One name stands out above others and is revered still in popular memory, the name of Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi – Jawaharlal Nehru
On 17 June 1858, Captain Heneage of 8th Hussars regiment, under the command of General Hugh Rose, attacks a group of mounted (horse riding) rebels in a village near the city of Gwalior. The fight is short and ends in a defeat for the rebels. They start running away. But a medium sized officer, with short hair clad in the red uniform of a cavalry officer, tries to rally the fleeing soldiers, waving at them and exhorting them, in vain. One of the Hussars aims at the officer and the shot passes through the neck of the horse and pierces the body of the rider, who spins around and fires back. The shot misses. The wounded officer tries to escape by crossing a dried-out stream but the wounded horse refuses to jump. The Hussar approaches the rider and slashes the person with his sabre. The person rides out for a distance and falls out of the saddle on the earth, the rock-hard Indian earth, which the rider loved until the very end.
The rider was the Rani of Jhansi. She died 20 minutes later, under the shade of a mango tree, after distributing her jewels among her followers.
The struggle in the years 1857 and 58 has been extensively covered by various historians and the persons who participated in it. Almost every player from the Indian side of this monumental event generally invites either derision or condescension from the British historians or the contemporary officers who fought the rebels. The only exception is the Rani of Jhansi. Her name is usually spoken in hushed tones and with barely concealed awe.
Sir Hugh Rose says, “her unbounded liberality to her troops and retainers, her fortitude, which no reverses could shake, rendered her an influential and a dangerous adversary.”
Sir Robert Hamilton had known her from 1854. He found her ‘very civil and polite, quite the lady, and easy in manner and conversation.’ He says again, “my impression was that she was a clever, strong-minded woman, well able to argue and too much for many unless there was a complete command of patience and temper.”. His view was that even when she was filled with rage she was ‘very lady like’ – whatever that means!
Major Malcolm who was in charge of Bundelkhand at that time reports that ‘the Rani bears a high character.’
As a soldier her reputation was legendary. For instance, when she marched to Gwalior the very news that she was leading her soldiers was enough for many of Scindia’s men to leave their guns. One historian of Gwalior – not a supporter of the Rani – says, The Rani with a chosen body of troops rode gallantly to the very muzzles of the Gwalior artillery, charged the gunners and cutting down several of them on the spot.”
The memoirs of the British officials who had met her have several passages drooling over her considerable physical charms, but almost all of them hasten to add that her presence was electrifying and awe-inspiring. They also make a point that she was in a man’s attire and with hardly any jewels on her.
Many a commentator speaks about the high esteem she was held in by every person with whom she came into contact.
A British Cornet could not suppress his admiration for her. He says ‘she is a wonderful woman, very brave and determined. It is fortunate for us that the men are not at all like her.’
When he is drawing the attention of the Governor General about the role of his regiment, the 8th Hussars, Sir Hugh Rose has this to say: ‘one most important result (of the regiment’s gallantry) was the death of the Ranee of Jhansi, who, although a lady,(!) was the bravest and the best military leader of the rebels’.
Her final moments are described by Captain Heneage of the 8th Hussars, a Victoria Cross awardee.
“There was no pretence of resistance any longer except from a slender, fully armed figure… Again and again, this one leader gesticulating and vociferating, attempted to stem the torrent of routed rebels, but all in vain….
A moment later, the swaying figure was overtaken and one stroke from the Hussar’s sabre ended the whole matter….. It was Rani of Jhansi herself who had thus ended her meteoric career.’
She was just thirty years of age, when she met her end.
(The quotes are from the book, ‘The Rani of Jhansi’ written by Rainer Jerosch)