The forgotten women of 1857 Azizun Bai, Asghari Begum, Habiba
Begum Hazrat Mahal
The primary cause of the Revolt was the annexation of Awadh by the British on the pretext of maladministration by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. When the Revolt began, Begum Hazrat Mahal led her followers against the British while she ruled Awadh as regent. The longest resistance to the British was given by the Begum. She commanded the largest army of rebels in the Revolt, and rejected three offers of truce by the British, who even offered to return the kingdom to her husband under British suzerainty. She continued to fight for complete independence for as long as she could. When the British came out on top in the Revolt, she found asylum in Nepal, where she died in 1879.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating stories is that of the courtesan Azizun Bai of Kanpur. Kanpur saw fierce battles between the forces of Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope against the British.
Colonial and Indian historians have mentioned Azizun’s role during the battles of Kanpur. She had personally nothing to gain and no personal grudges, unlike many of the other women who had joined in the uprising. She was simply inspired by Nana Sahib.
Her memory is still alive among the people of Kanpur. She dressed in male attire like Lakshmibai and rode on horseback with the soldiers, armed with a brace of pistols. She was part of the procession the day the flag was raised in Kanpur to celebrate the initial victory of Nana Sahib.
Lata Singh writes in her article “Making the ‘Margin’ Visible” that Azizun was a favourite among the sepoys of the 2nd cavalry posted in Kanpur, and was particularly close to one of the soldiers, Shamsuddin. Her house was a meeting point of the sepoys. She also formed a group of women, who went around fearlessly cheering the men in arms, attended to their wounds, and distributed arms and ammunition. She made one of the gun batteries her headquarters for this work. During the entire period of the siege of Kanpur, she was with the soldiers, who she considered her friends, and she was always armed with pistols herself.
Not much is known about Asghari Begum. According to some sources, she was born in 1811, and was around 45 years old at the time of the Revolt. She is said to have played an important role in fighting the British in present day western Uttar Pradesh. She was eventually captured by the British in 1858, and supposedly burned alive.
A woman called Habiba, supposedly from a Muslim Gujjar family, fought in several battles against the British in the Muzaffarnagar area. When the British won, she was hanged along with 11 other female rebels. She was supposedly only 25 years old at the time.
Other names of women of the Revolt are Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Rani Avantibai Lodhi of Ramgarh, Rani Jindan Kaur, Jhalkaribai, Uda Devi, Asha Devi, Bakhtavari, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Indra Kaur, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Raj Kaur, Shobha Devi, Umda. Some of these are only names, and not much else is known about them. Sadly, not much has been written about these other brave freedom fighters of 1857 and resources on them are scarce. One such resource is Shamsul Islam’s article ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity: Participation of Common People and Women in India’s First War Of Independence,’ which mentions the names of many women who are today only relegated to the pages of the 1857 records.
It is time India remembered, and saluted, these brave women.
Complied from pieces written by
Bhaskar Chawla in vagabomb.com and Rana Safvi in thewire.in