Hazrat Mahal

Hazrat Mahal (c. 1820-1879) was one of the primary Indian leaders in the struggle known variously as the Great Mutiny or the Indian War (1857-58).

As the acting regent of the state of Oudh (modern Awadh), Hazrat Mahal led the native resistance to British control in the name of her son, Birgis Qadr. The Indian War was one of the most significant colonial wars of the nineteenth century because it brought India, which had been ruled by agents of the British East India Company, directly under the control of the British Crown. It also united Hindus and Muslims in ways that would never happen again. This led directly to the Indian independence movement and the creation of the modern nations of India and Pakistan. Hazrat Mahal was the only major leader never to surrender to the British, and she maintained her opposition through twenty years of exile in Nepal until her death in 1879.

Hazrat Mahal's origins are unclear. Apparently she was born into a poor family in the city of Faizabad, located in the state of Oudh. Her parents were obscure; most sources written in English only know her family name, which they say was Iftikarun-nisa. The name may indicate that she was of Iranian descent; the state of Oudh, writes Rudrangshu Mukherjee in Awadh in Revolt 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance, had been established in 1722 by a Persian adventurer. Local traditions maintain that she was educated as a dancing-girl and attracted the attention of the king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah. He called her to his court in his capital city of Lucknow, received her into his harem, and, according to P. J. O. Taylor in A Companion to the 'Indian Mutiny' of 1857, "when she gave birth to a son, raised her to the rank of one of his wives, under the title Hazrat Mahal."

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Background of the Indian War

The conflict that led to Hazrat Mahal's resistance was one of a series of similar conflicts happening across India between the Indian states on the one hand and the British East India Company on the other. By the time Hazrat Mahal's son was born, around 1845, the state of Oudh had been virtually independent from the Moghul Emperor in Delhi for nearly a hundred years. By the 1850s, most of the states that made up the former empire paid only lip service to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the titular Moghul Emperor. The East India Company encouraged these states in their quest for independence in the name of profit. The Company, by offering individual rulers arms and the use of its own independent army, won trading concessions from the local rulers. It also encouraged them to go into debt and, when the rulers proved unable to pay, forced new concessions from them or even confiscated their lands.

Wajid Ali Shah, Hazrat Mahal's husband, faced a similar situation in 1856. He had gotten into debt to the East India Company, and his administration was proving too corrupt to manage his debts. Traditionally, the right to collect taxes in Oudh was sold to the highest bidder, usually one of a small number of important men. This tax collector then squeezed the most money possible from the taxpayers in order to turn a profit on his investment. In many cases, the tax collector also kept part of the money that was due to the government and slipped bribes to government officials to cover their tracks. Whether or not this widespread corruption included Wajid Ali Shah himself is not known.

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Foreclosure on a Country

Late in 1855 the Court of Directors, the governing body of the East India Company, came to the conclusion that Wajid Ali Shah was either unwilling or unable to repay his debts. They instructed their representative in Lucknow, Lieutenant General Sir James Outram, to begin the process of annexation. Begum Hazrat Mahal (Begum being a title of respect bestowed upon Muslim women of high rank), as well as the king's brother, were both opposed to annexation. On February 7, 1856, the British took control of the kingdom of Oudh. Five weeks later, on March 13, the king himself left Lucknow for exile in Calcutta. He left his eleven-year-old heir Birgis Qadr and Hazrat Mahal, acting as regent for her son, in charge.

Outram had some sympathy for the position of the former king's family, but his successor had very little. The British placed a new representative, C. Coverley Jackson, in Lucknow to protect their interests and to supervise the transfer of power from the former royal family to the East India Company. Jackson was only stationed in Lucknow for a year, from March 1856 to March 1857, but in that period he managed to alienate the Begum, her son, and many of the major political figures of Oudh. The man that replaced him, Sir Henry Lawrence, was a much better politician, but he proved unable to repair the damage done by Jackson before the Great Mutiny broke out in Delhi on May 11, 1857.

Background of the Great Mutiny

The Indian War had its roots in the resentment that Indians, both Muslims and Hindus, had toward the East India Company and its growing power in the subcontinent. Both groups felt that the British were intolerant of their faiths and customs, and wanted only to convert them forcibly to Christianity. Early in 1857, rumors began spreading among the various native troops making up the bulk of the Company's army in India that the new cartridges issued for use in army guns had been greased with pork and beef fat. Since the cartridges were designed so that the soldiers had to tear them open with their teeth, this meant that the native troops would be forced to eat some of the grease. Pork was a forbidden meat to Muslims, while the cow was sacred to Hindus. Native troops believed, whether rightly or wrongly, that the grease on their cartridges was a calculated insult by the British meant to humiliate them.

