It is unfortunate that historians rarely include the names of unidentified soldiers who died in combat of history, despite the fact that folklore has captured the rhetoric of their heroism, though they rarely get readership.
By Drishti Kalra
New Delhi: India’s freedom movement is loaded with memories of immeasurable sacrifices. Some of the victims made such selfless sacrifices that their names were etched into the annals of time. However, there were many more who made sacrifices but whose identities were forgotten in history. There were Adivasi women have led significant combat in the freedom struggle. Jhanno Murmu and Pholo of Jharkhand, Kuyili of Sivagangai South India, Uday Devi of Lucknow, and Jhalkari Bai of Jhansi.
The history of the Indian independence movement would be insufficient without recognizing the participation of Dalit and Adivasi women. The sacrifices made by the aforementioned Dalit and Adivasi women were significant. They battled with strong vigour and unshakable bravery as well as underwent numerous tortures, abuses and sufferings to achieve our independence.
Let us return to how these Adivasi Dalit women rose from their communities to confront overwhelming British imperial power. Approximately in 1780, Kuyili Commander-in-Chief of Velu Nachiyar, Sivagangai, at a site near Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, launched a ferocious war opposing British control. Kuyili sacrificed herself as the Commanding officer of Velu Nachiyar to rescue her native land of Shivagangai. Kuyili admirers remember her as ‘Veerthalapathi’ (The Courageous General) or ‘Veermangai’ (Valiant Woman). She was born in an underprivileged caste household of Arunthathiyar. In her early stages, her father, who served as a secret agent of the queen, encouraged her eventually to become Velu Nachiyar’s companion. She repeatedly protected the princess’s life, which led to her appointment as her escort and eventually as the commanding general of the women’s force. Kuyili courageously commanded her soldiers and fooled British officers by concealing her weaponry to infiltrate the Sivagangai fort and confront her tyrants. The British troops were unable to comprehend this tactic, and Kuyili was successful in executing her intentions to cripple the British army’s arsenal. However, saturated in oil, she ultimately lit herself on fire and sacrifices her life in the process. The Tamil Nadu administration has managed to erect a monument for Kuyali in Sivaganga district. Kuyali is thought to be the very first suicide attacker in Indian antiquity.
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It is vital to highlight Jhalkari Bai during this episode. One of Rani Lakshmibai’s most valued friends and counsellors, Jhalkari Bai, was a Dalit fighter from the Kori tribe who served a major part in the First War of Independence in 1857 and fought against the colonial authorities. It is significant to note that Laxmibai and this Dalit warrior, who served as the queen’s confidant and counsellor, were instrumental in planning the battle’s tactics and strategy. She was born on November 22, 1830, into a modest family in a district close to Jhansi. Belonging to an underprivileged caste and enduring a life of destitution, Jhalkari Bai was forbidden to receive formal education. Nevertheless, she gained several other talents such as weaponry and horse riding. Numerous folk tales regarding her abilities to battle dacoits and wild animals are regularly heard in her native community from a relatively very young point. Intrigued by her talents, the Rani of Jhansi enlisted her into the women’s division of the military, where Jhalkaribai was taught to discharge and fire artillery to wage a battle against British control. Due to Jhalkari’s striking resemblance to Lakshmibai, she disguised herself as a queen and led soldiers on the battlefield during the uprising. Even though she was well aware of the risks associated with war, she did not change her mind and headed right to the opposing camp. She assumed the Queen’s identity and battled in the front lines for the Queen’s defence, enabling the Queen to leave the fort safely.
Uda Devi was born in a remote village in Awadh, present-day Uttar Pradesh. She belongs to a caste named the pasi caste. A Dalit liberation fighter, Uda Devi and her valiant Dalit sister or Veerangini (soldiers) battled courageously against the East India Company during the insurrection of 1857 against the British authority. The British East India Company was known for exploiting indigenous resources. Uda Devi sought Begum Hazrat Mahal by enlisting her as a warrior & forming a women’s army under her leadership that she also got married to Makka Pasi who was a soldier in the military of Hazrat Mahal. Realizing the increasing resentment of the Indians against the British authority, she sought Begum Hazrat Mahal to be recruited for the battle.
