Books Launch of ‘A Begum & a Rani’ by historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee, at the Bengal Club

Two women, one elated in nationalist consciousness and the other relegated to obscurity, were in the spotlight at the Bengal Club on February 22 where historian and Ashoka University Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s book , A Begum & A Rani: Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857was officially launched.

“Even though the book was released in August 2021, it never had an official release, so it’s the first and only official release. And I’m glad it’s taking place at the Bengal Club, which is like a second home for me,” Mukherjee said after A Queen and a Rani was started by Dr. Sandip Chatterjee, Chairman of the Club’s Library Sub-Committee.

“The two ladies in the book are very different characters from each other. One was resurrected by Rudrangshu from oblivion and obscurity and the other was recast in her glorification and glamour” , Chatterjee said, kicking off the evening’s program.

In conversation with Mukherjee, two members of the library committee – Chaitali Maitra, English teacher, and Mitakshara Kumari, Chhattisgarh government adviser. Between their insightful questions and Mukherjee’s ability to bring characters and situations to life from the pages of history, it made for an engaging discussion.

(LR) Mitakshara Kumari and Chaitali Maitra in conversation with Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Maitra began by talking about the series of truths laid out in the book’s introduction – the unhappy and impoverished India of the 19th century, the importance of individuals in the writing of history, the singularly important idea of ​​remembering of history, which also has the flip side of forgetting history, and the various aspects of rebellion and resistance.

Her first question to Mukherjee, whose primary area of ​​research has been 19th-century India, was about the British land revenue system, which set the context for the roles of the two women in the Indian rebellion of 1857.

Mukherjee painted a picture of what he called “the British conquests of India”, from Bengal to Punjab, over a period of 80 to 90 years and how the British, who were in India to “gain money”, have implemented different land revenue systems in India. different parts of India.

“The best known of these was that of Bengal, which is the permanent settlement of Bengal. One historian has beautifully described it as the Magna Carta of British rule in India. It was the first. The others were sometimes radically different from the permanent settlement system. There was the Ryotwari system in the Madras and Bombay presidency and the Mahalwari system in northern India and parts of central India,” Mukherjee said, in focusing on the Mahalwari settlement, of which the two areas discussed in the book – Jhansi and Awadh – were part of.

Rani Lakshmibai, a reluctant rebel who actually exercised her choice

Kumari focused on one of the heroines – Jhansi’s Rani Lakshmibai – noting how the 1857 story, told by Mukherjee, raises a Rani Lakshmibai that is far more complex and layered than what we have learned through our history books and through popular narrative. She wondered how, despite being a “reluctant rebel”, she had come to such a high position.

Mukherjee’s response cast a woman who is committed to the welfare of Jhansi and her subjects. Her reluctance to join the rebellion at the first flash, in June 1857, was due to the fact that she could not decide at that time whether her subjects and her own interests would be better served if she became a rebel, Mukherjee explained.

There were two other factors that might have deterred her from joining the rebellion, Mukherjee said. One was that the Jhansi sipahis who rebelled on 6 and 7 June, and some of the ordinary Jhansi people who joined that rebellion, broke promises to spare the lives of British officials if they surrendered. They killed every white person that came out, regardless of age and gender. “So Jhansi had the bloodstain on it and as Queen of Jhansi she was aware of that stain and she was also aware that she would be held responsible for the massacre that had taken place. She would be held even more responsible if she joined the rebellion,” Mukherjee said.

The other factor was that once the mutineers had killed all the British, they felt their job was done in Jhansi and they rushed to join the rebellion in Delhi. Thus, from that time Jhansi was free from rebels and the British. Lakshmibai spent this period from June through the winter of that year trying to reestablish the administration of Jhansi under his dispensation.

“I think in more ways than one, Lakshmibai has been underserved by historians. She evolved with the circumstances and the reality of that summer and winter. white. She went through a process where she actually exercised a choice. A woman in the 1850s actually makes choices and makes very difficult and complicated decisions,” Mukherjee said, describing her first overtures to the British, then his eventual decision to stand with the people of Jhansi who had turned rebellious.

In his narration of the events, Mukherjee painted a picture full of suspicion, tension and death, and it was almost like watching a movie about the events that unfolded, from his daring escape from the fort on horseback to his ironic death. at the hands of a sniper when his horse stalled in a ditch.

