India’s Lesser Known Heroes – Begum Hazrat Mahal

M Venkaiah Naidu

Begum Hazrat Mahal

Begum Hazrat Mahal

Woh rutba paaya tha humne watan me,

usi ki badaulat hui ye ladai.

Adoo banke aaye jo the dost apne,

na thi jiski umeed, ki woh burai.

“The glory we had in the country,

This fight is for that

Our enemies came disguised as friends

They did the evil things that we never expected.”

These couplets were one of the last few writings of Begum Hazrat Mahal, the warrior queen of Awadh who one of the few women to challenge the British during the revolt of 1857.

In continuation of my Facebook series on the forgotten women freedom fighters, today, let’s remember another icon of our great freedom struggle, Begum Hazrat Mahal.

Born as Muhammadi Khanum, she got married to Nawab Wajid Ali of Awadh. She got the title of ‘Hazrat Mahal’ after the birth of their son, Birjis Kader.

As history tells us that Awadh was cunningly annexed by the British East India Company in 1856 and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh went into exile to Calcutta. This unfair action by the Britishers led to much anger and resentment among the people of the kingdom.

Sadly, the poet-Nawab had chosen to hand over his kingdom without a fight but his wife, Begum Hazrat Mahal was in no mood to remain subservient to the British. She stayed back in Lucknow along with her son Birjis Qadir and decided to fight for the freedom of the people.

Soon, India’s first war of independence began in 1857 and Begum Hazrat Mahal became a key figure in organizing the uprising against the British in Awadh region. Her military and administrative ability came to fore during those testing times. It is said that in no time the rebellion spread to all parts of the Awadh… it turned into a people’s uprising.

Showing exemplary military skills and statesmanship, Begum Hazrat Mahal raised a large army with the support of the people of Awadh and was believed to have given a fierce resistance to the British forces. Nana Saheb and Maulvi Ahmad Ullah Shah were her closest allies in this war. It is said that her leadership was so inspiring and tactful that the British lost control of most parts of Awadh and were confined to Lucknow Residency building.

Begum Hazrat Mahal crowned her 11-year-old son Birjis Kader as the Nawab of Awadh and began to rule on his behalf.

It is said that during her brief reign, Begum Hazrat Mahal proved herself as a good ruler. She took all the measures to ensure that her army was motivated and well equipped to fight the enemy. She was believed to have united Hindus and Muslims, boosted the morale of the army by personally meeting them and supporting them. She also motivated women to join the war and created a separate women’s battalion. Her leadership gave a new thrust to the revolutionaries.

When the Queen of England issued a proclamation to pacify the people of India, as a response to this, Begum Hazrat Mahal issued a counter-proclamation and warned the people not to have faith in such promises.

Though Indian freedom fighters displayed exemplary courage in 1857, their resources were limited. Soon, Delhi – the prime center for the First War of Independence was recaptured by the British troops. After this, they attacked Lucknow and a series of fierce battles ensued between the British troops and the Begum Hazrat Mahal’s troops.

When defeat became inevitable, Begum Hazrat Mahal retreated to the Nepal’s forests along with her co-revolutionary leaders. Sadly, she had to spend last two decades of her life in political asylum in Nepal.

Although, the British tried to lure her back to Lucknow by offering huge pension and other luxuries, she rejected the offer. She made it clear to them that only an Independent Awadh state and nothing else was acceptable to her.

Although she longed to come back to Awadh, all her efforts proved futile and she died in Nepal in 1879. Her tomb is still situated in Kathmandu.

Begum Hazrat Mahal was a pathfinder and a woman of substance, who believed in living with pride and self-respect rather than being a slave of the British. I offer my salutation to the brave warrior queen who despite facing many challenges at a very difficult time in history fought for the motherland.