Gurpreet Singh: Manikarnika challenges the Eurocentric approach to India’s freedom movement

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      The recent Hindi film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is a must-watch for those who seeking to understand the first uprising against the British occupation of India.

      It's based on the story of Laxmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi, who was a leading figure of the rebellion of 1857. Manikarnika depicts how Hindus and Muslims, and those belonging to the upper and so-called low-castes came together under her command to revolt against the powerful British Empire.

      It stars and was directed by Kangana Ranaut.

      Laxmi Bai not only broke the gender barrier by choosing to go into the battlefield and raising an army of women in a male-dominated society, she also embraced a female Dalit warrior, Jhalkari Bai, who died fighting against the enemy.

      Thus, Laxmi Bai didn’t just fight against the British rule. She challenged patriarchy and the brutal caste system that discriminated against Dalits (so-called untouchables) within her society. 

      Such a film becomes even more relevant today in India, when the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government is not only trying to rewrite the history from a narrow Hindu nationalist perspective, but is also portraying Muslims as traitors and outsiders. Manikarnika gives a message of hope, especially when misogyny has exposed itself under the BJP government and caste-based violence against Dalits has grown.

      Until now, most historians, including those in India, have seen the revolt of 1857 as a fight of feudal kings and chieftains against the British Empire. Many continue to argue that it cannot be seen as part of the freedom struggle, while others have repeatedly tried to demonize the participants as violent and fanatics.

      Karl Marx recognized it as the first war of independence, while others have overlooked it as insignificant. This can be partly attributed to the Eurocentric influence on historical documents, as the British ruled India until 1947.

      Oral traditions about Laxmi Bai were mostly rejected as “primitive” or “unfounded” due to internalized racism. The making of Manikarnika therefore challenges myths created by British historians.

      In an era of decolonization, such efforts are important to reclaim the people's history. Particularly when the subjects of this film are people’s heroes, like Laxmi Bai, who wanted to rid her subjects of the oppression of the British Empire, which drained India through the plundering of its resources.

      Gurpreet Singh is cofounder of Radical Desi magazine and Indians Abroad for Pluralist India.