“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.

Vera Hildebrand is a senior research fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asia Studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She has previously taught at Harvard University and the University of Copenhagen.

Keywords: gender women diaspora World War II Indian Diaspora gender equality Subhas Chandra Bose Indian National Army Azad Hind Fauj INA