Nana Saheb and Rani Lakshmi Bai - The Toughest Challenge of 1857

Nana Saheb vs. British East India Company

Nana Saheb was the adopted son of Peshawa Baji Rao II. After the Anglo Maratha wars of 1817-1818, Baji Rao settled in Bithur, a few miles from Kanpur, on an annual allowance of 8 lakhs of Rupees. However the pension was stopped after Baji Rao's death and Nana Saheb was sorely aggrieved on account of the same. He maintained a cordial relationship with the British despite this grievance. When the news of the revolt in Meerat reached Kanpur, the British, who considered Nana Saheb to be an ally, asked for his aid to guard the treasury from the Sipahis. Nana Saheb agreed to send the retainers with guns. British General Wheeler constructed a place of refuge for the British community, consisting of two one storied barracks, surrounded by trenches and walls. On 4th June, the Sipahis, both Infantry and Cavalry, revolted. The English guns drove away even the Sipahis faithful to them and the British did not even allow the Regiment who guarded the treasury to take shelter in the entrenchment. The rebels were joined by Nana's retainers, looted the treasury, took possession of the magazine, started marching towards Delhi but then returned to Kanpur with Nana at their helm.  It was not possible by the British historians to ascertain the real cause of Nana Saheb's defection to the camp of the rebels. Per accounts of Tantia Tope, another leader of the 1857 revolt, Nana Saheb and Tantia were overpowered and imprisoned by the rebels and their own soldiers had joined the Sipahis while looting the treasury. They initially ordered Nana Saheb to march to Delhi with them but Nana refused. Then the Sipahis decided to go to Kanpur and fight from there. In the end Nana Saheb and Tantia Tope were apparently unwilling accomplishes of the rebels, much like the Emperor Bahadur Shah himself. According to Dr. R.C Majumdar, this statement of Tantia Tope cannot be outright discredited because it was a sort of dying declaration. He and Nana Saheb had sided with the rebels and therefore were condemned to die by the British who would neither forgive, nor forget. So there was no reason for Nana to give a false statement in the hope of saving himself and Nana from the wrath of the British. Instead he could have made a martyr of himself and endeared himself to his countrymen as a rebel leader had he proclaimed ;loudly that they were willing participants if they had really taken the lead as rebels. 

Nana Saheb submitted a petition in 1859 to Queen Victoria in which he corroborated Tantia Tope's version by claiming that his soldiers were not under his control as they belonged to a different country (non Maratha). Moreover when his soldiers rebelled he had no other option than to join them for the fear that otherwise the soldiers would kill his family. He blamed General Wheeler for calling him and his soldiers into the entrenchment, thereby putting his life at risk. This, according to Dr. Majumdar, even though a mercy petition, should not be discarded outright because it tallied with Tantia Tope's version even though there was no possibility for the two of them to come to a common understanding of telling a concocted story as they were separated for a long time. Moreover Nana Saheb in his subsequent correspondence also stated very clearly that he was willing to die for his country and did not fear any punishment. So it was highly improbable that he would deny his involvement in the rebellion out of fear as he stood to gain nothing. British would have un earthed evidence of his complicity anyway and he would have discredited his valour and demeaned himself in the eyes of his countrymen. So it was very possible that Nana Saheb and Tantia Tope were unwilling participants, but once they were into it they became the sworn enemies of the British, perhaps because they sensed a possibility of revival of the Peshawa Raj by seeing the extent of the rebellion and the helplessness of the Europeans. Nana Saheb became a commander of the Sipahis and he wrote a letter to Wheeler warning him that he would take on the British.

The English soldiers and men and children along with few Indian servants had taken shelter in an entrenchment and they put up a fight until 25 June, repelling the repeated attacks of the Sipahis. On 25 June a woman came to the entrenchment with a letter from Nana offering a safe passage to Allahabad to every member of the garrison who was not connected with the Acts of Lord Dalhousie. The offer was accepted and a regular treaty was signed on 26th June. It was agreed that boats would be provided by Nana to take the people safely to Allahabad along with provisions. The besieged Englishmen got onto forty boats in Sati Chaura Ghat and as soon as the last of them stepped into the boat, at the sound of a bugle all the native boatmen jumped over and swam to the shore with Englishmen firing after them. Then the Sipahis who had escorted the Englishmen opened fire with carbines. The English soldiers fired back and the Sipahis retired. But soon they came back with weapons and opened fired on the boats which caught fire. The men, women and children were either burnt alive or killed in the ghastly attack. Only four of them survived to narrate the tale of this massacre. It is suggested by the British that the whole affair was a pre planned conspiracy. Nana Saheb was not present on the shore during this battle and there was no evidence to indicate that he had plotted this ghastly murder. He was proclaimed a Peshwa and spent his time in Bithur with feasts and revels. The brutal massacre of the prisoners in Bibighar is also attributed to Nana Saheb. On 12th June, a number of British women and children had come from Fatehgarh to take refuge in the British cantonment. They were captured and brought to Nana's presence. All the men, except three, were killed. The women and children along with other captives were kept in a small place called Binighar. All the prisoners were huddled together and suffered intolerably. The women were taken out to grind for Nana's household. Many of them fell victims to diseases like cholera. On 15th July Nana Saheb heard that Havelock's army had crossed the Pandu river and was in full march on his capital. On receiving this information Nana Saheb issued order for the murder of women and children in Bibighar. The women and children were slayed by the butchers and were thrown to the well. 

