“Ranis and the Raj: The Pen and the Sword” by Queeny Pradhan

Maharani Jind Kaur, one of the six ranis featured in Ranis and the Raj Maharani Jind Kaur, one of the six ranis featured in Ranis and the Raj

The history of Indian queens—or ranis—has so far been left largely unexplored because mainstream history deals primarily with the annals of the kings. Queeny Pradhan’s Ranis & the Raj presents a perceptible shift in focus as it views the British Raj in 19th-century India from the perspective of six Indian queens—Rani Chennamma of Kittur, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Maharani Jindan of Punjab, Begum Zeenat Mahal, Guleri Rani of Sirmur and Queen Menchi of Sikkim—from geographically and culturally varied regions which offer a pan-Indian dimension to the history of the ranis. 

These indomitable female rulers wielded their agency in court politics either as the favorite consort of the king or as the mother of the next in line. They would come to officiate as the ruling authority of their particular princely state and hence interact with the Raj through the untimely death of the king, lack of a male heir or even just the weak personality of the king.

 

Ranis and the Raj: The Pen and the Sword, Queeny Pradhan (India Viking, October 2022)
Ranis and the Raj: The Pen and the Sword, Queeny Pradhan (India Viking, October 2022)

The subtitle “The Pen and the Sword” indicates Pradhan’s intention to analyze both political and military responses to the colonial threats. The statues of Rani Chennamma of Kittur (in present-day Karnataka) and Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) represent the queens in their warrior avatars—on horseback with a drawn sword in their hands.  Images of the queen as a warrior contributed to the construction of Indian nationalist ideology both in the pre- and post-Independence periods. However, these “martyr” images obscure more than they reveal for the  letters and petitions from these ranis to the British officials reveal that the “sword’’ was the last option. Well aware that war leads to loss of life and property, they preferred to settle conflicts with the might of the “pen”. Yet while Chennamma and Lakshmi Bai were glorified as patriots, Begum Zeenat Mahal, the wife of the last Mughal Emperor, has conventionally been accused of bringing down the Mughal dynasty by plotting with the British. The author disagrees and presents an alternative view: that at the time of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Begum sought to ensure the safety of her family by trying to strike a balance by negotiating with local opponents while maintaining amicable relations with the British.

The letters of the ranis, recovered mostly from archives, bear testimony to their strong personalities. The letters of Maharani Jindan of Punjab, who was widely misunderstood as a promiscuous queen, in particular reveal a heart-rending story of imprisonment by British officials and separation from her son Duleep Singh, still a child. Her determination and courage are obvious in her last letter, which she wrote before escaping from the prison in disguise. Refusing to bow before colonial tyranny, she writes “You put me in the cage and locked me up. For all your locks and sentries, I got out by magic.” In another letter, she condemns the British for having taken Punjab through fraud, with the help of traitors: “I have lost my dignity, and you have lost regard for your word.”

 

Nor does Ranis and the Raj ignore India’s mountainous and remote regions. Pradhan throws light on the heretofore obscure lives of Guleri Rani of Sirmur and Queen Menchi of Sikkim. Simur, a district in present-day Himachal Pradesh, is located in the foothills of the Himalayas, and Sikkim, a northeastern state, is bordered by Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Despite being the fifth wife of the seventh Chogyal, Tsugphud Namgyal (1793-1863), Queen Menchi played an important role in resisting the British efforts of ruining Sikkim’s rapport with Tibet in advancing their own commercial interests. Although much of Guleri Rani’s background, including her first name and genealogy remain unknown, her tactful interactions with the British in the absence of her husband contributed to securing her son’s political prospects in Sirmur.

History books have tended to evaluate the lives of Indian queens mostly in terms of beauty, wealth, chastity, piety and domestic grandeur. Pradhan however shows that they had both political ambitions and the agency to pursue them. By emphasizing their role in the state politics, Ranis and the Raj: The Pen and the Sword re-constructs the history of the Indian queens as a saga of women empowerment and establishes their contribution to the growth of anti-colonial struggle in 19th-century India.


Shyamasri Maji teaches English at Durgapur Women’s College, West Bengal.