Representation of women in the Dalit narrative of the Revolt of 1857 not only confronts and challenges the stereotyped casteist and patriarchal hegemony but also places them in the locus of the national struggle movement.
By Dr Neha Singh
New Delhi: While we celebrate Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, we also need to percolate deep down to the memoirs of the Revolt of 1857 — the First War of Independence. The revolt was an exemplar of the Indian tradition of valour continuing from Shalivahan to Shivaji.
This revolt was even more important as along with the local background of the revolt, the introduction of the Enfield cartridges into the military precipitated the fear of loss of the caste status. The movement did not only signify critical identity formation but also impacted the social and political positions of the caste structures.
The movement did not only signify critical identity formation but also impacted the social and political positions of the caste structures. The movement observed a connection between the seemingly disjointed realms of caste hierarchies. It challenged the caste high caste authority over movements and negotiated space for Dalits and women. Therefore, the contribution of Dalits to the Revolt of 1857 provides alternative historiography by offering converging histories by retelling pasts and translating myths into realities.
The chief features of the Dalit narratives of the Revolt of 1857 are concerned with remembering and celebrating the Dalit Viranganas. They are ascribed as heroes by protruding icons of that of engagement in armed struggles. Whether it is Jhalkari Bai of the Kori caste, Uda Devi of the Pasi caste, Avanti Bai of the Lodhi Caste or Mahabiri Devi of the Bhangi caste, all represent the symbol of bravery.
Such representation of women in the Dalit narrative of the Revolt of 1857 not only confronts and challenges the stereotyped casteist and patriarchal hegemony but also places them in the locus of the national struggle movement. The use of the suffixes to the names such as Bai and Devi emblemed the Shakti — for their possession and exposition of bravery and valour rather exploitation and submissiveness.
Such chronicles highlight how Jhalkari Bai of the Kori caste is depicted as Amar Shaheed of 1857. She was from Jhansi and was married to Puran Kori who was a soldier in the army of Raja Gangadhar Rao. Jhalkari Bai, since her childhood, was brave and was trained by her husband in archery, wrestling, shooting, horse-riding etc. She resembled Rani Lakshmi Bai and gradually became friends with her. Later, Jhalkari Bai was entrusted the responsibility of the women’s wing of the army known as Durga Dal. When the British besieged the fort of Jhansi, Jhalkari Bai urged Rani Lakshmi Bai to escape from the palace.
She disguised herself as Lakshmi Bai and led the movement from the Dantiya and Bhandari gates to Unnao gate. While fighting against the British, when she came to know about the death of her husband, she, like a wounded tigress fought and killed many Britishers. Some versions of the narrative believe that when her true identity got revealed before the British, she was shot down with many bullets while the other version of the narrative believes that she was set free and she lived till 1890.
Similarly, the narrative on Uda Devi demonstrates how despite being born in the Pasi community, which was labelled as a criminal caste under the Criminal Tributes Act, 1871 under the British administration, she associated herself with the Begum Hazrat Mahal and formed a women’s army.
She was married to Makka Pasi, who was a martyr in the Chinhat battle. To avenge her husband’s death, she attacked the British at Sikandar Bagh. She climbed a pipal tree and killed many soldiers but one of the British army soldiers spotted and killed her. Only then it was realised that she was a woman. British officers like Campbell paid tribute to her valour.
Mahabiri Devi was another such brave Dalit Virangana who belonged to the Bhangi caste. She was born in Mundbhar village of Muzaffarnagar. Despite being illiterate, she, since her childhood, opposed any form of exploitation. She made an organisation to stop women and children from engaging in dirty work and promoted a life with dignity. She became very popular. In 1857, she made a group of 22 women and attacked the British but was killed. She is seen as a source of inspiration.
These narratives on Dalit Viranganas, who are Dalit and women, provide encounters with lost histories and offer subaltern renderings. What is interesting about these narratives is that victimhood is replaced by heroism. This also provides a platform for the appropriation of respect and credibility for their participation in the Indian National Movement. The narratives form the platform of positive engendering through disconnecting from the usual stereotypes of Dalit and women.
With this backdrop on the occasion of the celebration of Azaadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, the Social Studies Foundation in collaboration with the Department of Political Science of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee College for Women and Department of Commerce and Business, University of Delhi has proposed to organise a two-day National Seminar on Marginalisation and Inclusion: Role of Marginalised Communities in India’s Struggle for Freedom on August 8 and 9 at the conference centre, University of Delhi.
This seminar will have participation of eminent personalities, ministers, policy makers, academicians, descendants of freedom fighters, research scholars and students across the country. In order to mainstream the discourse of unsung heroes from the marginalised communities in India’s struggle for freedom, youth, academicians, intellectuals, students and scholars are heartily welcomed to participate in various programmes of the seminar for two days.
(The author is an assistant professor with Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi.)