In the early eighteenth-century, Baiza Bai fought the increasing reach of the East India Company – not with her sword, but with her balance sheets. The Rani-turned-banker was a key figure in the state of Gwalior, who survived the worst of foes.
Baiza Bai was the widow of Daulat Rao Scindia and ruler of Gwalior State from his death in 1827. She hailed from the Scindia line of the Maratha Empire, the ruler of which was said to be “the only prince in Hindostan who can be called independent of British authority.”
After the third Anglo-Maratha Wars of 1817-1818, the Maratha Empire lost its largest territories and conceded many powers to the British. But some rulers, such as Baiza Bai, continued to hold some powerful cards.
Baiza Bai was skilled. She could ride a horse, fire a gun and wield a sword or a spear with ease. Indeed, she had fought with Daulat Rao at the Battle of Assaye against the British.
When she met the Welsh travel writer Fanny Parks, she challenged the European to ride bareback on a horse as the Marathas did. Fanny described Baiza as “an old woman with grey hair… there is a freedom and independence in her air that I greatly admire.”
Both the Rani of Jhansi and of Scindhia would have ruled in place of their husband with ease – were it not for the British Doctrine of Lapse. Under the doctrine, if a ruler died without an heir, the East India Company would appropriate their territories. It prompted both Ranis to find adopted heirs.
Baiza Bai became the Regent of Gwalior after Scindia passed away in 1827. As historian Sumit Sarkar writes in “Issues in Modern Indian History”, her adopted son, Jankoji, could only “be the nominal head of the state…ie. she would be regent for life. She regarded her authority as supreme and indivisible…Daulat Rao’s widow was too independent a ruler for the company’s comfort.”
Baiza inherited a hefty fortune as well as the acumen to wield it. Her state produced over half the opium in Malwa, which was exported to China. The profits made from opium more than compensated for the losses suffered in the Anglo-Maratha wars. And by being an astute banker, Baiza Bai managed to come back out on top.
She nationalised control of the state’s finances, including those of the army. She kept the army in debt for their salaries, forcing them to borrow from her own banks.
For many years, Baiza Bai had been lending money to the East India Company. One such loan, made in 1827, was to the tune of 80 lakhs. The East India company viewed that loan as a bribe to keep Baiza in power after her husband’s death. The terms of repayment were never mentioned. On being formally acknowledged as the Regent, she insisted on clarifying that the amount was due to her.
When the British tried to avoid paying the money, she initiated a cash crackdown on lending to the Company, and all the leading bankers refused to lend further credit to the East India Company, forcing them to pay the Baiza through her own banks. To add insult to injury, the Company borrowed from Mani Ram – who had himself lent a large sum to Baiza Bai in the past. It was a double profit for him.
The Company tried once again to sting her and sought another loan to pay for its wars in Burma. Baiza eluded this request by applying for a loan of a million rupees from the Governor-General, convincing the British that she was broke.
As the British political agent at Gwalior, S.C. Macpherson commented, Baiza Bai’s influence at the court came ‘from her great wealth, from the Maharaja’s being her expectant heir, from the presence of her grandchildren in his Palace, from her veteran skill in plots…”
Baiza Bai ruled as Regent from 1827-1833. But then, her enemy lurked within. Her adopted son, Jankoji Scindia, turned out to be violent and unruly. He deeply resented his adoptive mother, Baiza. When he was 16, he offered a bribe (a quarter of his annual revenues) to William Bentinck, if he helped dethrone Baiza Bai. The British, wary of both Baiza and the young boy, refused. Jankoji then made another request, asking if the British would object if he killed Baiza Bai without their help. They objected.
A new Political Agent was appointed in Gwalior, Mark Cavendish. He wanted respect but received none. There was a prevailing anti-British sentiment in Gwalior. Nobody saluted him, not even the palace guards – who would sometimes shoulder him off the road. Even the locals refused to sell him firewood.
Enraged, he took up the cause of Jankoji – and helped instigate the Gwalior Army to depose Baiza Bai. She fled to the Residency, but Cavendish refused to give her accommodation. She spent a night out pitched in a tent under the rain and soon went into exile.
The British kept relocating her from camp to camp, confiscating her money at will. She still had banks to her name in Ujjain, however. She kept a low profile until 1843 when Janokji died.
The same year, an uprising took place in Gwalior. The Gwalior army, historically independent and modernised, sought to capitalise on the British losses in Afghanistan. Baiza Bai remained uninvolved and the uprising was quelled.
In 1845, she staged a comeback – marrying her granddaughter to Janokji’s successor, Jiyaji. She pulled this off by promising her wealth to the family after her death – but she went on to live for fifteen more years. By mixing marriage with politics, she returned to her place and influence in Gwalior. By then, both the British and her people had been yearning for her rule.
In 1857, Gwalior was a major centre of the Revolt, with a 15,000 strong army led by an Armenian Colonel named Jacob, mutinying against the British. Baiza Bai stayed neutral and left Gwalior with an armed guard keeping her safe. Some historians, as well as the British at the time, suspect that she had been steadily building up anti-British sentiment amongst the army.
During the revolt, she was in correspondence with both the British and rebels, including Tatya Tope. When Tope and the Rani of Jhansi occupied Gwalior, the Rani took care to make sure none of Baiza’s properties were touched. She reportedly ‘instructed her men not to even look at locks that bore Baiza bai’s seal.”
When Baiza Bai passed away in 1863, the New York Times had a small obituary on her. As they wrote:
When the wife of an officer who had been with her husband in the Crimea visited the old lady in 1857, she asked: ‘Have you seen a battle between the English and the Ruski? Ay,” she said, with glowing eyes. “I too, have ridden in a battle. I rode when Wellesley Sahib drove us from the field, with nothing but the saddle on which we sat.
The story of the banker-warrior queen who went toe-to-toe with the British is often overshadowed by the events of 1857 and the tale of the Rani of Jhansi. But Baiza Bai proved that wielding power in India was about a lot more than just winning military battles – it was about playing the long game, and surviving to see it through. Baiza Bai outlasted most of her enemies, and perhaps, had the last laugh in the end.
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