Bahujan icon Jhalkari Bai is one of the lesser-known figures of the 1857 revolt in Jhansi. She was at the forefront of the battle in Jhansi and led the Durga Dal. But it is only Rani Laxmi Bai who is revered throughout history in India’s mainstream conscience.
India’s written history is said to be that of the privileged communities. Rarely do we come across icons from marginalised communities in textbooks and pop culture. This is particularly true of the oppressed communities – the SC and ST communities, who have only a few to look up to when it comes to popular discourse in Indian history.
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In India, Dalits have continued to face oppression from the upper-caste and privileged section of society. And caste has played a significant role in the historical marginalisation of people.
Even today, crimes against Dalits are perpetrated based on their identity. Dalits have been attacked for entering temples, riding a horse, marrying someone from the “upper-caste”, eating in front of them, and so on. It doesn’t matter what religion they belong to; their Dalit identity is used to treat them as lesser beings.
This is where downplaying the history of the Dalit community in India’s historical and political struggles plays a significant role in the perception of the masses, in turn minimising their existence.
The neglected story of Jhalkari Bai is a prime example of the Savarnawashing of India’s historical battles.
Jhalkari Bai was born on 22 November, 1830 in Bhojla village near Jhansi. She was a Dalit from the Kori caste. She married Puran Singh, a soldier in Rani Laxmibai’s army. It’s through this association that she met the queen and soon became the commander of the Durga Dal, the women’s brigade of Jhansi.
Khoob ladi mardani woh toh Jhansi wali rani thi.
I’m sure a lot of people remember this line from their school textbook. In school, we were taught about the battle in Jhansi and the fearless role Rani Laxmibai plays in confronting the British.
In India’s mainstream history, Rani Laxmibai (Jhansi Ki Rani) is at the forefront of the fight against the British in Jhansi and has been eulogised for her role. While fighting the British, she is said to have managed to escape Jhansi. It’s then in Gwalior that she again fights the British but is killed in battle.
Angrezon se loha lenein, ran mein kudee Jhalkari thee.
(Jhalkari plunged herself into the battle to confront the British).
In Bundelkhand, Jhalkari Bai is revered for her role in the fight against the British in Jhansi. Through folklore, poems, plays and nautankis, she has remained a prominent figure for Dalits in the region.
Jhalkari Bai isn’t talked about in pop culture and nothing significant has been written about her by mainstream historians who’ve propagated the upper-caste narrative. Instead, it’s Dalit historians who have managed to keep her legacy alive.
Jhalkari Bai, the commander of the Durga Dal, was one of those who laid their lives in Jhansi while fighting the British. Closely resembling Rani Laxmibai, she is said to have confronted the British in disguise, which gave Rani Laxmibai time to retreat with her son.
She managed to keep the British occupied and fought them relentlessly after her husband was killed in battle. She is said to have been shot at and killed by the British during the battle.
The 1857 revolt was led by those from marginalised groups. It’s believed that rulers and leaders were more worried about their thrones. Rani Laxmibai’s diplomatic ties with the British suggest the same. It was when she realised she was going to lose power that she joined the revolt.
The difference in the historical portrayals of Rani Laxmibai (a Brahmin) and Jhalkari Bai (a Dalit) presents the problem of representation and the insignificance Dalit historical figures have been given. If it weren’t for the historical accounts of the Dalit community, the story of Jhalkari Bai wouldn’t have been preserved and would have been buried in the back pages of history.
This discrepancy in the upper-caste historical narrative of India shows how Dalits and other marginalised communities are viewed in the context of Indian history. This erasure continues to be perpetuated even today in society and leads to discrimination against the community.
Jhalkari Bai is only one of the names that have been neglected and forgotten. Uda Devi, Avanti Bai, Mahabiri Devi, Asha Devi and many more figures throughout history have been neglected due to their caste and identity. India’s Brahminised history doesn’t feel the need to incorporate those from Dalit and Adivasi communities and tends to portray an upper-caste, ultra-nationalistic version.
yatra-tatra sarvatra milegi, unki gaatha ki charcha.
kintu upekshit veervaron ka – kabhi nahin chapta parcha.
(Here, there and everywhere, you will find discussions on their deeds, but the scorned [dalit] heroes are never written about in papers).