These were the following leaders who actively participated in the Revolt of 1857 and made it a turning point in the History of India.
Azimullah Khan (1859)
A leading figure of the Revolt of 1857. He was brought up in a Muslim orphanage and was probably educated in a school at Kanpur where he learnt English and French. From his humble origin, Azimullah rose to the position of Nana Saheb Peshwa Bahadur’s agent. He went to England to plead for this employer’s pension case and stayed there for every two years. On the return journey he visited France and the Crimea and witnessed the military operations there. A confidential advisory to Nana Saheb, Azimullah played a prominent role in organizing the Revolt of 1857 at Kanpur. He toured the important stations in Northern India and the advocated Hindu-Muslim unity. After reverses he fled with Nana Sahib to Nepal and died there. Letters of Azimullah found in Bithur, were later published, A diary, depicting the court life of Baji Rao II and Nana Saheb.
Bahadur Shah II
The last Mughal Emperor, he was the leader of the revolt in Delhi and was declared the King emperor of Hindustan. He was then over eighty years of age. He was a poet of considerable merit in both Hindi and Urdu and a patron of poets and literary men. He wrote under the pen-name ‘Zafar’.
During the revolt he exerted himself to the utmost to hold together his people belonging to different faiths, to maintain order in the besieged city of Delhi, to sustain the morale of his subjects, and to encourage his forces to continue the fight till the bitter end. He banned cow slaughter in Delhi. His greatest remorse before death was: “How unfortunate is Zafar that he could not secure even two yards of land for his burial in his motherland“.
In Delhi Bahadur Shah was the leader. But the real power lay with the soldiers. Bakht Khan, who had let the revolt of the soldiers at Bareilly, arrived in Delhi on 3rd July, 1857. From that date on he exercised the sufficient authority and infact was elevated to the post of General. He formed a Court of soldiers composed of both Hindu and Muslim so as to control and ensure smooth functioning of overall administration.
Begum Hazrat Mahal
The wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh, who had been deposed by the English in 1856, played a memorable part in raising the banner of rebellion in Awadh. She ruled on behalf of her 11 year old son Birjis Qadar with great wisdom and reorganized the machinery of administration. She directed the attack on the Residency at Lucknow. After the fall of Lucknow, she joined Maulvi Ahmadullah at Shajahanpur, but was defeated and escaped to Nepal. She refused to accept the pension offered to her by British and chose to die unmourned in Nepal.
Khan Bahadur Khan
Khan Bahudar Khan was grandson of the Ruhela leader hafiz Rahamat Khan. He raised the banner of rebellion in Ruhelkhand with epicenter at Bareilly (U.P). Though seventy years old at the time, he defended Ruhelkhand with skill and undaunted courage defeating four columns of British troops which had converged upon Bareilly, before he was forced to retreat into the forests of the Himalayan foothills. He assumed the office of Viceroy under the Mughal emperor Bhadur Shah and treated Hindus and Muslims with equality and statesman-like wisdom; He was captured by treachery, tried and hanged.
Born in a noble family, Kunwar Singh was the proprietor of extensive estates at Jagdishpur of Shahbad in Bihar. He was natural leader of men, and a popular landlord. He rose in revolt in 1857 when British threatened to confiscate his land and assumed leadership of the rebellious sepoys. He stormed Arrah. Already developed into a dashing Commander, he defeated the British forces twice while occupying Azamgarh in February 1858. When the arrival of British reinforcement made his position at Azamgarh hopeless, Kunwar Singh decided to move back towards Bihar, Keeping the enemy at bay by brilliant rear guard actions he reached Arrah, where the British hoped to intercept him. On 23 April 1853 Kunwar Singh inflicted a crushing defeat on Le Grand’s troops and expired the following days as a victor. He died of various wounds sustained. After him, his brother Amar Singh continued the fight against the English till December 1859.
Maulvi Ahmadullah Shah
He is one of the best known Muslim Maulvis who prepared the ground for the popular revolt revolt against the British. A native of Arcot (Tamil Nadu) Ahmadullah was educated at Hyderababd. He became a preacher when young and settled down at Fyzabad. In 1856, he was seen moving from village to village preaching jehad (religious war) against the British and urging people to rebel. He moved in a palanquin, with drumbeaters in front and followers at the rear. He was therefore popularly called Danka Shah – the maulvi with the drum (danka).
He called upon “all true believers to rise against the English infiedels and to drive them out of IndiaI”. This leading spirit of the Revolt of 1857 in Awadh was recognized even by the English enemy as “a man of great abilities of undaunted courage, and of stern determination, and by far the best soldier among the rebels.” After the fall of Lucknow, he escaped to Ruhelkhand and gave a tough fight to the British at many places. He inspired so much terror by his activities that the Governor General offered a reward of Rs. 50,000 to anyone who could capture him. On June 5, 1858, he was shot dead at Powain, on the Awadh-Ruhelkhand border.
