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Don’t remember the 1857 Mutiny with Rani of Jhansi alone. You’re missing out on Uda Devi

Uda Devi was an icon for Pasis and a Dalit freedom fighter who single-handedly killed British soldiers to avenge her soldier husband.

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The call for mutiny against the British in 1857 was rising — and Indian rebels needed numbers on their side. Just a short distance from Jhansi, at Sikander Bagh, British forces were desperately trying to break through resistance from a group of Indians. Several British casualties had bullet wounds from what could only be a hidden sniper. So, when commander Colin Campbell asked soldiers to fire at a nearby peepal tree, a figure fell to the ground. It was Uda Devi, a Dalit woman dressed in men’s clothing, avenging her husband’s killing.

Rani of Jhansi is a leading figure in the Indian feminist imagination — but the dominant narrative often misses Devi.

She is one of those often-forgotten Dalit women warriors who were a part of the revolt against British East India Company. She formed an all-women battalion, today called the Dalit Veeranganas, to take part in armed uprisings against the British. Devi belonged to the Pasi community, which was labelled a ‘criminal caste’ by the British administration under the Criminal Tributes Act, 1871.

She reached out to Begum Hazrat Mahal, the Begum of Awadh, to enlist her in the war. Her husband, Makka Pasi, was already a soldier in the Nawab of Awadh’s army. The Begum helped her form the battalion, and Dalit resistance fighters officially joined the armed struggle against the British.

Dalit erasure from the Revolt of 1857

Like several other Dalit women, Uda Devi has been erased from the dominant narrative of the freedom struggle. While Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi can be widely found in school textbooks, stories about Devi and other women — including Kuyili, Rani Gaidinliu, and Putalimaya Devi Poddar — have been left out of the mainstream.

“A particular feature of the great uprising was the participation not just of women from royal and noble backgrounds but of women from depressed classes too,” writes historian Rana Safvi.

Women were not always seen as warriors and were often written out of the narrative. The contributions and resistance of dominant caste warriors like Rani Lakshmibai have been
immortalised in oral traditions and folk songs. Similarly, members of the elite like the Begum of Awadh have a more formal place in history.

But regardless of how history has remembered her, Devi certainly left a mark on the British soldiers she fought against. Historians have noted how fierce the stand at Sikander Bagh was. While the exact number of her victims is unknown — it ranges from six to 32 — all accounts agree that Devi unleashed her full vengeance at Sikander Bagh.
“She was armed with a pair of heavy old-pattern cavalry pistols, one of which was in her belt still loaded, and her pouch was still about half full of ammunition, while from her perch in the tree, which had been carefully prepared before the attack, she had killed more than half-a-dozen men,” records William Forbes-Mitchell in Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny, 1857-59.

Also read: Asim Bihari, the icon of Pasmanda movement who liked to stay in the background

Still remembered today

The Pasi community commemorates Devi every year on 16 November. Pasis are traditionally pig-herders and toddy tappers and were listed as the second-largest Dalit group in Uttar Pradesh after the 2001 census.

“We always get together on the day she was martyred. We tell our children of her bravery and keep her memory alive,” said Lalit Kumar Paswan, district president of the Pasi community, in 2015.

Members of the community reportedly travel from West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar and gather at the site of her last stand in Sikander Bagh. Women, especially, travel long distances to attend and raise slogans in her support.

The Pasis have also been involved in other grassroots struggles. Academic Ramnarayan Rawat has written about the role of Dalit communities — especially Chamars and Pasis —
in such struggles and documented their participation in the Kisan Sabha movement in 1929. Due to their roots in agriculture, the Pasi peasant community could drum up support
for the movement against the British, encompassing multiple sub-castes under its umbrella. Uda Devi’s personal act of bravery became a significant event in Dalit history, challenging the dominant narrative of India’s freedom struggle and asserting the presence of participants from marginalised backgrounds. By celebrating her every year, the Pasi community keeps her memory alive, situating her firmly as a Dalit leader during the Revolt of 1857.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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