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.