However when the British reoccupied their lost territories and won the war against the Sipahis, the outrages and atrocities committed by them far surpassed that of Nana Saheb and the Sipahis. The fiendish nature of their Commanders like Neil and Havelock (who unfortunately until recently had two islands in Indian Ocean in their names, thanks to the Colonial slaves who took over from the British after the Transfer of Power), led to the wholesale extermination of Sipahis, even the innocent ones, often under extreme duress. Neil, true to his fiendish nature, forced the Sipahi commanders to clean the blood of the victims, an act most abhorrent to most of the Hindus, and then executed them.

Rani Lakhsmibai of Jhansi 

The queen of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai was initially an unwilling supporter of the Sipahis. When her husband, Gangadhar Rao, passed away without an inheritance, the kingdom of Jhansi was usurped by the British under the Doctrine of Lapse. Her protest was of no avail. She naturally had resented this unscrupulous annexation of her kingdom. But it was the open hostility of the British against her in the aftermath of the Sipahi rebellion. The Sipahis in the Jhansi Cantonment were impacted by the rebellion. There were two forts in Jhansi, one of them, a smaller one, within the Cantonment. Some Sipahis, on June 5, peacefully took possession of the smaller fort. On June 6 there was a mutiny of the whole force according to a pre conceived plan. Few British officiers were either killed or wounded and the rest took shelter in another fort. On 8 June the mutineers promised security to the Europeans provided they left the fort without taking any arms. But as soon as they left the fort, all of them, women and children included, were taken to a garden and massacred in cold blood. The mutineers proceeded to Delhi after committing this heinous crime. 

The Rani of Jhansi Lakshmibai was not a party to this crime. Even though the British historians, true to their nature, thought that Rani would behave like an average European who would have done that kind of an act to take revenge, they were completely ignorant of the real nature of the Rani, who true to her Kshatriya nature believed in valour and courage. She was no friend of the Sipahis. According to Dr. R.C Majumdar, the Rani was forced to support the Sipahis to help them with money, gun and elephants. The Sipahis threatened her that if she failed to comply with their demand they would blow up her palace and she did what she could to protect herself and her subjects from the wrath of the deranged Sipahis. Perhaps it was an evil plan hatched by one of the other claimants to the king's throne who resented her rise and therefore tried to frame her, and connived with the Sipahis to commit the heinous crime. Dr. R.C Majumdar states that the Rani's statement that she acted under duress is also proved by independent evidence,  including early official reports about the mutiny at Jhansi. It is further supported by the Rani's conducts after the mutiny. Immediately after the rebels left for Delhi, Rani was in constant communication  with the British authorities, sending a full report and condemning the conduct of the Sipahis, esp. the massacre of the innocent. The Commissioner of the Sagar Division, to whim she wrote, believed in her innocence. He appointed Rani to rule the territory on behalf of the British till such time as they could reestablish a regular system of 

administration and he issued a formal proclamation. 

The Government of India, however suspected her of being an accomplish in the massacre and wanted to frame her. Her repeated attempts to prove her innocence was of no avail. When she realized that the British was deliberately trying to frame and execute her, she had no other option than to wage war and embrace a graceful death of a martyr on the battlefield. 

It was the Rani of Jhansi, however, who played a serious part in the later stage of the rebellion, through her undaunted and determined fight to recover her kingdom. 

By the end of 1857 a plan was drawn up by British military that a Bombay column under Sir Hugh Rose, would proceed by the way of Jhansi. Rose arrived with one brigade of troops in Jhansi on 21st March, 1858.  Another brigade under brigadier Stuart, joined him.  Rani of Jhansi Lakshmibai had begun to recruit troops when she finally made up her mind to fight the British. She applied for help to Tantia Tope. Tantia Tope was defeated in Kanpur but he captured Chirkari and was joined by a number of chiefs and local people. He had a troop of 20000 to 30000 army men and 20 guns. With the permission of Nana Saheb, he proceeded to help Manikarnika or Rani Lakshmibai. Rose's army was smaller compared to that of Jhansi. He commenced bombardment of the fort on 25th March. The beseiged fort, despite under heavy bombardment, under the leadership of the Rani of Jhansi. The Rani's soldiers continued bombardment even at night and there were also women gunners among them. The Rani had developed a battalion of women fighters who stoutly defended their motherland fighting beside their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. But after four days of battle the British army could breach the city wall and brought down the parapet. At this moment Tantia Tope arrived with his contingent of 20,000 men. Rose continued to fight despite being heavily outnumbered. By superior strategy he defeated Tantia's army and took the city of Jhansi, though it was defended with grim determination till the last. The Rani left the fort with a few attendants on the night of 4th April. The Rani joined Tantia at Kalpi and Rose marched towards the city leaving a small army to defend Jhansi. The rebel chiefs who had joined Tantia were all defeated and quarreled with each other and Tantia, being defeated, fled. Nawab of Banda, who was defeated by Whitlock, arrived in Kalpi  with two thousand horse and some guns and joined the Rani in her fight. Rao Saheb, the nephew of Nana Saheb, was also in Kalpi and several local chiefs joined them for a full and final battle. But the rebels were again defeated owing to the superior tactics of the British army. Rani and Rao Saheb escaped to Gwalior. They were joined by Tantia Tope.  

