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Jhalkari Bai, a little known chapter on a woman's courage in colonial India

This is the story of a courageous woman who came from a humble background but rose to the occasion to fight for her people and country.

The history of India is full of rulers -- both men and women -- who combined bravery with a strategy to repulse attacks by foreign invaders down the ages. Members of royal families were known to have shown exemplary courage when the situation demanded.

But Jhalkari Bai's saga is a study in contrast. She was the 'double' of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, the legendary warrior who fought the invading British army in the first War of Independence. A little known figure in Indian history, Jhalkari Bai lives on in the folklore of the Bundelkhand region.

Laxmibai and Jhalkari Bai led the Durga Dal (women's army) recruits to repeatedly foil attacks by the British army. And but for the betrayal by one of Laxmibai's generals, the Jhansi fort would have remained invincible for at least some more time.

Ignored by mainsteam historians, Jhalkari -- a dalit woman -- has now emerged from oblivion and finds mention in works of local writers, which include an epic poem by Chokhelal Verma, Virangana Jhalkari Bai by Bhavani Shankar Visharad, and a biography by dalit scholar and Arunachal Pradesh Governor Mata Prasad.

Her appearance, which was strikingly similar to Laxmibai, helped the Jhansi army evolve a military strategy to deceive the British. But before all that, Jhalkari was an ordinary village girl in Bundelkhand who would take care of household chores besides tending cattle and collecting firewood from the jungle.

She once had an encounter with a tiger in the jungle and killed the beast with her axe. On another occasion, she challenged a gang of dacoits who raided the house of a village businessman and forced them to retreat.

As a mark of gratitude, the village organised her marriage with Pooran Kori who matched her in courage. Pooran was inducted into Laxmibai's army and his fighting skills were soon recognised by her generals. Once on the occasion of Gauri Puja, Jhalakari with the other village women went to the Jhansi fort to pay homage to the queen.

Laxmibai was struck by Jhalkari's uncanny resemblance to her. After being told about her courage, she ordered Jhalkari's induction into the Durga Dal. Jhalkari, along with the other village women, was trained in shooting and igniting the cannons at a time when the Jhansi army was being strengthened to face any British intrusion.

The British did not allow the childless Laxmibai to adopt her successor, in a bid to bring the state under their control. However, her generals and the people of Jhansi rallied round the queen and resolved to take up arms against the British instead of surrendering to them.

During April 1858, from inside the Jhansi fort, the queen led her army and repulsed several attacks by the British and their native allies. One of her commanders, however, betrayed her and opened a well protected gate of the fort. When the fall of the fortress became imminent, her generals advised Laxmibai to escape with a handful of fighters. The Rani slipped away from Jhansi on horseback.

Jhalkari's husband Pooran was killed defending the fort but instead of mourning her loss, she worked out a plan to deceive the British. She dressed up like Laxmibai and took command of the Jhansi army. After which she marched out of the fort towards the camp of British General Hugh Rose. On reaching the British enclave, she shouted that she wanted to meet the general.

Rose and his men were exultant. Besides capturing Jhansi, the British thought they had caught the queen alive. When the general -- thinking she was the queen -- asked Jhalkari what should be done to her, she firmly said, ''hang me.''

Bundelkhand legend has it that her reply stunned the general, who said that if even one per cent of Indian women were like Jhalkari, the British would soon have to leave India.

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