Review: Ranis And The Raj by Queeny Pradhan

ByLamat R Hasan
Jan 20, 2023 05:08 PM IST

A look at the lives of six Indian queens who negotiated with the British imperial power, sometimes with a pen and at others with the sword

Academic Queeny Pradhan, who earlier authored Empire in the Hills: Simla, Darjeeling, Ootacamund and Mount Abu, 1820-1920, revisits the lives of six 19th century queens in her latest work. The royal figures in the volume – some of them are completely unknown while others are celebrated as warrior queens – include the Rani of Sirmur, Rani Chennamma of Kittur, Maharani Jindan of Punjab, Begum Zeenat Mahal of Delhi, Maharani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi and Queen Menchi of Sikkim. All of them negotiated with the British Raj, sometimes with a pen, sometimes with a sword.

Mehtab in and as Jhansi Ki Rani in the 1953 film directed by Sohrab Modi. (HT Photo)
Mehtab in and as Jhansi Ki Rani in the 1953 film directed by Sohrab Modi. (HT Photo)

Researching and re-examining the lives of these individuals was daunting as the author had to make sense of the “silences” in official records. With the little fragments of information available, Pradhan had the mammoth task of sketching their life stories. “There are not just silences around the queens, they are invisible,” she writes.

Ranis and the Raj is divided into three sections – Fighting with Pen and Sword, Queens in Controversy, and Queens on the Margins. While the first section introduces Maharani Lakshmi Bai and Rani Chennamma, the best known “warrior queens” in this volume, the second features Maharani Jindan and Begum Zeenat Mahal, the most maligned, while the Rani of Sirmur and the Queen of Sikkim are in the last section. Both were on the margins and were considered so insignificant that their actual names are missing in imperial records.

336pp, ₹699; Penguin            
336pp, ₹699; Penguin            

The book steers away from glorifying these queens and emphasises that they were not fighting for India’s freedom but to protect their own principalities and kingdoms. The author isn’t pursuing a feminist agenda or even judging the queens. No catalysts of change, they did little to alter social structures and on the contrary, were serving the cause of patriarchy. Of course, even stating this amounts to measuring historical figures according to the standards of the contemporary world.

Interestingly, the female monarchs who resisted the British on the battlefield, are now national icons while those who took on the coloniser through diplomatic means, have vanished from our collective memory. Nevertheless, in the British records of the time, these queens are equals: scheming, manipulative, and untrustworthy.

Pradhan warns that hagiographical accounts – imperialist or nationalist – do not provide a critical understanding of history and revisits the archives to examine acts of heroism, and fills in the blanks about those heroic acts that went unrecorded.

Maharani Lakshmi Bai has been immortalised and is now revered. The image of her on a horseback with her son, holding aloft a sword has been etched in the collective consciousness. Her story begins with the death of her husband and her first long battle not with a sword but with a pen – to ensure her son’s acceptance as the successor. She sent representations to the East India Company and even to the Crown to not annex Jhansi by exercising the Doctrine of Lapse.

Pradhan makes the important point that though the rani is a nationalist icon and her martial valour is celebrated, she rebelled against the British only when her plea to elevate her son as maharaja was spurned.

Rani Chennamma of Kittur, another warrior queen, took on the British Raj when her husband died without a natural heir. With the rejection of the succession of the adopted heir, Chennamma spearheaded the negotiations with the British authorities with “a pen”. When the British army moved in to annex Kittur, the rani opened fire and killed the British agent and his Indian collaborators. She was taken prisoner and eventually died in prison in 1829.

“There are very few references to her by name in the Company archives. She appears as a mere shadowy presence. However, she comes alive in Kannada folk songs which glorify her as a warrior,” writes Pradhan, who heard those “lavanis” on a visit to Karnataka.

Maharani Jindan, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest wife, was one of the most controversial queens of the 19th century. When she gave birth to Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1838, the British made it known that they doubted the child’s paternity. In reality, they were doing their best to tarnish her reputation as they were anxious about her power over the Sikh chiefs and troops. In 1846, she was separated from her son and sent to Sheikhupura fort.

The other controversial queen was Begum Zeenat Mahal, the youngest wife of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. In 1857, she was trusted neither by the British officials nor by the rebels. The British persuaded the Begum to convince her husband to surrender. She agreed on condition that the lives of her husband and son would be spared. The British did not honour their word and Bahadur Shah and his wife were exiled to Rangoon. Of the emperor’s many consorts, she was the only one who chose to share her husband’s fate. “She was a woman of her times, caught between the unravelling of the Mughal dynasty and a mother’s ambition for her son. To say that she was scheming is to judge her and will not be a proper assessment of her personality,” writes Pradhan who views Begum Zeenat Mahal and Maharani Jindan as tragic figures who lost everything. While the former lost the land of her ancestors, the latter lost her only son, Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was snatched from her and sent to England.

Author Queeny Pradhan (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Queeny Pradhan (Courtesy the publisher)

Guleri, the rani of Sirmur, negotiated with the British, using her diplomatic skills to convince them to appoint her minor son as king. This was an important feat as her husband was still alive and she stepped in to save her son’s political interests and ensure the continuation of her husband’s dynasty when it became clear that the British would not restore her husband to the throne. Sadly, her name hardly features in any official accounts. Pradhan attributes this to rank sexism: “It is either due to the indifference or callousness of a masculine Empire or obfuscation of the facts, giving negligent attention to these queens.”

Very little is known about Queen Menchi of Sikkim – history has not even preserved her real name – but it is certain that she refused to bow to the commands of the British, who were invited to the mountain kingdom to drive out the Gurkhas.

Pradhan states that, in many ways, these “vendetta queens” were dealing with two complex world views – modern and traditional. Though the British presented themselves as the torchbearers of modernity, they were typical of their times and treated the queens with a marked patriarchal bias. The author raises important questions regarding the gendered nature of imperial records and looks at why a Maharani Lakshmi Bai emerged as an icon while Abbaka Chowta of Ullal, who confronted the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century, was reduced to being a footnote in Indian history. While this subject is endlessly interesting, the text is often repetitive; there are also a few typos, which will hopefully be fixed in the next edition.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in Delhi.

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