Brave Bahujan women of 1857

These writings invoke political and public Bahujan memories, where women like Jhalkaribai of the Kori caste; Uda Devi, a Pasi; Avanti Bai, a Lodhi; Mahabiri Devi, a Bhangi; and Asha Devi, a Gurjar, all stated to be involved in the 1857 revolt, have become the symbols of bravery of particular Bahujan castes and ultimately of all Bahujans

A chief feature of the popular Bahujan histories of 1857 is the way Bahujan women are represented in them. Here, myths about Bahujan viranganas (heroic women) are being reinvented as a potent symbol for identity formation and as a critical part of a movement to define political and social positioning of Bahujans. Narratives of Bahujan viranganas abound. These women are ascribed particularly heroic roles. In fact, Bahujan female icons, engaged in radical armed struggles in 1857, far outnumber their male counterparts. These writings invoke political and public Bahujan memories, where women like Jhalkaribai of the Kori caste; Uda Devi, a Pasi; Avanti Bai, a Lodhi; Mahabiri Devi, a Bhangi; and Asha Devi, a Gurjar, all stated to be involved in the 1857 revolt, have become the symbols of bravery of particular Bahujan castes and ultimately of all Bahujans.

In India, there have been a number of studies concerned with the representations of high-caste, middle-class women, particularly of the colonial period. While significant in their own right, there is an implicit implication in these works that since Bahujan women fall within the category of “women”, their representation need not be singled out for a separate study. Thus, feminist scholarly examination of the portrayal of Bahujan women of the colonial period has remained negligible and on the fringes. Bahujan literature on 1857 provides us a significant moment to examine alternative representations of Bahujan women. It can be an important source of insight into gender politics from a Bahujan perspective and a site of struggle over meanings. While highlighting the centrality of these Bahujan viranganas in the symbolic constitution of Bahujan identity, this literature simultaneously reveals a world turned upside down, challenging textual, academic and historical narratives of 1857. It further shows how resistance to dominant discourses about Bahujan women has been coded and lived by various groups within Bahujan communities at different historical moments. Bahujan viranganas here are not only visible, but conspicuous and central characters, and objects of attention and adulation.

Thus, for example, to take the case of Jhalkaribai, there has been a proliferation of popular Hindi tracts and cultural invocations on her, including comics, poems, plays, novels, biographies, nautankis, and even magazines and organizations in her name.Various Bahujan magazines have published articles on her. Similarly, on Uda Devi, there are poems, plays and stories and these have been recited, performed and read on different occasions.

The various narratives go something like this. Jhalkaribai is depicted as an amar shaheed (immortal martyr) of 1857, belonging to the Kori caste. She hailed from Jhansi. Her husband Puran Kori was an ordinary soldier in the kingdom of Raja Gangadhar Rao. Jhalkaribai is depicted as an ideal woman, occasionally helping her husband in his traditional occupation of cloth weaving, and also sometimes accompanying him to the royal palace. As a child, it is said, she was brave, and then she got training from her husband in archery, wrestling, horse-riding and shooting. Her face and body structure is said to have resembled Lakshmibai exactly. Slowly, Jhalkaribai and Lakshmibai became friends. Jhalkari was entrusted with the charge of leading the women’s wing of the army, known as the Durga Dal. When the 1857 revolt began, the rulers were mostly interested in just saving their thrones; it was not a freedom struggle for them. It was Bahujans who made it a freedom struggle. When the British besieged the fort of Jhansi, Jhalkaribai fought fiercely. She urged Rani Lakshmibai to escape from the palace and herself took on the guise of the Rani and led the army from Dantiya gate and Bhandari gate to Unnao gate. Her husband died while fighting the British and when Jhalkaribai learnt of this, she became a “wounded tigress”. She killed many British soldiers and managed to hoodwink them for a long time, before they discovered her true identity. According to some versions, suddenly many bullets hit her, and she died. Some say that she was set free, lived till 1890 and became a legend in her time.

