Who Was India’s First Woman Freedom Fighter? Begum Hazrat Mahal

by Rais Siddiqui

As a child, she was sold by her parents due to their poverty to royal agents. Soon she became a courtesan by profession as she entered the royal harem as a Khawasin where she was promoted to a Pari and was known as Mahek Pari. Subsequently, she became a Begum after being accepted as a royal concubine of the king of Awadh, the last Tajdaar-e-Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah.

Begum Hazrat Mahal (1820-1879)

Begum Hazrat Mahal, also known as Begum of Awadh, was one of India’s first female freedom fighters, who led the battle of India’s first freedom movement in 1857 against the British East India Company. The Begum, a bold and brave woman, has marked her place in history as the only major female leader of Awadh. The brave Queen never surrendered to the British despite several troubles in her life, and even continued resisting the British Raj during her years of exile in Nepal.

Born in the 1820s as Muhammadi Khanam, she was from a poor Syed family in Faizabad, then in Awadh, and now in Uttar Pradesh. As a child, she was sold by her parents due to their poverty to royal agents. Soon she became a courtesan by profession as she entered the royal harem as a Khawasin where she was promoted to a Pari and was known as Mahek Pari. Subsequently, she became a Begum after being accepted as a royal concubine of the king of Awadh, the last Tajdaar-e-Avadh, Wajid Ali Shah. The title Hazrat Mahal was bestowed upon her after the birth of their son, and the royal heir of Awadh, Birjis Qadr.

In 1856, the East India Company gained control over the state of Awadh and forced the Nawab into submission. The Nawab complied despite Begum Hazrat Mahal’s protests and was sent to exile in Calcutta. She refused to bend down to the British and decided to regain control over Awadh herself.

As the first Indian war for independence in 1857 – the great mutiny – began, she made her son, Prince Brijis Qadr, the Wali, ruler of Awadh with herself as Queen Mother, regent during his minority. In Lucknow with her son, she took charge of the affairs of the revolutionary state of Awadh as it entered an armed struggle with the Company.

During the Indian revolution of 1857, two of the principal complaints of Begum Hazrat Mahal were – the destruction of mosques and temples, just to pave the roads and the forceful use of new gunpowder cartridges, which had bones of pigs and cows. Begum Hazrat Mahal appealed to the rural folk of Awadh and motivated them to join her in the fight. She even spent her entire wealth on the country, attempting to provide for the one hundred thousand people who followed her with loyalty.

With their support, she single-handedly led her troops to victory and seized Lucknow again. She proved to be indispensable in this freedom struggle as she took to the battlefield alongside brave hearts such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bakht Khan, and Maulvi Abdullah. She also worked closely with Nana Saheb and went to assist the Maulvi of Faizabad during the attack on Shahjahanpur.

On July 5, 1857, she victoriously reinstated Indian rule in Lucknow once again handing over the throne to her 14-year-old son.

However, Begum Hazrat Mahal lost control over Lucknow and most of Awadh once the British troops returned on March 16, 1858, she retreated with her army, but retreating did not prevent her from attempting to organize soldiers again at other places.

Ultimately, by the end of 1859, after a brief residential stay in Terai, she had to migrate to Nepal where she was initially refused asylum by the Rana, Prime Minister Jang Bahadur but was later allowed to stay, despite the British Government’s demands for her handover.

The British offered her a heavy pension to return to Awadh and work under them, but she turned it down and continued to resist British rule till her last breath. She died at the age of 59, on April 7, 1879, in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her role in the first Indian war for independence in 1857 has given her a status of a hero forever in the history of the Indian freedom movement against the British Empire.

After her death, on the occasion of the jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887, the British Government pardoned Birjis Qadr and he was allowed to return home. Begum Hazrat Mahal‘s tomb is located in the central park of Kathmandu near Jama Masjid and it is looked after by the Jama Masjid committee.

Rais Sidiqiui (poet, Short Story Writer)

On August 15, 1962, Begum Hazrat Mahal was honoured at the old Victoria Park in Hazratganj, Lucknow for her exemplary role in the first Indian freedom movement of 1857. Along with the park, a marble memorial was constructed which includes a marble tablet with four round brass plaques bearing the Coat of Arms of the Awadh Royal family. The park has been used for Ram Lila’s and bonfires during Dussehra as well as Lucknow Mahotsav.

On May 10, 1984, the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in honour of Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Ministry of Minority Affairs started the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship for Meritorious Girls belonging to minority communities in India. This scholarship is implemented through the Maulana Azad Education Foundation.

Begum Hazrat Mahal is an inspiration for all, as she fought the greatest colonizers in the world, the British Raj all alone. She was one of the greatest advocates of her time and raised her voice against inequality and injustice. She also serves as the symbol of religious tolerance and camaraderie.

(Author is a Bhopal-based former IBS officer in All India Radio and Doordarshan and Sahitya Academy National Award and Delhi Urdu Academy Award winner in Urdu literature.)

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