Begum Hazrat Mahal [ - 1874] : Freedom Fighter
Begum Hazrat Mahal
by Charu Bahri
Begum Hazrat Mahal, also known as Begum of Avadh (Oudh), or the Rebel Begum, was part of the harem of King Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow (Avadh). She belonged to a poor family from Faizabad and went by the name of Muhammadi Khanum prior to her marriage.
When they married, King Wajid Ali Shah granted her the title Iftikhar-un-Nisa (the Pride of all Women). After the birth of her only child, her son Birjis Qadr, he gave her the title Hazrat Mahal.
While Begum Hazrat Mahal was brought up to live a carefree life of abandon, she actually possessed a strong character that was resolutely expressed through the leadership she provided the province of Avadh commencing with her handling of the incident that shattered the Royal household, the deportation of King Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta, leaving the kingdom without a leader.
After their victory at Chinhut near Lucknow in July 1857, the revolutionary forces of the First War of Independence captured Lucknow and lay siege to the Residency, British quarters. However, the city and the state were in chaos. The mutineers then realized the need for a royal persona under whose name they would be able to consolidate their position and bring together the diverse interests in the state. Begum Hazrat also appreciated the need for quick, astute action.
Joining hands with the mutineers, she made a show of her clever nature and political aspirations as she agreed to crown her minor son Birjis Qadr and name herself acting Regent. Interestingly, the other Begums were approached before her, but none agreed to crown their sons King, fearing the action that would follow. Indeed, Begum Hazrat Mahal was a courageous woman whose foresight helped motivate the people of Avadh against the British.
For six months this joint Government of revolutionaries led by Begum Hazrat controlled Lucknow. She used the seal of her son King Birjis Qadar to issue orders to the masses, zamindars and taluqdars to rebel against the British.
It is said that she toured the province to encourage rebellion and even appeared on elephant back on the battlefield to guide her troops. Her armies, numbering 150,000, were greater in number than what any other leader brought against the British in India. Throughout, she remained in direct correspondence with Nana Saheb, noble zamindar and taluqdar families and other royal kingdoms.
A true spirited stateswoman, she cared deeply for her people. To fortify the city of Lucknow against advancing British forces, she sanctioned five lakhs rupees to have a wall built round the city. She used all her cunning to make counter offers to Kings and noblemen the British approached for alliances, such as Rana Jang Bahadur of Nepal.
Begum Hazrat was the last leader to retreat when the mutineers were finally defeated in Lucknow in March 1858. Even so, she shifted base to the fort of Baundi (now in district Behraich, Uttar Pradesh) from where she continued to stir trouble against the British throughout the province. Determined not to fall into the hands of the British, she left the fort in December 1858, and wandered in dense jungles of the sub-Himalayan belt with a few faithful soldiers, until she finally crossed into Nepal and was granted residence by the King.
Begum Hazrat Mahal was made offers of the principality of Lucknow and a large annuity after her defeat but she openly scorned these attempts to mollify her. The thought of being made a puppet in the hands of the British was beneath her dignity.
She spent her entire wealth in sustaining those who traveled to Nepal with her, and lived the remaining 16 years of her life as a commoner. When she died in Kathmandu in 1874 there was not even sufficient money for a modest mausoleum on her grave. Indeed, this speaks greatly of her character, a great freedom fighter, an undying patriot who left an indelible mark on the annals of the Indian freedom struggle.
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