Umabai Dabhade was a prominent member of the Maratha Dabhade clan. The members of her family held the hereditary title Senapati (commander-in-chief) and controlled several territories in Gujarat. She was the first female Army Chief and fought against the Peshwas after the death of her husband and sons.
Born in Nashik, Umabai Dabhade was married to Khanderao Dabhade who was the Maratha Senapati under Chhatrapati Shahu. She was his youngest wife and had three daughters and three sons. Khanderao died in 1729 and their eldest son Timbak Rao Dabhade became the Senapati. Chauth and sardeshmukhi taxes from provinces in Gujarat were the main sources of revenue for the Dabhades.
Downfall of the Dabhade clan started when Bajirao I decided to take over the tax collection in Gujarat. The Dabhades rebelled against this arrangement as a result of which Timbak Rao was killed by Bajirao I in the Battle of Dabhoi in 1731. Since her other son Yashwant Rao was a minor, she became the first female Army Chief who single handedly rose as the Dabhade matriarch.
Rise as the Army Chief
Umabai’s tale is special as she didn’t let the death of her husband Khanderao Dabhade and son by the hands of Peshwa Bajirao sap her strength to fight against the unfairness in change in the revenue division system. The Peshwa allowed the Dabhades to retain control of Gujarat but they had to remit half of the revenue to his treasury. Umabai always held a grudge against Bajirao and never actually remitted the revenues.
Shahu never took any action on this as he sympathised with Umabai. However, with the death of Bajirao I in 1740 and Chhatrapati Shahu in 1749, things changed for the Dabhades. The new Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao and Chhatrapati Rajaram II faced financial distress and forced the Dabhades to pay their dues. Umabai Dabhade requested the Peshwa to release her family from the unfair revenue distribution system but the Peshwa didn’t agree.
Alliance with former Maratha Queen Tarabai
This led to an alliance between Umabai Dabhade and Tarabai, the former Maratha Queen, against Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao. However, Umabai still tried to maintain peace and kept making appeals to the Peshwa to free them from the revenue sharing covenant. She met the Peshwa on 22 November, 1750 and argued that the covenant was being unfairly forced on them and hence should be lifted. Balaji Baji Rao refused to do this and asked for immediate remittance.
With no options left, to fight against the unfair system, Umabai Dabhade adopted a more rebellious approach in alliance with Tarabai. When the Peshwa left for the Mughal Frontier, Tarabai imprisoned the Chhatrapati on 24 November, 1750. Umabai sent a force led by lieutenant Damaji Gaekwad to help Tarabai. After some initial successes, the Peshwa captured Damaji and asked him to sign a peace agreement.
Since he was just a subordinate, he asked the Peshwa to consult Umabai. Subsequently, his camp was attacked by the Peshwa and they surrendered on 30 April, 1751. In the following months, the Dabhade family was also arrested. They were scraped off of their title of Senapati. Things became worse when Damaji abandoned the Dabhade family in favour of the Peshwa who granted him the title of Maratha chief of Gujarat.
All this led to the weakening of the Dabhade family. They lost their power and wealth. Umabai Dabhade subsequently died on 28 November 1753 at Nadgemodi in Pune.
Despite that Umabai’s life ended with a defeat, the fact that in the late 1700s, when women had no identity of their own, two women came together to fight inequity is remarkable and does not get as much attention as it should. They challenged the patriarchy and smashed it. Defeated majorly due to lack of resources and treason, Umabai and Tarabai present a strong example that it is not the gender that defines roles but one’s’ capability and ideology.
Relevance in the Contemporary World
Male domination has always been present in political and economic structures of society. It has been diminishing over the years, as women are inspired to take up more leadership roles in the military and the state. Accounts of women taking charge in times of political chaos and dynastic upheaval to stand up for themselves is an inspiration to every person reading it. However, our society often fails to narrate the stories of such warriors. That is why sharing this story of Umabai Dabhade today holds importance.
Unequal distribution of power still prevails and involvement of women in politics and war culture as leaders even in today’s time is limited. 7% of the candidates for the Lok Sabha Elections of 2019 were women and only 14% of the seats in the Indian Parliament are held by women representing half of India’s population. Even in the military, women constitute 13.09% of the Indian Air Force, 6% of the Indian Navy 6% and 3.8% of the Indian Army. Male over-representation exists in these spheres as the society often fails to see women as leaders.
Movies and television shows are built around significant male warriors, glorifying and romanticising their tales. Books are written, institutions are named after them, statues are erected all over India. However, this leaves the tales of women warriors like Umabai Dabhade overlooked, often erasing their existence from history. There have been many women warriors throughout history and it’s time we start celebrating their courage and wit. Umabai’s tale shows how a highly patriarchal society can’t stop you from fighting and raising your voice against injustice.