Official accounts mention women fighters
Uda Devi is said to have been born in the village Ujriaon of Lucknow. She was also known as Jagrani and was married to Makka Pasi. She became an associate of Begum Hazrat Mahal, and formed a women’s army, with herself as the commander. When her husband was martyred in the battle at Chinhat, Uda decided to take revenge. The British, under Colin Campbell, attacked Sikandar Bagh, in Lucknow, and found themselves facing an army of Bahujan women:

koi unko habsin kehta, koi kehta neech achchut.
abla koi unhein batlaye, koi kahe unhe majboot.
(Some called them African women, others untouchables. Some called them weak, others strong.)

It is significant here that even W. Gordon-Alexander’s account of the storming of Sikandar Bagh by British troops states:
“In addition… there were… even a few amazon negresses, amongst the slain. These amazons having no religious prejudices against the use of greased cartridges, whether of pigs or other animal fat, although doubtless professed Muhammadans, were armed with rifles, while the Hindu and Muhammadan East Indian rebels were all armed with musket; they fought like wild cats, and it was not till after they were killed that their sex was even suspected.”

Uda Devi was one of them; she is said to have climbed a pipal tree and shot dead, according to some accounts 32 and some 36, British soldiers.

Asha Devi Gurjari is portrayed as someone who led a large number of young girls and women against the British army on 8 May 1857 and died while fighting.

Narratives on Avantibai span both history and literature. She was the queen of Ramgarh, and belonged to the Lodhi community of Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh. In 1857, she too faced the oppression of the British. She retaliated and fought fiercely. When she was surrounded by British soldiers, she decided to kill herself rather than surrender to them. Her last wish was that the British should leave India and return to their country.

Mahabiri Devi belonged to the Bhangi caste and lived in the village Mundbhar in the district of Muzaffarnagar. Though she was uneducated, she was very intelligent and opposed exploitation of any kind from an early age. Mahaviri Devi set up an organization of women whose aim was to stop women and children from being involved in grihnit karya (dirty work) and to enable them to live with dignity. In 1857, she brought together a group of 22 women and attacked the British. She fought bravely and killed many British soldiers until she herself and everyone in her group were killed.

Fighting stereotypes
Certain features stand out in these various narratives. Many of them claim to be centred on neglected Bahujan women warriors. In all of them, these Bahujan women are depicted as being brave from their very childhood, and the 1857 revolt drives them to accomplish great deeds against all the odds. However, the voices of Bahujan viranganas themselves are usually faint discursive threads, as their stories of adventure and bravery are narrated through a variety of sources – oral and official accounts, and Bahujan male authors. It is these authors who provide narrative coherence, filling in the gaps, and slipping into the present tense to add dramatic flourish and detail to the stories. The past and the present blur and mingle to provide a cohesive narrative of the oppression of Bahujans and the bravery of these women.

These Bahujan viranganas become symbols of pride for certain Bahujan castes. Thus Uda Devi is revered by the Pasis particularly, and has emerged as a symbol of Pasi honour, dignity, pride, mobilization and rights. On the other hand, Jhalkaribai has been appropriated, eulogized and celebrated by all Bahujan groups, irrespective of divisions between them, and has become a symbol of the unity of Bahujans.

Most of these Bahujan viranganas have devi or bai suffixed to their names. They are also projected as highly moral, very “noble” and super-nationalist Bahujan women. They are emblems of shakti. The written and visual imagery of these viranganas in the texts itself and on the cover of pamphlets is of women usually clad in “masculine” attires, with their bodies all covered up. They are shown to be expert horsewomen, swimmers, and archers and sword fighters.

Through such portrayals, Bahujans hope to garner greater respect for these viranganas, and, through them, for all Bahujans. Simultaneously, this feeds off conceptions of masculinity. It also covertly challenges notions of Bahujan female sexuality, and can be seen as a reaction to images of sexually immoral Bahujan women. By shunning outward expressions of sexuality, Bahujan women can also hope to build a space where they can wield more control over their bodies and gain dignity and respect within the dominant culture.

Published in the March 2015 issue of the Forward Press magazine


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