Kesar Devi Sethia of Sujangarh was a woman of extraordinary courage and compassion. During the partition of India, when violence flared up in her little town of Sujangarh, she bravely averted a Hindu-Muslim riot that might have resulted in a massacre of Bisayathi Muslims. Her story was brought to light by her grandson Umrao Singh Sethia, who learnt of her bravery directly from the lady herself.
Kesar Devi belonged to the influential Baid family of Ladnun, whose forefathers were hereditary Dewans of the State of Cooch Bihar. Like the male members of her family, she was trained in martial arts, horse riding and other outdoor sports.
She was married off at an early age to Srimant L.C.Sethia, a member of the Advisory Council of Maharaja Sardul Singh of Bikaner. During the reign of Akbar the Great, Srimant Sethia’s ancestors were bestowed the title of ‘Sethia.’ The family was always close to the seat of power and so enjoyed de facto status of a local ruler. Tragically Srimant Sethia died at the early age of 32 years, leaving Kesar Devi to involve herself in the welfare of the people of Sujangarh.
Sujangarh is about 150 kilometers from Bikaner. In those days the population of the town was about 30,000. It was a peaceful town famous for its havelis, temples and ancient forts. People of all sects and religions lived in perfect harmony for generations. About 30% of the population were Muslims and belonged to different communities like the Bisayathis, Mohils, Chippas and others. They occupied the eastern and southern parts of the town and were mostly labourers, hawkers and petty traders.
The Bisayathi Muslims were a peace loving community who lived on the northern side of the Sethia Mahal. Some of them were employed in the gardens and stables of the Mahal. Kesar Devi was known for her kindness and generosity to deserving people and felt responsible for their welfare. She was looked upon with respect and reverence and was popularly referred to as Maaji Saheb.
In 1947, when the partition of India took place, the line of partition ran through Sujangarh. A small part of the town went to Pakistan. Even though Maharajah Sardul Singh had assured the Muslims of safety and protection, some of them opted to go to Pakistan.
Simultaneously, there was an influx of Hindu refugees from Sindh, who came with frightening stories of brutality and murder of Hindus in Pakistan. For a while there was calm in Sujangarh. But as the Sindhi population grew, the local Hindus were influenced by their stories of gory atrocities. Together they planned to attack the Muslims and get rid of them. As the Bisayathis were a quiet people, they were the first group to be attacked. Their houses were torched and many lost their lives.
Kesar Devi was woken up one night by shouts and screams of people crying “Bachao, Bachao.” From her window she saw flames of fire spreading through the Bisayathi ghetto. Men, women and children both old and young were frantically running towards the Mahal, which was their only hope of refuge from their attackers. Some had already reached the gates and were crying out for protection.
Maaji Saheb rushed down towards the gates and ordered the security guards who were poised to shoot, to lower their arms.
“Open the gates at once,” she shouted, “Let the people in.”
“But this is a dangerous crowd,” they protested.
“At once,” she shouted.
The frightened Bisayathis rushed into the compound. Then the gates were firmly closed.
There were about 150 of them. Maaji Saheb ordered her staff to herd them into the underground store rooms of the Mahal where they would be safe.
A few minutes later, the menacing attackers arrived with sticks, staves and burning torches.
“Open the gates before we break them down,” they shouted, “Send out those people you are hiding in your compound.”
Maaji Saheb stood there like Goddess Durga, an unleashed sword in her right hand.
“Get out – Go home at once. These Bisayathis are like my own children. I will see that no harm comes to them.”
But the crowd shouted louder. “We will break down the gates if you don’t send them out at once. We will rid Sujangarh of everyone of their tribe.”
Now Maaji Sahib was furious. “If you don’t disperse within ten minutes, I will ask my guards to shoot all of you. You will drown in your own blood.”
The anger reflected in her eyes showed that she meant what she said. Turning to the guards she ordered, “Just 10 minutes. After that you must shoot them all down.”
The crowd quickly dispersed, but Maaji Saheb stood at the gates all night to make sure that they did not return.
The Bisayathis enjoyed her hospitality for over a month. They had food, clothing and shelter. They were even given money and assistance to rebuild their homes.
The local authorities rounded up the trouble makers and sent them to prison. The refugees from Sindh were warned that if they continued to stir up trouble, they would be sent back to Pakistan.
Ever since then, Sujangarh has remained an oasis of peace. (The population of the town today is about 1.5 lakhs.) As a sign of gratitude to the lady, the Bisayathis came to the Mahal at every Eid to receive her blessings. At Muharram, they brought the Tazia to the gates of the Mahal as a sign of respect. Though Maaji Sahib died in 1965, the Bisayathis still continue the practice.