Author Rudrangshu Mukherjee makes a point during the conversation about his book, at the Bengal Club

Author Rudrangshu Mukherjee makes a point during the conversation about his book, at the Bengal Club

Hazrat Mahal, from slave to queen to regent

The discussion then shifted to the book’s other heroine, Hazrat Mahal, and how she was thrust into a leadership role without which “she wouldn’t even have been a footnote in history.” . She was the daughter of an Ethiopian slave of Wajid Ali Shah, who trained as a dancer and courtesan at the famous dance school in Lucknow called Pari Mahal. “That’s where she caught Wajid Ali Shah’s attention and fancy. And Shah made her one of his ‘mutah’ wives,” Mukherjee said, highlighting Satyajit Ray’s scene. Shatranj Ke Khiladi where General Outram asks his assistant, Weston, what a mutah bride is and Weston explains that “mutah” brides are pleasure brides and they are temporary.

She became pregnant by Wajid Ali Shah and gave birth to a son, after which Shah made her a queen and gave her the title of Begum Hazrat Mahal. But Shah’s mother, a very domineering and influential personality on him, did not like the idea of ​​a slave being a queen and forced Wajid Ali Shah to give talaq to Hazrat Mahal.

“So here is a woman who has lost her privilege and her access to royalty. We do not know what happened to it between 1850 and 1856. All we know is that in 1856 Awadh was annexed by fiat from Lord Dalhousie. British troops are marching on Awadh and in a few days it is decided that Shah will be exiled to Calcutta, where he is building his own mini-Lucknow,” said Mukherjee, who once again added color to the narrative with a glimpse of Shah’s departure from Lucknow. and how on the eve of May 30, 1857, the sipahis of Lucknow revolted, defeated the British, and put Shah’s son, Birjis Qadr, on the throne as Wali of Awadh. Since Qadr was around 11 or 12 years old, his mother, Hazrat Mahal, had become something of a regent, who ran affairs on behalf of her young son.

“This is how Begum Hazrat Mahal enters the pages of history. Once she took the reins, she established an administration, directing how the British were to be fought and how they were to be withdrawn from Awadh. So he’s a typical general who is not out there in the front line of battle, but actually working in the back room, making all the plans and strategies,” Mukherjee said.

She also issued, in her own name and in the name of her son, ishtihaars or proclamations to boost the morale of the army and the rebels, to point out the innumerable misdeeds she believed the British had committed in India, and when in November Queen Victoria issued a proclamation announcing that the East India Company would no longer rule India, she would, a counter-proclamation known as the Begum Proclamation. “This is a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal of every point in the Queen’s Proclamation. So she was setting up the administration, making battle plans and strategies, and she was doing what we would call propaganda and persuasion,” Mukherjee added.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee signs a copy of his book after the program, at the Bengal Club

Rudrangshu Mukherjee signs a copy of his book after the program, at the Bengal Club

Kumari pointed out that Mukherjee notes that 1857 was a war of arms, but it was also a war of words and rightly said that it “looks like a very modern political campaign” with the ishtihaarsthe fake news, rumors and smear campaigns, and the proclamation of the Badshah which was like a political manifesto of a political party.

“You’re absolutely right. It was also modern in another way, all those ishtihaars and brochures were printed. They took advantage of the modern technology that was available to them. It is often said, even by very established and even famous historians, that this rebellion was retrograde. But the rebels were fully aware of modern technology,” Mukherjee said.

History as an act of recovery and selective recovery – history is also a war of words

“These two women were extraordinary figures because they entered a male world, a world in which every decision was actually made by men. In such a world, they established their dominance, they established their leadership. trajectories are somewhat different,” Mukherjee said.

Lakshmibai, in some ways, had been trained in certain practices considered masculine. Hazrat Mahal was a dancer and a courtesan, who had no access to the arts of war. But both used what they had to their strength.

Dr. Sandip Chatterjee delivers the vote of thanks

Dr. Sandip Chatterjee delivers the vote of thanks

Why then does history remember them so differently? One died in battle, the other in obscurity. “Hazrat Mahal did not die like a soldier. She fled to Nepal and died in the dark. It makes all the difference,” Mukherjee said.

So is the story the villain of Mukherjee’s new book? “History is an act of recuperation and selective recuperation – history is also a war of words. We have to be constantly engaged in debate. I might disagree with some of the reconstruction that is made of the past of India, but they have the right to reconstruct it as they wish. If the nationalist movement could reconstruct the past in a particular way, then why not now? We are debating it and through these debates the nuances come out,” Mukherjee said.

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