In the period immediately preceding the Mutiny, Hazrat Mahal was busily at work consolidating her son's position as his father's rightful heir. She convinced the emperor Bahadur to name Birgis Qadr regent for Oudh, confiscated the property of corrupt officials and used it to pay her own troops, and recruited respected Hindus to join her largely Muslim administration. Rajah Jai Lal Singh, who became her primary military commander, brought with him most of the local Hindu soldiers and threw their support behind the Begum and her son. "The boy was only twelve years old: it was assumed, though not explicitly, that Hazrat Mahal should rule in his name, " explained Taylor. "She did, and from that moment she had great power."

From late June through the middle of September, the Begum exercised her power against the British in Lucknow. Most of the 600 Europeans still living in the city found shelter from Indian guns in the 37-acre compound called the Residency. Hazrat Mahal and her generals placed the Residency under siege, bombarding the building and placing snipers to pick off unwary residents. Sir Henry Lawrence himself was one of the first casualties, hit by a fragment from an artillery shell on July 2. The siege of the Residency made great headlines in the contemporary British press and attracted world attention to Lucknow and the state of Oudh.

"It was not until September 23, after 90 days of siege, " writes James Morris in Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress, "that the defenders heard gunfire on the other side of the city, and two days later there burst into the compound a column of Highlanders." Their generals were Henry Havelock and James Outram. Although the British force was too weak to evacuate the compound, it did provide some protection for the civilians trapped there until General Colin Campbell forced his way into the city in November. Campbell relieved the siege of the Residency and left a sizeable force under Outram's command at the Alambagh just outside the city.

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Hazrat Mahal's Resistance

Hazrat Mahal was very unhappy with her commanders' performance. Part of the reason that the Indian troops were unable to capture the Residency during the siege was because of arguments between her generals. In addition, the British were offering pardons and favorable terms for Indians who could prove they were not responsible for the deaths of British citizens. Many talukdars, the important landowners of Oudh, were beginning to take advantage of the British terms. When Campbell finally relieved the siege in November, her patience snapped. She summoned a durbar, or high council, and addressed her army in terms of reproach. "The whole army is in Lucknow, but it is without courage, " Taylor quotes her as saying. "Why does it not attack the Alambagh? Is it waiting for the English to be reinforced and Lucknow to be surrounded? How much longer am I to pay the sepoys for doing nothing? Answer now, and if fight you won't, I shall negotiate with the English to spare my life."

Although Hazrat Mahal's commanders made six separate assaults on Outram's forces between Christmas day, 1857, and late February, 1858, they failed to move the British. On March 16, 1858, the British recaptured Lucknow and forced the Begum and her army out of the city. She kept an army in the field throughout the year, but she was never able to reestablish herself and her son in Lucknow. Despite her desperate condition, she remained defiant of the British. When Queen Victoria issued a proclamation taking the British East India Company's possessions in India under Crown control on November 1, 1858, the Begum responded with an announcement of her own. She criticized the British offers as misleading, lacking in substance, and as breaking treaties and promises. She further accused the British of using discontent among the native people as a pretense for taking over the country, and demanded the restoration of her family as rightful rulers.

Despite her defiance, by the end of 1859 Hazrat Mahal had lost most of her adherents and was forced to seek shelter with the Maharajah of Nepal, Jung Bahadur. She remained in Nepal, refusing all offers of terms from the British government, until her death in 1879. She was the last free leader of the Mutiny.

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Further Reading on Hazrat Mahal

Bhatnagar, G. D., The Annexation of Oudh, Volume 3: Uttaara Bharati, [n.p.], 1956.

Bhatnagar, G. D., Awadh Under Wajid Ali Shah, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, 1968.

Morris, James, Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Mukherjee, Rudrangshu, Awadh in Revolt 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Pemble, John, The Raj, the Indian Mutiny, and the Kingdom of Oudh, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1976.

Stokes, Eric, The Peasant Armed: The Indian Revolt of 1857, edited by C. A. Bayly, Clarendon Press, 1986.

Taylor, P. J. O., A Feeling of Quiet Power: The Siege of Lucknow 1857, Harper Collins, 1994.

Taylor, P. J. O., general editor. A Companion to the 'Indian Mutiny' of 1857, Oxford University Press, 1996.