In 1857 a furious insurrection against the expanding authority of the British East India Company captured the provinces like Delhi, Jhansi and Kanpur. In Lucknow, British Residency located on the margins of the Gomti River, with its commander Camp, was encircled by rebels. Due to a shortage of proper supplies, British troops and commanders were at the edge of their deaths. However, in November, General Colin Campbell seized the leadership of the rebels, burst through, and finally liberated the besieged garrison and several others. During this progression, Campbell’s 93rd Highlands Regiment moved down the Gomti’s southern shore until they arrived at Sikanderbagh’s palace. British forces received opposition from the insurgents. After the British occupied Sikanderbagh, an officer reported that many of the British troops had sniper wounds, suggesting a rapid downhill trajectory. Suspecting that a marksman was lurking in a nearby peepal tree, British officers shot at the tree and toppled a rebel who fell to the ground and died. Further inquiry showed that the rebel was really a non-dominating caste woman named Uda Devi, who dressed in men’s attire to take part in the uprising. Today, Uda Devi serves as an inspiration for women from the non-dominant strata. Every year on November 16, members of the Pasi caste come together to see her sacrifice and honor her as an anti-imperialist rebel who shook the fledgling cause of Indian independence by defying the convention. They gather from all around to do reverence to the picture of Uda Devi. To take part in the event, women travel a considerable distance from several isolated settlements. Traditionally Pasi is a caste of pig herders and toddy cutters, Uda Devi Martyrdom Day honours the courage and fighting spirit of their ancestors. And it is the day to shout joyful chants, Uda DeviAmar Rahe! (Uda Devi is everlasting!) and Uda Devi Zindabad! (Uda Devi is still alive!) Its more than a century since she was martyred. Nevertheless, the legacy of Uda Devi’s sacrifice is maintained alive by Dalit societies, who respect her as a symbol of strong Dalit femininity
Taking into account the tremendous influence of Adivasi women’s involvement in the independence fight, one such contribution has to be mentioned here is of Phoolo and Jhanno Murmu were recognised as great revolutionary warriors. Phullo and Jhano were members of the Murmu clan of the Santhal tribe in present-day Jharkhand. They were just as radical as their masculine equivalents. Their brothers, namely Sido, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav, were given birth to the Santhal revolt in 1855. Phulo and Jhano were sisters to Sido and Kanho. They demonstrated strong engagement in this armed insurrection, Once even arrested by the British army. According to a few researchers, Phullo and Jhano murdered 21 troops while escaping the enemy camp underneath the cover of night while wielding their axes. Their gallant gesture influenced the morale of rebel comrades. Like Pholo and Jhano Murmu many more tribal women fought in fight against invaders. They all together constitute a collection of tribal heroines who, together with males, battled jointly against the British tyranny and end up by sacrificing their lives. The history of both India and Jharkhand would be incomplete without referring to the revolutionary impact of these rebel women.
It is unfortunate that historians rarely include the names of unidentified soldiers who died in combat of history, despite the fact that folklore has captured the rhetoric of their heroism, though they rarely get readership. Unprecedented numbers of common people gave their lives in the Indian independence movement, but they were hardly mentioned in the discourse, probably because they came from socially underprivileged excluded groups. There is a paucity of historical awareness and consciousness at the grassroots level. People of various castes are in quest of their own heroes. Unfortunately, the nationalist heroes have fallen within the jurisdiction of caste heroics today. For example, members of the Koli caste commemorate the martyrdom day of Jhalkari Devi, whereas those of the Pasi caste meet in the martyrdom of Uda Devi. This jat-karma of the great sacrifices of the national cause narrated the tale of the contemporary political and social collapse of the country. Is it not essential that we honor our national heroes by putting caste aside?
(Drishti Kalra is research scholar in the Department of History, Delhi University and content developer for SOL, DU)