How Mahabiri Devi and Her Gang of 22 Village Women Killed Many British Soldiers in 1857
They are the symbols of bravery and patriotism. Their names are in oblivion – unknown and unheralded in the pages of History. Mahabiri Devi, a Bahujan woman in her twenties, hailing from Mundbhar in Mujaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, inspired women in her village to fight for the freedom of India. 22 village women led by her formed a group and strategized to attack British soldiers. Their motto was kill the British or perish! They succeeded. They killed several British soldiers until all of the 22 freedom fighters were shot at by the British and martyred. No one propagated their stories of unprecedented valor.
Mahabiri Devi raised voice against the social custom of manual scavenging done by a particular section of the society. She was uneducated but opposed exploitation of any kind since her childhood. She hated the British from an early age and openly spoke hatred against them. People in her village revered her.
When the war of Independence broke out in 1857, many a son and daughter of Bharat Mata were inspired to rise in revolt. The news reached Mundbhar village in Mujaffarnagar. This village is not far from Meerut cantonment, the nucleus of the uprising. On May 10, Indian sepoys with the help of local civilians had killed 50 Britishers at Meerut cantonment. Mahabiri Devi decided to attack the British with the help of local village women.
The uprising in Meerut cantonment inspired many women in the Muzaffarnagar area in western UP to rise in revolt. Few historical records find mention of few brave women in their twenties who were successful in killing Britishers. They are Indra Kaur, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Raj Kaur, Shobha Devi, Asha Devi, Bakhtavari, Habiba, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Umda, and many others, who actively participated and attained martyrdom while fighting. While few were shot dead, few were hanged, and few burnt alive by the British.
According to an account by Charu Gupta in a piece titled Dalit ‘Viranganas’ and Reinvention of 1857 published in Economic and Political Weekly, Mahabiri Devi and her group of 22 women revolted against the British two days ahead of the uprising in Meerut cantonment, i.e. on 8 May 1857. According to another account, the conspiracy for attacking the British in Meerut cantonment was planned days ahead and the plan was given shape on May 10th. It was possible that the news about the conspiracy might have spread to adjoining areas including Mujaffarnagar. Charu Gupta mentions Mahabiri Devi and other women attacking British soldiers on 8 May, 1857 and themselves getting martyred during the course of action.
Such was the inspiring speech of Mahabiri Devi that 22 women in their twenties, who never used arms and who were involved only in household chores, joined her. This group started training themselves in the use of swords and sticks so that they emerged victorious fighting the enemy. They were fearless and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the motherland.
In the words of Crispin Bates, Editor of the book Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857, they emerged as “physically commanding and armed, infused with power, strength, bravery, activism, and sacrifice, locked in violent conflict with the British.”
Mahabiri Devi and the 22 women rose in arms against the British. They attacked British soldiers stationed in Mujaffarnagar. They were able to kill many British soldiers until all were martyred.
It is unfortunate that not much information about Mahabiri Devi and the 22 village women are available on records. Salute to the 22 women warriors and the brave sons and daughters of Bharat Mata who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the motherland. Jai Hind!
1. Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857 , edited by Crispin Bates
Featured image (representation only): Google.