By Maya Palit
“I want a unit of brave Indian women to form a Death-defying Regiment, who will wield the sword which the brave Rani of Jhansi wielded in India s First War of Independence in 1857”, the characteristically grandiose Indian nationalist politician Subhas Chandra Bose declared in July 1943 while addressing an audience of about 60,000 Indians in Singapore. That same year, he went on to create the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), whose service is unsurprisingly surrounded by several myths, many of whom are exploded by Danish researcher Vera Hildebrand’s new book Women at War.
RJR was an all-female infantry unit of combat fighters and nurses in the Indian National Army, meant to be deployed against the British Raj in an invasion on the Indo-Burma border – one that Bose was planning in the last stages of World War II. Most of the contradictory information about RJR involves the number of women soldiers and the exact activities they were engaged in.
All manner of people – INA soldiers of the time, locals in Singapore, historians, surviving veterans from the regiment and the press – have reported variously that the RJR women were spies, that they were only nurses and that the regiment was only propaganda and ‘decoration’. Adding to the confusion, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal’s fictional account of the regiment fighting bravely at the border in her novel has, Hildebrande explains, been misconstrued as fact. However Hildebrand tracked down surviving ‘Ranis’ and uses archival material to revise some of the misinformation.
Hunting down and interviewing the surviving Ranis seven decades later posed obvious hurdles. As Hildebrand explains, there are no existing official INA rosters of the women, and even though she tracked several of the surviving Ranis down through telephone directories, they are by no means a wholly representative sample. Five Ranis who regretted having been part of the INA were not too forthcoming, and three refused outright to be interviewed. Nevertheless, Hildebrand has managed to gather vast amounts of fascinating material.
The incidents from the Ranis’ time in the infantry range from surreal to amusing. Several Ranis demonstrate to Hildebrand how bayonet wielding was their favourite activity, explaining the drill “Maaro, kheencho, dekho” in detail. A Rani who was a platoon officer talks about being a compulsive sugar stealer and breaking into a camp commander’s storage room, while another recalls the Ranis’ bizarre initiation into the regiment: “We cut our own fingers a bit and with the blood oozing out of them, painted a Tilak mark (an auspicious sign) on the forehead of Netaji and also had signed our respective names with that blood on a piece of paper bearing the statement on oath, ‘We shall sacrifice the last drop of our blood for the cause of our motherland.” (Bose’s rallying cry, “Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe azadi doonga” [Give me your blood and I promise you freedom’] evidently became much too literal in the recruiting ritual.)
Much of the book is spent recording conflicting accounts: for instance, while many Ranis admitted to Hildebrand that they’d been warned they might have to serve as ‘Mata Haris’ and seduce the enemy for information, another forcefully denied that this ever happened: “No seducing. The Englishmen should be killed. No, no, we were not told to be Mata Haris.” A similar denial of facts (that were sworn to by some Ranis) took place when Hildebrand inquired about romantic or sexual relationships between soldiers of the INA.
The press and historians would have us believe the regiment had 1500 or more women but Hildebrand’s research indicates that there were 500 at most. They were all civilians recruited from Indian families based in Singapore, Burma and Malaya, and none of them had any previous military experience whatsoever. This meant that despite members of the RJR being keen to participate in the fight against the Raj in the last two years of World War II, they were unprepared for the daunting Burmese jungles.
Where Hildebrand’s book makes a new and seminal point is to clarify that Bose never gave the regiment the green signal to fight at the front lines of the Indo-Burmese border, or indeed anywhere else, and the various contingents in Burma and Singapore spent two years training before unceremoniously being ordered in 1945 to disband, and retreating bewildered and incredibly disappointed. In doing this, Hildebrand disproves the generous mixture of fictitious and real accounts of the regiment’s adventures, including those that cited versions of incidents from Captain Laksmi Sehgal’s novel Jai Hind: The Diary of a Rebel Daughter.
“Every Rani interviewed remembered exactly how and when she first learned about the Regiment and the circumstances under which she enlisted,” Hildebrand adds, before elaborating how almost all Ranis initially talked about fighting for India’s freedom when asked why they joined, and only one person cited feminism, or “the women’s question” as her motive, but there were intriguing exceptions.
For Tamil women who were recruited from Malaya rubber estates (they comprised 60 per cent of the original regiment), it was a way of escaping the sexual abuse, the “coolie” status and other horrific conditions that they were subjected to at their workplace. Others had a different agenda: hilariously, several Ranis likened Bose to Jesus and said they thought of him as an “ascetic warrior”. Hildebrand claims they spoke of “their attraction to the young, handsome, dignified and seemingly accessible political icon” (a bit which is hard to swallow today) as a primary motive, while another said her father suggested it as a way to avoid a prospective unhappy marriage.
Hildebrand also captures a range of male responses to the regiment, from disapproving husbands of new recruits to Major Generals who wanted to express support but were uncertain how, to a Singaporean man, whose “chief resentment of the RJR was that most of the field where he and other boys played football was confiscated to give the female Indian soldiers a training camp.”
What her book fails to do is provide a useful analysis of Bose’s views of women. Too often in the book, there are skimpy references to Bose’s ‘revolutionary’ approach to women and him “hold[ing] advanced views for his time on gender issues”. Neither are his repetitive focus on Indian women’s traditionally sacrificial instincts or his major shifts in his attitude to women and sexuality, including a phase where “instructed the men to look at the Ranis as their mothers or sisters, and apparently expected that admonition to control the soldiers’ sex drive.” (At one point, Hildebrand makes a hasty exit from trying to make sense of teenage Bose’s letters to his mother: “What profession should he choose to make her proud and happy? Would it please her if he became a vegetarian? … We do not know how she replied, if she responded at all.”) However, these reflections do not crystallise into a concrete analysis at any point, which is disappointing.
The strength of Hildebrand’s book lies is in the magnitude of her research and its encapsulation of the dramatic experiences of this now almost forgotten regiment of women.