“They Became Soldiers For…Their Own Liberty”: Why Women Joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment

26 December, 2016

In 1943, in Singapore, amid the ongoing World War II, the nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose created the Rani Jhansi Regiment, an all-women corps of soldiers. The RJR fought under the Indian National Army (INA), a nearly 50,000-strong army formed with the help of the Japanese forces, aimed at freeing India from colonial rule. The women of the RJR, called the Ranis, belonged to the Indian diaspora, namely the Indian communities in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. Most women had never received any military training prior to joining the RJR. Historians and researchers put the number of women in the regiment as high as 5,000, although a clear estimate is unavailable.

In her book Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, Vera Hildebrand, a historian, writes about how Bose set up the RJR, the Ranis that formed it, and their role in the World War and in the quest for Indian independence. Over the course of researching the RJR, Hildebrand interviewed as many surviving Ranis as she could find—the youngest, she notes, was 77 years old at the time that Hildebrand met her; the oldest was the 93-year-old Captain Lakshmi, a leader and caretaker of the RJR recruits. In the following extract from the book, Hildebrand describes what brought the women—of varying classes, castes, faiths and ages—to the regiment. She writes that for many of them, it was Bose’s inspiring nationalistic rhetoric. But for others, the reasons to join the RJR were diverse—some were hardly even linked to the Indian freedom struggle.

In our interview in 2008, Captain Lakshmi casually stated, “No woman was accepted if her husband or father objected.” To prove that there were no such barriers, unmarried applicants needed the signature of their fathers and married women of their husbands on the application form. In 2008 I was surprised to hear that it seemed acceptable to Captain Lakshmi that the Indian National Army had required permission from male family members to allow adult women to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the INA, an organisation that was intended to be based on gender equality.

It is, of course, to be expected that those alive to be interviewed during 2008–11 included those who were the youngest when they enlisted, but many other Ranis who died before the beginning of this study were also younger than eighteen when they joined the RJR. Lakshmi Nair saw an advertisement in a Singapore newspaper that the INA wanted female freedom fighters. Her father had just died, and there was no money for food in the home of her stepmother. Her father had hated the English, so Lakshmi thought it proper that she would go to fight them while also earning a little money for the family. When she reported for service at the Singapore camp, she was at first told that at fourteen she was too young, but when she assured them that she was a good worker, she was inducted. Her stepmother, needing the income, gave her reluctant permission.

It is difficult to analyse and impossible to generalise why women enlisted in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Some Ranis stated their reasons concisely and probably with reasonable accuracy. Others seem to have been swept up by complicated emotions, resorting subsequently to the explanation that was most often cited by other Ranis. The question, “Why did you join the Ranis?” was almost always at first answered, “To fight for India’s freedom” and “To free our Motherland.” Most of the Ranis told me that they had felt a deep desire to answer Bose’s call and to make a positive contribution to justice for India. As a fifteen-year-old, Rasammah Navarednam read about the 1919 killing of unarmed civilians in the banned book, Jallianwala Bagh–The Amritsar Massacre. A year later that account influenced her decision to join the Ranis.

Rani Rama Mehta expressed the feelings that all Ranis shared: “We worked together to do good.” The combination of the call to sacrifice for freedom and the charisma of the messenger cast a spell they could not ignore. That they had grown up believing that India was their Motherland may have played a part in giving the girls who joined the RJR incentive to fight for the freedom of India. For most Ranis, however, the connection with India was much more tenuous.

For most of the women in this study, the idea of joining the Regiment was their own, and several had to work hard to persuade their parents to sign the permission slip. Bose’s stirring speeches combined with Dr Lakshmi’s glamorous example of what a modern Indian woman might aspire to become persuaded many to join. Some of the women, however, were strongly encouraged, even pressured by their parents to enlist to become a Rani. Asha Sahay’s mother was a cousin of Subhas Chandra Bose and her father, Anand Sahay, a member of Bose’s cabinet. Anand Sahay chose to transport his sixteen-year-old daughter on a perilous journey aboard a Japanese bomber from Nagasaki in Japan to Bangkok in May 1945 so that she could join the Regiment in Bangkok for a few months after the other Ranis had returned from Burma. Although her parents were prominent members of the Indian expatriate community in Japan, Asha had been educated exclusively in Japanese schools, not the international school that most other Indian children in Japan attended. Asha spoke no English or Hindi, only Japanese and Bengali; in almost all ways she was a typical Japanese girl writing haikus in beautiful calligraphy. She explained to me that she had always tried to fulfil the obligations imposed on her; joining the Ranis was probably another manifestation of her compliance.

During our long talk at her church on a Sunday after the service, petit and gentle Eva Jenny Murty stated forthrightly that she joined the Ranis in order to become a nurse. Eva Jenny’s father was a medical assistant and had had to interrupt his medical studies after two years. She had always also wanted to attend medical school, but when her father retired with eight children in the family, there was no money for Eva Jenny to go. Giving up the dream of being a doctor, she had become a teacher, but her mother advised her not to waste her time. Instead she urged Eva Jenny to join the Ranis because she could then get her medical education as a nurse in the Rani Regiment. At age 23, Eva Jenny travelled by herself from Port Swettenham, north of Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, and reported to Camp Commandant Thevar.