In all probability Rani Lakshmibai came up with a master stroke. She was the military genius and she possibly conceived of a daring plan of capturing Gwalior by winning over the troops of Scindia (sounds eerily similar to the strategy of Subhas Chandra Bose to win over the British Indian Army in the battle of Imphal). With Gwalior in their hands the rebels would be able to cut off the communication line of the British in North India with Bombay, while they would be able to muster the Maratha fire power against the British. Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "A British historian has described the idea to be as original and as daring as that which prompted the memorable seizure of Arcot." The rebels had no resources to carry out the task in the ordinary way, but they counted on the mutinous instincts of the Gwalior army and took the risk. With remnants of their forces the the three leaders arrived in Gwalior on 30 May 1858. On 1st June Scindia marched out with his army to oppose Rani and her forces. Scindia's infantry and cavalry either joined the rebels as per plan, or took up a position which clearly showed that they were unwilling to fight. Scindia fled to Agra. The three leaders - Rao Saheb, Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmibai captured Gwalior fort, seized the treasury and arsenal and declared Nana Saheb as the Peshwa. 

Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar, "The seizure of Gwalior created a sensation throughout India only equaled by that which was caused by the first mutinies." Sir Hugh Rose left Kalpi on June 6 and advancing by forced marches arrived within 5 miles of the Morar cantonment, guarded by the rebel troops. He attacked them and carried the cantonment by assault. Thus he regained the access of the road to Agra and this enabled brigadier Smith to reach near Gwalior. This possibly took the leaders by surprise but they mobilized themselves for a counter attack. The Rani herself led the troops and took up her position on the range of hills between Gwalior and Kotah ke Serai where Smith was stationed. Smith attacked this force but was faced with stiff resistance. Dressed in man's attire Rani of Jhansi fought gallantly when rest of her men and other leaders failed. Her horse stumbled and fell and an ordinary soldier closely tracking her killed her without knowing her rank or sex. Another version claims that a bullet killed her. Sir Hugh Rose, the commander of the British army paid her a rich complement and referred to her as the best and the bravest military leader of the rebels. 

The final part of the story shaped up quickly. Rose joined Smith on 18th June and the rebels came out of the fort to meet them on 19th June. After a brief encounter the British forces won the battle and occupied Gwalior. Scindia came back and reentered his capital amidts celebrations of the local population. The British army went in hot pursuit of the rebels including Tantia Tope. There was only minimum casualties on the British side. On 22nd June a final skirmish took place with the rebels in Jowra Alipore and the rebels were completely vanquished. Tantia and Rao Saheb fled across Chambal to Rajputana.  Tantia continued to fight in guerilla style evading the pursuing British detachments, in Malwa and Rajputana. Atlast he crossed Chambal and took shelter with Man Singh, a feudal chief under the Scindia who had fallen apart with Scindia. Man Singh and Tantia Tope became allies, but the British commander bought over Man Singh to his side by restoring hi his position and wealth. Man Singh surrendered and gave away Tantia to the British. On 18th April, Tantia was executed in front of a large crowd. 

Writes Dr. R.C Majumdar in his History of Freedom Movement of India Volume 1. "The capture of Tantia was the last important act in the suppression of the revolt in Central India. The wonderful guerilla warfare which he had carried on for ten months against enormous odds elicited admiration even from his opponents, and may be looked upon as a fitting end to a struggle which was hopeless almost from the beginning."

Nana Saheb, in contrast, made an attempt to come to terms with the British as a last measure to save his own life. In a letter to the British authorities on 20 April 1859, Nana denied his complicity in the mutiny and disclaimed all responsibility for the killing of British women and children.  However in the same letter Nana threw an open challenge that somewhat raises his dignity - "Life must be given up some day. Why then should I die dishonoured? There will be war between me and you as long as I have life, whether I be killed or imprisoned or hanged and whatever I do will be done with the sword only." Nana and some of the other rebels fled to Nepal. King Jang Bahadur of Nepal denied any protection or shelter to the rebels including Nana. The fate of Nana is still unknown although several persons were arrested at different points of time as Nana, but ultimately the British stopped taking interest in his fate as he was no more dangerous to them.