I want a unit of brave Indian women to form a death-defying Regiment who will wield the sword which Rani of Jhansi wielded in India’s First War of Independence in 1857, Said Subhas Chandra Bose at the Padang rally on 9th July 1943. The Regiments formation was announced three days later by Bose naming it as “Rani Jhansi regiment” after the warrior queen Lakshimbai fought against the colonial powers during the 1857 mutiny. The Regiment had over 1000 soldiers affectionately known as ranis at its peak.
The idea behind the Rani Jhansi regiment
Bose always had deep-rooted faith in Nari Shakti (Women Empowerment), and bravery of women throughout history made him determined to raise woman only infantry regiment. In fact, in 1928, he established Congress Volunteer corps in Calcutta. Capt. Latika Ghosh oversaw the Volunteer corps and did an excellent job lifting women’s status and giving them equal opportunities for active participation in social and political fields.
“If there was a living figure who encouraged the activities of women, it was Subhas Chandra Bose, who is considered by many of the women revolutionaries as Bengal’s greatest champion of “women rights”.”Historian Geraldine Forbes
The perilous 93-days Journey
On 9th February 1943, Bose and his aide Abid Hasan boarded the submarine U-180 from Keil (capital of German state of Schleswig-Holstein). On 21st April 1943 near Mozambique U-180 met an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-29, Bose and his Hasan boarded the I-29 while two imperial Japanese Navy shipbuilding officers Captains Emi Tetsushiro and Tomonaga Hideo boarded the U-180. I-29 landed Bose and his aide at Sabang near north of Sumatra on 6th May 1943. After reaching Asia, Bose took charge of Indian Independence League, a civil organisation and Indian National Army(INA) set up by Rash Behari Bose who retired due to ill health.
Dr Lakshmi Sehgal
At Padang Rally, thousands of people gathered to see India’s young, charismatic leader Subhas Chandra Bose who travelled in submarines on a 93-days dangerous journey from war-torn Europe to the Far East. Among the masses was Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sehgal) who almost immediately raised her hand to be a part of the Regiment as soon as Bose asked for volunteers. Bose shook her hand and formally welcomed her in the Regiment. She was the first volunteer of the Regiment.
Subhas Chandra Bose wanted to organise a women’s meeting on 12th July 1943. To give Bose a surprise Women’s Guard of Honour, Dr Lakshmi organised a squad of 20 women volunteers with borrowed weapons from INA. She would continue to pursue women volunteers to join the Regiment. However, it was not easy in a time when women were considered only as homemakers. The volunteers came from Thailand, Malaya, Sarawak, Borneo, Singapore, Burma. The majority did not have formal education, and most of them were mothers, children as young as 12 years old. Barely out of childhood, leaving their customs, family members behind to free a nation they never visited. Later, Dr Lakshmi would be given the Regiment command and made the Minister of Women’s Affairs within the Azad Hind government.
Bose personally chose Non commissioned officer from among INA veterans as trainers. Initially, they started training in makeshift camps. Later the permanent base was established by INA. Their daily training used, to begin with, Flag hoisting at 6 am; followed by swift physical exercise, after Breakfast, three hours of lecture on various subjects. Then lunch and brief rest. Then again parades, rifle, revolver, machinegun firing, bayonet charges and other activities until the evening just like their male colleagues. INA trainers pushed them to their limits. The literate volunteers had the opportunity to advance to Non commissioned and communised ranks according to their abilities and achievements.
However, their training was not only limited to physical or weapons training. They were also preparing to overcome centuries-old customs, farcical caste system where a Brahmin won’t sit at the same place with a low cast shoe polisher; a Hindu won’t eat food made by a Muslim. They were preparing to fight the deeprooted patriarchal religious beliefs where a Muslim woman can be divorced by her husband repeating the same “Godly” word thrice by her husband. It is still not easy today, and one can only imagine what went on during their training. However, they made it all happen; such was the charisma of Bose and nation beyond anything else attitude of Indian National army.
After months of rigorous training, Rani Jhansi Regiment with some 500 strong had its first passing out parade on 30th March 1944. A couple of hundreds of cadets were selected by INA for nursing training which formed Chand Bibi Nursing Corp. Later, some cadets were trained in guerrilla warfare by the Bahadur group (A special Forces unit commanded by Colonel Shaukat Ali Malik) credited to plant the Azad Hind flag Moirang in 14th April 1944.
For better or worse, The Regiment was never sent to the front to fight as Bose was very protective of his Ranis. Their main task was to work as vanguards and medics. However, some members rumoured to have been sent behind the British line to gather intelligence, and some members went with the newly elected governor of liberated areas of India Colonel AC Chatterjee.
Despite initial successes, The high hopes of advancing towards Imphal suffered the crushing blow when the monsoon started. The forward operating base (FOB) was short on supply, and supply lines were cut off due to allied bombing and raids by Chindits (A special forces unit consisted of British Indians and commonwealth troops). The roads were muddy; Jungle was infested with deadly snakes, insects, but nothing deterred these brave ranis. They disguised themselves as locals, carried ammunition in their backs, used bicycles, mastered bullock carts. They tried their best to replenish the stock. However, it was almost over for INA as they continue to lose soldiers from disease, starvation and exhaustion due to continuous fighting.
The Japanese war effort also deteriorated when they started to lose ground in the Pacific theatre. Bose disbanded the Regiment, and most of its members returned home. Bose personally escorted Malayan contingents of Ranis to Thailand and then to Malaysia. The remaining members went on foot with retreating INA and Japanese soldiers. Real numbers are not known, but they suffered heavy casualties due to allied air raids. The INA destroyed most evidence and whatever was found by the British Indian forces, believed to have been in the secret vaults in Delhi, London.
The war in Burma went to on till 3rd May 1945 the day Rangoon fell, and INA and Japanese forces surrendered to the allied forces. However, it was not over for the Ranis. Victorious forces took high ranking woman officers as prisoners. They underwent interrogations, harsh punishments and humiliations. Allied forces put members such as Lt. Rama and her sister Neelam to house arrest, and some were handed out hefty fines by the British troops waging war against the British empire.
After the war, some returned to their families, and some went to India, where they faced poverty, lived a life of social outcasts. Many of them were uneducated, unaware of their status as freedom fighters which allowed then government to get away from paying. Captain Lakshmi and other Women officers of the Regiment continued to pursue India’s socialist government for their pensions but received very little assistance or none on most occasions. Not sure why these Ranis’ bravery had been ignored in history books, perhaps the callousness of historians or lack of knowledge or petty politics, who knows!
21st century India
21st century India has her fair share of issues, especially for women. One cannot overlook the problems they face daily, but we must see and appreciate the brighter side. India now has the highest number of woman pilots than any other country in the world. She has woman officers who command army divisions of thirty thousand soldiers. We can even proudly say that Worlds oldest Democracy United States of America never had a Woman head of government. In contrast, India had female Defence ministers, Prime Minister, President and what not. Today when we see a woman Indian fighter pilot doing Thach Weave manoeuvre or a lady BSF soldier holding Ak’s, guarding the most unpredictable, inhospitable live border near Kashmir our heart swells with respect, with pride. But remember it did not happen overnight. I guess some credits goes to those forgotten Ranis who sacrificed their future, laid down their lives to make India free.
Image courtesy: National Archive of Singapore