In 1943, the Japanese military in Malaya demanded that all vegetation be cleared alongside many roads up to a distance of 300 metres, near airports and around other strategic sites. This rule effectively prevented the traditional production of rice and vegetables on public land, a practice on which poor Malayans depended, especially since the Japanese occupation in 1941 had disrupted the import of rice. Instead, farmers began to cultivate roots such as tapioca and sweet potatoes that had low nutritional value. The result was widespread hunger and even starvation, especially for the Chinese residents of Singapore City and for the Indian labourers on rubber plantations and in tin mines.

Rani Muniammah, daughter of Eelavan, as many others from the rubber estates in Malaya, joined the Ranis in order to survive. As Muniammah tells, after the Japanese invasion her father lost his job as a rubber tapper at an estate in Perak, Malaya, and the family was destitute. According to Muniammah, her father and uncles decided to volunteer for the INA in order to get food. When Eelavan learned that Bose was recruiting Indian women for the Indian freedom struggle, although she was just fourteen years old, he urged his eldest daughter to join the Rani Regiment to get regular meals. When I asked many decades later if she thought of herself as being Indian when she joined the RJR, Muniammah answered that her grandfather probably came from India, but that an Indian identity was never something that she had considered before she joined the Ranis.

Middle-class families in northern Malaya were also affected by the food shortage. Rani Eva Jenny Murty explains in her memoirs that her father, who worked extremely hard as a medical aide to feed and educate his large family, one day felt so desperate with the complaints of his hungry boys that he screamed, “I will line you all up and shoot you down!” That night Eva Jenny made sure that the guns were empty before she went to bed, and as a devout Christian she trusted in God to do the rest.

In addition to Ranis Muniammah and Lakshmi Nair, many others also enlisted in the Regiment to get regular meals. A friend of the Tamil Ranis, middle-class “educated” officer Ponnammah said that most of those girls in her platoon were honest and admitted that they joined because the Ranis had food and they were hungry. As a doctor and the person in charge of health checks prior to admittance, Captain Lakshmi realised that almost all of the Tamil volunteers from the plantations had more than likely enlisted for their own survival rather than out of a desire to sacrifice themselves for Indian freedom; still, all were welcomed into the ranks of the Regiment.

Janaki Bai was born in 1922 in Sabak Bernam, Selangor, Malaya, and grew up on a large coconut estate in Malaya, where her father, El Fateh Singh, a Rajput, worked as assistant manager. As a young bachelor he had come to Malaya in search of adventure. He was a man with progressive ideas for 1920, and when he met a young Tamil widow with two children, he challenged societal disapproval of widow remarriage, and they wed. Janaki Bai had one brother who was about two years older, and then there were so many brothers and sisters that she was not sure how many siblings she had. All the children, boys and girls, went to boarding school and were well educated.

Janaki’s mother had arranged that her daughter should wed a much older wealthy Chettiar man, a moneylender, who wanted Janaki as his bride and she urged Janaki to agree to the contract. Arranged marriage was anathema to the young intellectual. “I think this Indian custom of marriage is silly. You must know the person first. The thought was odious to me. He assumed that just because he fancied me, he could simply buy me! My father saw that I was unhappy, and one day he said, ‘Why don’t you join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment and that way avoid the marriage?’ I said why not? Then a young man from the Indian Independence League in Selangor came by the estate canvassing for volunteers to join the Ranis. We were three people signing up from our area—I was one, a Hindu. Another was a girl called Grace, she was a Christian and a couple of years younger than I. The third was a shopkeeper’s wife, but they sent her back because she had a growth and was not healthy. So the two of us went.” After the war Janaki Bai married a man of her own choice.

Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and free of the social stigma of “coolie” status. Now with their heads held high, they experienced a level of egalitarianism in the company of their Rani comrades that they had not known before. As Rasammah expressed it, “They became soldiers for India’s freedom and their own liberty.”

When giving their reasons for enlisting in the Regiment, only a few, notably Captain Lakshmi and Rasammah, referred to the larger political issues of the conflict in Burma, or of World War II as a whole, or speculated as to what life in India might become after the war. Only Janaki Thevar mentioned feminism and gender equality as reasons for joining the Ranis. She claimed that most of her comrades had agreed with her that “the women’s question” was a motivating factor. Recounting their time in the RJR, almost all the veterans I interviewed focused on life in the camps, the community of the Ranis, and importantly their personal interactions with Bose. Several did mention their disappointment that the efforts of the RJR had not had any lasting impact on equality for Indian women.

This is an excerpt from Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, written by Vera Hildebrand, and published by HarperCollins India Publishers. The excerpt has been condensed.