them into the eyes of your enemy. She combined strengths with the revolutionary forces of the First War of Independence and her trusted band of followers, Sarafad-daulah, Maharaj Bal Krishna, Raja Jai Lal and, above all, Mammu Khan. Her associates also included Rana Beni Madho Baksh of Baiswara, Raja DrigBijai Singh of Mahona, Maulvi Ahmad Ullah Shah of Faizabad, Raja Man Singh and Raja Jailal Singh.
She was soon successful in seizing Lucknow from the British. She supported fellow mutineers like Nana Saheb immensely, counter-offered the British offers provided to great rulers like Rana Jang Bahadur of Nepal, and greatly motivated the masses to rebel against the British Raj. Such was her devotion and pledge to her people that the Begum even went on to fortify the city of Lucknow against the advancing British troops.
Hazarat Mahal ruled the state on behalf of her son, as he was yet a minor, for about ten months and challenged the British force by inspiring patriotism among the people and the fellow native rulers. She proved to be a far better ruler and leader than the Nawab himself. She was an intuitive politician with incredible military and administrative abilities. She issued a historic statement on 31 December, 1858 challenging the proclamation issued by the Queen Victoria on November 1, 1858. But, when Delhi, the prime center for the First War of Independence was captured, the British troops surrounded and attacked Lucknow in March 1859. There was a fierce battle between the Company troops and the Begum troops. Hazrat Mahal worked closely with Nana Saheb, another ruler and freedom fighter against the British forces, but later joined the Maulavi of Faizabad in the attack on Shahjahanpur. When she moved over to Nepal to escape being caught by the English company, the Prime Minister Rana Jang Bahadur, due to reprisal by the English, denied her permission. However, later gave her asylum in 1859.
It is said that Rana was given a huge amount of jewellery by the Begum and her son, in exchange for which the former had given her Thapathali palace. Subsequently, while her son BirjisQadar chose to go back to his father in Calcutta after Queen Elizabeth granted amnesty to the family on the occasion of the jubilee of Queen Victoria (1887), Begam Mahal chose to stay in Nepal and died after 30 years in 1879. Had India become a free country by then, perhaps Hazrat Mahal would have landed in Lucknow to lead her country. Unfortunately, it never happened until August, 1947.
Following Begum’s escape, the British stated that the rebels and their commanders must surrender for plotting against the Government. It was also said that those who did not murder British officials would have their deaths spared, and this applied to everyone, from Begum to the lowest rank among them. Despite the British officials’ assurances that “the Begum Hazrat Mahal will get all the considerations due to her as a lady and a member of a Royal family,” Begum Hazrat Mahal refused to surrender. They (British) also offered her huge amount of money and luxurious facilities in order to bring her back to Lucknow. But the Begum denied them and made it clear that nothing else was acceptable to her except Independent Awadh state. Begum Hazarath Mahal was struggling for the independence of her state till her last breath. She passed away at Khathmound of Nepal on 7 April, 1879.
Begum Hazrat Mahal’s tomb is located in the central part of Kathmandu near Jama Masjid and is looked after by the Jama Masjid Central Committee. After her death, at the time of the jubilee of Queen Victoria (1887), the British Government pardoned BirjisQadr and he was allowed to return home.
Her fighting qualities and and her strategic military moves came in for admiration even from the British. William Howard Russell’s much-quoted line from ”My Indian Mutiny Diary” sums up his feelings at the time – “This Begam exhibits great energy and ability. She has excited all Oudh to take up the interests of her son, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.” An 1858 edition of The Times in London made a statement praising Hazrat Mahal, “The Begum of Awadh shows greater strategic sense and courage than all her generals put together.” William Howard Russell writes in his memoir My Indian Mutiny Diary.
On 15 August 1962, Mahal was honoured at the Old Victoria Park in Hazratganj, Lucknow for her role in the Great Revolt. Along with the renaming of the park, a marble memorial was constructed, which includes a marble tablet with four round brass plaques bearing the Coat of Arms of the Awadh royal family. The park has been used for Ramlilas and bonfires during Dusshera, as well as Lucknow Mahotsava. On 10 May 1984, the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Mahal. The first day cover was designed by C.R. Pakrashi, and the cancellation was done by Alka Sharma. 15,00,000 stamps were issued. The Ministry of Minority Affairs, Government of India has started the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship for Meritorious Girls belonging to minority communities in India. This scholarship is implemented through the Maulana Azad Education Foundation.
The Begum ruled the largest area of rebel land, commanded the most significant rebel force of the war and held out the longest against the British. The demand for dignity was one of the primary things Begun Hazrat Mahal fought for, from her admirers at the court from enemies she fought against. She also mobilized other courtesans to fight on the battlefield and they equally participated in the war against the British. Many accounts recall her going from camp to camp, to raise morale through her fiery speeches and her presence in various battles. An 1858 edition of The Times in London stated, “The Begum of Awadh shows greater strategic sense and courage than all her generals put together.”
Begum Hazrat Mahal was wise beyond her years, with remarkable insight. In the days of purdah – when women would hardly have access to interactions with men – she let alone the British leadership – which stands admirable and shall be remembered for ever.
(M Ahmad is a regular writer for this newspaper and can be reached at [email protected])