Little known, little remembered: Begum Hazrat Mahal
Abdul Rashid Agwan
The staunch freedom fighter Begum Hazrat Mahal's 137th death anniversary was recalled yesterday. Her great sacrifices for the First War of Independence are almost forgotten in India and, save some token events in Lucknow where she ruled and Nepal where she died, she could hardly be remembered. Begum of Awadh born in 1820 in a poor family of Faizabad became the queen of Lucknow, the first wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. She was one of the heroes of freedom struggle of 1857 died on 7 April 1879 during her refuge in Nepal. She was remembered on her death anniversary falling yesterday but almost neglectfully.
The Begum fiercely fought the British East India Company during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, with the help of her commander Raja Jailal Singh. When her forces regained power of Lucknow for a brief stint, her son Brijis Qadra was declared ruler of Awadh. Then, she was forced to retreat. She worked with the Maratha rebellion leader Nana Sahib for some time and attacked the British army at Shahjahnpur in collaboration with Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faiazabad and was ultimately forced to leave the country and sought asylum in Nepal. Then the king of Nepal denied her any official protection but was allowed to stay there. She died 137 years back and almost forgotten thereafter but by a handful of people living around her Mazar.
Her rebellion was ignited by the demolition of temples and mosques by the East India Company to make way for roads. On that occasion she quipped the British claim of religious freedom by retorting, "To eat pigs and drink wine, to bite greased cartridges and to mix pig's fat with sweetmeats, to destroy Hindu and Mussalman temples on pretense of making roads, to build churches, to send clergymen into the streets to preach the Christian religion, to institute English schools, and pay people a monthly stipend for learning the English sciences, while the places of worship of Hindus and Mussalmans are to this day entirely neglected; with all this, how can people believe that religion will not be interfered with?"
Begum Hazrat Mahal's tomb is located in central part of Kathmandu near Jame Masjid, Ghantaghar and looked after by the Jama Masjid Central Committee, without any assistance from the Government of India.
Her sacrifices were returned by the grateful nation by naming the erstwhile Victoria Park in Lucknow as Begum Hazrat Mahal Park in 1962 and issuance of a stamp in her memory on 10 May 1984. Later on she was hardly recalled by the successive governments, both at the center and the state.
It is shocking to note that no memorial of Hazrat Mahal has yet been established in Faizabad itself what to speak it to be at par with that of other freedom fighter of the same stature Rani Lakshmi Bai in Jhansi and elsewhere. When the country regularly remembers some select heroes of the freedom struggle, the high sacrifices of Begum Hazrat Mahal and her family do hardly find space in them, although the entire family remained a staunch epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity, especially during the trialing times.