Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi is a legend in the history of India, and a household name all over the country. She was the heroic lady, who fell a martyr in the battlefield, fighting the British army, in what was once dubbed by the British as the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-58), but later on known as India’s first war of Independence. Her portrait, leading the Indian soldiers in the battle field, sword in hand, galloping on her horse is imprinted in the minds of all patriots of India. The story of her life and martyrdom thrills the people of India even today.
Jhansi was a rocky kingdom under the Bundelkhand province on the south west of Kanpur, in modern Uttarpradesh. It was the colonial rule over India, the British managed to muster the overlordship of this small kingdom, and set up an army barrack there in the pretext of defending and protecting the area from possible intruders and invaders.
The Queen of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai was born Mani (Manu) Karnika in Benares in 1835 (1827?) to Moropant Balvant Tambe and Bhagirathi Bai. Tambe was one of the followers of Bajirao II, the ruler of Maratha. When Manukarnika was just four, her mother died. Right from her childhood, she made friends with Nanabhai (who later became Nana Saheb) and Tantia Tope, both of around her age.
Right from her little age, Manukarnika practiced horse riding, fencing and learned how to use guns and other weapons. It was a time when girls were not put to school, but Manu was. She grew up a brilliant and bold youngster. When the wife of Gangadhar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi died, Rao proposed and married Manukarnika and thus Manu became Queen Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. A son was born to them, but after three months the kid died and the king fell sick in sorrow and before long he too passed away. Before his death he adopted Damodar Rao, five-year old son of his brother, and declared him the successor to the throne. He also informed the British that until his son grew up, Queen Lakshmi Bai would be in charge of the administration of the kingdom.
But the British Governor General of India did not recognize the adoption and he decided to take over Jhansi, by giving an annuity to the queen. The law was that when an Indian king dies without a successor, the kingdom will accede to the British. Lakshmi bai, as the widow of the king, wrote more than one letter to the British that she be recognized as the ruler of Jhansi until such time as the adopted son matured. The queen also sent a delegation to London to argue and establish her cause. When an officer came to her with the order of the Governor General to surrender the kingdom, she declared that she would not. The people of Jhansi stood by her. But the British attached the fort and the palace. The deposed queen trained Damodar in warfare. She kept on beaming letters to the British requesting to give her the rightful justice. But they did not yield. Three more years passed by.
It was the second half of the 19th century. In various cities and towns people became restive because of the cruelty meted out to them by the British officers. In the army too the general discontent got reflected. Indian soldiers were quite unhappy and angry at the double standards adopted by the British officers. Some of the British reforms in the army wounded the Hindu feelings. On May 10, 1857 the Indian soldiers of the Bengal regiment in Meerut rose in revolt and killed all the British officers there. It did not take longer before it spread all over North India and Central India. The Indian soldiers moved to Delhi, captured the city and made Bahadur Shah II the emperor of India. It was as in a drama. Soon the revolt spread to Kanpur and Lucknow. Jhansi did not lag behind. The revolting Indian soldiers assassinated all the British in the army, and handed over the administration to the Queen. She ruled over Jhansi from June 10, 1857 to March 1858. A very large army was dispatched to Jhansi to kill the Queen and attach the Kingdom. They surrounded the fort and the palace and ordered the Queen to present herself before the commander of the British army. She refused to do so. The gateway to the palace witnessed fierce gun battle for five days. The queen led the army and killed anyone that tried to attack her and her horse. Though Tantia Tope led a pincer attack, the British were tightening their hold. The queen ran away with her closest aides. Her father was arrested and hanged. The queen did not yield. With sufficient preparations, her army took on the British. But she fell to the British sword. Tantia tope was caught and hanged. Nana Saheb too was captured and killed. And India’s first war of Independence which the British pooh-poohed as a Sepoy Mutiny came to a tragic end before the brutal and powerful British army.