Dalit history, since decades, has been appropriated and erased to suit the twisted idea of the ‘nation’ and ‘national integrity’. A closer look at the discourse on Dalit history begs answers for some important questions – Why and how has it become so easy to wipe out an entire history? Who are the beneficiaries of this erasure? Why is Dalit history not considered authentic? Who decides what ‘authentic’ really means? By destroying the history of the Dalits, the dominant mainstream discourse has attempted to erase the existence and significance of the Dalit community in India.
As it has been rightly pointed out, for thousands of years Dalits weren’t allowed to read and when they got the right to read, they were taught the history written by the upper castes who have no interest in depicting real history and thereby lose control over the masses. Further, one must remember that the content in history books has always been contested, changed, and rearranged with changes in the government. All governments want to promote their own versions of correct history, their own heroes and Gods. Largely, what happens as a result is that the forgotten heroes and warriors of history get further erased and pushed back into the realm of the inconsequential. This is what has happened with Dalit lives and Dalit history for decades.
In this context, looking at the figure of Jhalkari Bai becomes extremely significant.
Jhalkari Bai was a legendary Dalit woman warrior who played a crucial role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 during the battle of Jhansi in the women’s army of Queen Laxmibai of Jhansi. She was born in a Dalit family and grew up to become a soldier, eventually becoming Laxmibai’s trusted advisor. While she is remembered for her courage and sacrifice, what is significantly reminisced about her is that she disguised herself as the queen and fought to let the queen escape safely out of the fort.
Jhalkari Bai was the only daughter of a Sadoba Singh, and Jamuna Devi. She was born on November 22, 1830 in Bhojla village near Jhansi. Her family belonged to the Kori caste. After her mother’s death, her father raised her. At a very young age, she was trained to use weapons, ride a horse, and fight like a warrior. She also killed a wild leopard in the forest with a stick that she used to herd the cattle when young. Her stories of courage and bravery since childhood were heard by Pooran of Namapur Jhansi, himself from Kori caste. Pooram was a courageous and famous wrestler, experienced in archery and expert in horse riding, fire arms, and sword yielding. He told his mother that he wanted to marry Jhalkari. Jhalkari Bai’s father agreed to it, and their marriage was ceremonised in 1843.
The legend of Jhalkari Bai remains fundamental in the popular memory of Bundelkhand over many decades. Her life as a warrior continues to be sung in various Bundeli folklores even today. Her bravery along with her identity as a Dalit has helped to create a sense of pride and cultural unity in Dalits across North India.
Life, Story, and Struggle
The revolt of 1857 figures in a major way in the narratives of popular dalit histories and the life of Jhalkari Bai as well. It is in this context that an alternative account of the revolt emerges, distorting the mainstream upper caste narrative of Indian history. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 has been in many ways held as the first challenging revolt against the British Rule in India. Reinventing 1857 from a Dalit perspective is hailed as imperative. This is why Jhalkari Bai’s story is a momentous part of Dalit reality. Her story questions the blurred presentations and partial/prejudiced histories of social historians in the country.
The story of Jhalkari Bai as a Dalit Virangana tells us why looking at the representations of Dalit women in the history of 1857 is crucial. Her story defines political and social positioning of Dalits in India. The Dalit female icons engaged in radical armed struggles far outnumber Dalit men in 1857. The political and public memories invoked by her story have become the symbol of bravery of the Dalit community.
Various authors have written stories and poems on Jhalkari Bai. The kind of cultural invocations include comics, poems, plays, novels, biographies, nautankis, and even magazines and organisations in her name. To name just a few, there is the comic Jhalkari Bai; poems variously titled Virangana Jhalkari Bai Kavya, Jhansi ki Sherni: Virangana Jhalkari Bai ka Jeevan Charitra and Virangana Jhalkari Bai Mahakavya; plays and nautankis called Virangana Jhalkari Bai and Achhut Virangana Nautanki; novels and biographies like Virangana Jhalkari Bai and Achhut Virangana; and a magazine called Jhalkari Sandesh. Various Dalit magazines have published articles on her.
Jhalkari Bai, in the various narratives, is depicted as an immortal martyr of 1857, belonging to the Kori caste. In many of the narratives, she is depicted as an ideal woman who helps her husband in his traditional occupation of cloth weaving, and also sometimes accompanies him to the royal palace. She is stated to be brave since her childhood and further trained in archery, wrestling, horse-riding and shooting, after learning it from her husband. Jhalkari Bai’s body and face resembled to that of Lakshmibai. She became friends with Laxmibai and was entrusted with the charge of leading the women’s wing of the army, known as the Durga Dal. When the 1857 revolt started, the rulers were mostly interested in just saving their thrones and it was not a freedom struggle for them. It was Dalits who made it a freedom struggle. When the British surrounded the fort of Jhansi, Jhalkari Bai fought fiercely. It is because of her that Rani Lakshmibai escaped from the palace alive. Jhalkari Bai took on the guise of the Rani and fought the battle from Dantiya gate and Bhandari gate to Unnao gate. Her husband died while fighting the British and when Jhalkari Bai heard this, the narratives say that she became a ‘wounded tigress’, killing many British men. She managed to con them for a long time, before her true identity was discovered. According to some versions, suddenly many bullets hit her, and she died. Some state that she was set free, lived till 1890 and became a legend of her time. 5th April 1857 is said to be the day when Jhalkari Bai, disguised as Rani, fought the British and was martyred.
