The colonization by the British was a curse to the land of India. The loss caused by the years of British rule goes beyond the physical realm. But every cloud has a silver lining. With all its destruction, colonization did have a good side-effect- the unification of the diverse population of India. One major figure that helped the cause was Begum Hazrat Mahal.
Begum Hazrat was born in a poor family in Faizabad. Her name was Muhmmadi Khanum. Her father was a former slave. The desperate financial situation made him sell Hazrat to the royal family of Awadh.
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She was inducted into a program where young girls were trained to be courtesans. A courtesan was someone who would dance, sing or play musical instruments for the amusement of the Royals. The training included graceful walks, mannerisms in the presence of the King, and learning Urdu.
Hazrat was both beautiful and intelligent. Soon she was transferred to the Pari Khana or the house of fairies. This institution selected the most promising girls to be personal courtesans to Nawab (king in Urdu) himself.
The Nawab of Awadh was impressed by Hazrat’s talents and gave her the title of Mahak Pari meaning fairy of fragrance. The nawab fell in love with her and married her. The previous wives of the king were jealous of Hazrat’s beauty and youth. This made her quite unpopular amongst the royals.
In 1856, the nawab of Awadh was annexed by the East India Company. He was forced to move to Calcutta. Unable to accommodate all his wives in Calcutta, he left Hazrat and others at Lucknow.
In 1857, the hanging of Mangal Pandey started the first war of independence in India. In the absence of the Nawab, Hazrat took matters into her own hands. She knew the importance of Awadh geographically. The war of independence was strongest on two fronts, Delhi and Calcutta. The city of Delhi was hosting armies of Rani Laxmi bai and Tatya Tope. Calcutta port was the only way for East India Company to bring reinforcement to India. Awadh was the bridge between Delhi and Calcutta.
Hazrat started organizing an army. She became vocal about ‘nation first and religion next’. Her army was led by a Hindu king Jai Lal Singh, and her superintendent in charge was Mammu Khan. She also encouraged women to join the forces. Her Women battalion was led by a Dalit woman named Uda Devi. Angered by the dethroning of Nawab, the locals joined the army in huge numbers.
The British reinforcements moving towards Delhi were stuck on the banks of river Ganga. The army of Awadh surrounded them and destroyed other bridges, trapping them in Lucknow. Expecting a bigger reinforcement, Hazrat started building walls around the city.
The retaliation by the British went in vain. Not only did they lose the battle but also lost some prominent officers.
After two years of resistance from Awadh, they finally broke. The final blow came in the form of Gurkhas. Gurkhas were a highly-trained army under the Kingship of Nepal. East India Company along with Gorkhas broke through the defence of Awadh’s army. Hazrat Begum was given an offer of rescue by the same Nepal king. She accepted the offer and was exiled to Nepal. She lived the rest of her life there and passed away due to old age.
Though she left the country, the country never left her. She kept sending works of poetry back to India under pseudo names. These poems were filled with messages of unity. She also constructed a mosque in Nepal and named it Hindustani Masjid. She was rightfully buried next to it.
The East India Company used the strategy of ‘divide and rule’ to gain control over India. Begum Hazrat Mahal fought against both their military and psychological warfare. Her army had Hindus and Muslims, men and women, Brahmins and Dalits, all together. Her ideology of uniting the people of India paved the way for future leaders. The future revolution succeeded by uniting people of different religions, caste, and gender. Even after independence, India continues to value Hazrat’s principle of unity.