He was known for his courage and power. Many people in fact believed that he was invincible, had magical powers, and could not be killed by the British. It was this belief that partly formed the basis of his authority.
A sepoy of the 34th Native Infantry stationed at Barrack pore, refused to use the greased Cartridges on 29th March 1857 and appealed his comrades to oppose the same. He in fact attacked and fired at the Adjutant and was arrested. Later he was tried, court martialled and hanged. He may rightly be called the first martyr of the revolt of 1857.
Dhondopant, popularly known as Nana Sahib was an adopted son of Pehswa Baji Roa II and the heir to the dispossessed late Peshwa’s title and estate. Living at Bithur near Kanpur, Nana resented the graduall loss of his status and the consequent humiliation. In vain he pleaded with the British for the restoration of his position and sent his agent to influence the authorities in England. The rebels at Kanpur made him their leader. Following the British surrender he took over Kanpur, revived Indian administration and proclaimed himself the Pehswa.
When Havelock’s forces came to reoccupy Kanpur, Nana grimly fought back, but lost the battle, evacuated Bithur. Crossing over to Avadh, he came to Kalpi and re-organised his men under Tatya Tope in a bid to recapture Kanpur. The attempt was, however, frustrated by Sir Collin Campbell in November 1857. Thereafter, Nana pursued by his enemies, was on the run from Farukhabad to Bareilly and Bahraich but refusing to give up his hope. At the end of 1858 he was forced by the British army to take refuge in the Nepalese terrain. The defiant Nana Saheb died as a free man, probably in 1858, in spite of all the British attempts for his capture.
Ramchandra Panduranga, alias Tatya Tope, was one of the few military leaders of ability of the rebel side during the Revolt of 1857. He was a personal adherent of Nana Saheb and was bound to his person by ties of loyalty and gratitude. Following the rising of Kanpur he commended at the battle of Bithur on 16th August 1857 which was won by Havelock.
After the British re-occupation of Kanpur Tatya progressed with the Gwalior contingent and forced General Windham to retreat from Kanpur, But soon his forces were defeated by Sir Collin Campbell. When Jhansi was besieged by the British forces Tatya came to the rescue of Rani Lakshmi Bai. Later Tatya sieged the fort of Gwalior, but Sir Hugh Rose retook it. Tatya then escaped to Central India, and was defeated by General Napier’s troops. Resourceful and intelligent, Tatya had a natural instinct for guerilla tactics and evaded British pursuits for ten months in Rajasthan and Bundelkhand. He was betrayed into the hands of Captain Made in the Paron Jungles by his friend Mansingh. He was tried, convicted and executed at Shivpuri on 18th April, 1858.
Rani Lakshmi Bai
Rani Lakshmi Bai, the second wife of the ruler of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao, was born probably at Banars. When her husband died without issue in 1853 she was not permitted by the British authorities to adopt a successor. Her territory was later annexed by Dalhousie, in contravention of the Treaty of 1817, under the Doctrine of Lapse and a mere pension was offered to her.
The Rani had no problem with the British government till Jhansi was annexed the child heir pushed aside. She was initially hesitant to join the rebels. On June 4, 1858, Rani Lakshmi Bai was proclaimed the head of the State and she provided spirited lead to the rebels and fought heroically against the British forces. She did things she could never have imagined earlier.
She was reported to have declared then: Mera Jhansi Nahi Dungi (I shall not Surrender my Jhansi). When the revolt ostarted the spirited Rani was drawn into the thick of the struggle and she became the authority of her region. She heroically defended Jhansi against Sir Huge Rose’s protracted siege, although ultimately she had to escape.
As she was fleeing from Jhansi after the stormy battle over that city she met a Deccan Brahmin, Vishnu Bhat Godse, who records that she was in a ‘Pathan’ dress. The Rani told him that she was a poor widow who should have adopted the vidhwa dharma or the prescribed customs for widows. But fate willed otherwise and she must now fight for the honor of Hindu dharma, That Hindu dharma that decreed that the foreigners should be driven away.
Later Rani Lakshmi Bai joined Tatya Tope and surprised the British by their capture of Gwalior. When Sir Huge Rose renewed the British by their attack on Gwalior Fort, the Rani fighting valiantly was killed in action. Her devoted followers determined that the British should not boast that they had captured her even dead, burned her body.
An estimate of the Rani’s heroic personality has thus been made by Sir Huge Rose himself who saluted Rani as “the best and bravest military leader of the rebels“.
It has been said by some British writers on the rebellion that if the rebels had about a dozen such leaders, then English rule could never have been re-imposed. Apart from the above mentioned leaders there were many taluqdars, zamindars, princes and leaders from the masses who went into rebellion against the greatest colonial power of the world. Above all the role played by the masses in all the popular resistance inevitably reflects their visions attitudes, approach and courage.