According to stories narrated in Uttar Pradesh, when the British came to raid on Jhansi, Jhalkari Bai was a soldier in the women’s army of Queen Laxmibai and used to make decisions on behalf of the queen. She went out as a cover for Laxmibai, even confronted the enemies and saved Laxmibai’s life from the British soldiers.
The people of Bundelkhand fondly remember her through poems like:
Macha Jhansi mein ghamasan, chahun aur machee kilkari thee,
Angrezon se loha lenein, ran mein kudee Jhalkari thee
(Translation: Amidst the sound and fury of the battle at Jhansi, Jhalkari plunged herself into the battlefield to confront the British.)
Significance and Presence
As this article on Roundtable India tells, the evidences about Jhalkari Bai emerged first from the community and then the researchers and historians uncovered more proof of the reality of Jhalkari Bai. Her life history has been neglected in mainstream history books due to upper caste hegemony and dominance of Brahmanism. The mainstream discourse has, for decades, ignored the many great stories of resistance against the colonial rulers and against the social system of the country. But alternative knowledge has always been in existence, though not in the same visible manner as the mainstream knowledge.
Jhalkari Bai’s role as an Indian warrior in the Rebellion of 1857 during the battle of Jhansi is significant at many levels. Her story is not only a stern critique of the hegemonic knowledge production of Indian history, but also telling of the innumerable erased Dalit figures in the nation’s history.
The literature surrounding Jhalkari Bai reveals a world that challenges textual, academic and historical narratives of 1857. It further shows how resistance to dominant discourses about Dalit women is an integral part of the lives of various Dalit women and Dalit communities.
Poems and songs as narrated here occupy a central place in these narratives.
khub lari jhalkari tu tau, teri ek jawani thi.
dur firangi ko karne mein, veeron mein mardani thi.
har bolon ke much se sun hum teri yeh kahani thi.
rani ki tu saathin banker, jhansi fatah karani thi….
datiya fatak raund firangi, agge barh jhalkari thi.
kali roop bhayankar garjan, mano karak damini thi.
kou firangi aankh uthain, dhar se shish uteri thi.
har bolon ke much se sun ham, roop chandika pani thi.
(Jhalkari you really fought, your youthfulness was unique.
You were a man among the brave in ousting the British.
We heard your story from the mouth of warriors.
You pledged for Jhansi to be victorious by being a friend of the queen.
Jhalkari, you rode from the Datiya gate, trampling the British.
You were like the Kali, and your strike was like lightning.
As soon as a British raised his head, you struck immediately.
We heard your deeds from the warriors, reciting tales of your bravery.)
The various poems and songs are a prominent part of the Dalit melas and rallies. Dance and plays too are enacted around them. The main narrative plots have become more elaborate with the passage of time, while many stories have been added too. Over all, it is associated with the larger purpose of reclaiming Dalit identity and dignity for the Dalits.
An episode repeatedly narrated is that of Jhalkari being blamed for killing a cow, which had actually been hidden by a Brahmin, but the truth gets revealed. This story needs to be linked to challenging dominant colonial and Hindu narratives which have regarded Dalits, along with Muslims, as killers of the “holy” cow.
Jhalkari Bai’s stories challenge the authoritative history of Rani Lakshmibai. It is argued that Lakshmibai not only managed to escape to the forests of Nepal with the help of the ruler of Pratapgarh, she died only in 1915 at the age of 80. It is actually Jhalkari Bai who is the real martyr and virangana. It is her name that should be held in highest regards and carved in gold in the pages of our history. A dalit woman with no kingdom or palace, with no expensive jewellery or shiny clothes, a woman neither a queen nor a daughter of any feudal lord, also not the wife of any jagirdar, is the one who fought selflessly and fearlessly. Her sacrifice far surpasses anyone else’s.
In comtemporary times, the Dalit-bahujan mobilization by Bahujan Samaj Party emphasizing the relevance of Jhalkari Bai has contributed significantly to ousting the myths authorised by the dominant Brahminical ideology. Not just that, but existing knowledge structures have been strongly challenged by ways of celebrating Dalit martyrs’ contribution to the freedom of the country. Jhalkari Bai’s birthday is celebrated in Uttar Pradesh as Gaurav Diwas, (Day of Pride) but is ignored by the mainstream Brahminical academia and media.
While upper caste histories highlight the resistance contributions of upper caste heroines like Jhansi Rani, the challenges posed to mainstream history tells us that the war for independence was won by Dalit and Bahujan resistance fighters like Jhalkari Bai and Uda Devi.
The General of the British Forces on meeting her had said, “If even one per cent of Indian women were like Jhalkari; the British would soon have to leave India.”
Today Jhalkari Bai’s story lives on in Bundelkhand region of India and inspires Dalit women everywhere!