By Harshmeet Singh
Most history books regard the sepoy mutiny of 1857 as the first rebellion against the British East India Company. The heroes of this mutiny, including Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Tantya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and Nana Saheb are household names to date. But long before this mutiny, Karnataka’s Kittur saw the rise of India’s first woman independence activist who took on the mighty British Empire all by herself – Rani Chennamma.
Rani Cheenamma was born on 23rd October 1778, in Kakati, Belagavi District of Karnataka. Belonging to the Lingayat community she received training in horse riding, sword fighting, and archery from a young age.
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Rani Chennamma was all of 15 when she was married to Kittur’s ruler Mallasarja Desai. Her married life turned out to be quite turbulent with her husband passing away in 1816 and her son meeting the same fate in 1824. With the entire Kittur empire at her helm, he decided to adopt a boy named Shivalingappa and planned to make the boy the heir to Kittur’s throne. The British weren’t happy with her move and asked the queen to expel Shivalingappa from the throne – an order which the queen defied. The British administration sent a message to Kittur, asking the Queen to surrender her empire to the British.
The response of the British was a precursor to the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’. When Lord Dalhousie took over as India’s Governor-General in 1848, he introduced the much-debated ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, according to which, the rulers of the princely states were forbidden from adopting a child if they didn’t have a natural heir to the throne. Instead, their territory would be acceded by the British Empire.
With no common ground between the two parties, an armed battle ensued. In the first round of warsaw, Rani Chennamma’s forces humiliate the British and kill the British collector. She went on to release the British hostages on the British promise that war won’t be continued. But true to their deceptive nature, the British came back to Kittur with a much larger force and took Rani Chennamma prisoner after a long and fierce battle. She spent the last 5 years of her life in the Bailhongal Fort before breathing her last on 21st February 1829.
Her strong resistance against the British gave them enough indication that their policies won’t be taken by the Indians hands down. Her victory in the first phase of the battle against the British is still remembered fondly in Kittur and surrounding areas. The tales of her bravery have inspired many folk dances and music performances in Karnataka that still continue to be a part of the popular tradition. The Kittur Utsava (22-24 October every year) commemorates her memorable victory that dented the British pride severely and showed everyone that the British forces were far from invincible.
(The article was originally written in 2015, and was re-edited in May 2021.)