The Revolt of 1857 was one of the watershed events in the long independence struggle of India, which witnessed for the first time the large-scale participation of the civil population in the attempt to break free from the yoke of foreign rule. Ordinary people belonging to different communities came together to put up a united resistance against the British and left an extraordinary legacy behind. However, the role of women, especially those belonging to the Dalit community in the revolt, has often been underplayed and thus forgotten. Mahabiri Devi is one such woman who belonged to the Dalit community and whose relentless efforts to fight the British is largely lost, except in the form of local folklore.
Virangana Mahabiri Devi belonged to the village of Mundbhar in the Muzaffarnagar district of western Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, most of these Dalit Viranganas have Devi or Bai suffixed to their name, thereby portraying them as highly moralistic Dalit women, who were very noble, besides being fiercely brave and staunch nationalists. She was born in a family belonging to the Bhangi caste that was primarily into scavenging and other menial tasks. Hence, her community was subjected to the age-old practice of untouchability. Even though she was of humble origins and grew up in abject poverty, she was intelligent and astute. As her name suggests, she was very bold and courageous. Having grown up in an oppressed society, she was always ready to fight any kind of exploitation and wrongdoing against anyone, even if it entailed fighting the British. At a very early age, she formed an association of women whose objective was to protect the women and children of her community from doing any grihnit karya (dirty work) and encouraging them to live with dignity.
In 1857, when large parts of North India were burning with anti-colonial rage and fighting hard to defeat the British, the fiery-spirited Mahabiri came forth and showed her courage and boldness. When the British laid siege to Muzaffarnagar, she formed a group of 22 women, armed them with iron weapons like katta and grasa and launched an attack on the British soldiers, who were taken unawares. Though Mahabiri Devi and her group of women warriors successfully killed some of the British soldiers, she, along with her compatriots were ultimately ruthlessly killed by the British.
The brave Virangana Mahabiri Devi fought fearlessly and laid down her life for the nation, thus playing a vital role in shaking the edifice of the colonial regime. On one hand, the narrative is about the role played by the Dalits for the independence of the country, and on the other hand, it also talks about their battle against the exploitation and injustice faced by their community. However, such sacrifice and resistance barely finds a mention in the official records and is gradually beginning to blur. It is imperative that we remember the legacy, bravery, pride, and sacrifice of the Dalits in the service of the nation. Today, Mahabiri Devi’s memory and contribution lives on through folklores and plays, performed in the Muzaffarnagar region.