You might not be a proponent of armed revolution but sitting in the comfort of our homes 76 years after independence, it is hard to fathom the circumstances born out of the ground reality of 200 years of colonial rule that prompted our freedom fighters to take up arms against the British Raj. While economic reasons and non-violent forms of protest all across the nation were culminating factors for the British to leave India, armed protests had a pivotal role in snatching power from the British. When we talk of armed revolution against British tyranny, the first name that springs to the collective minds of Indian citizens is the Indian National Army (INA).
The inception of the Indian National Army, also known as Azad Hind Fauj, originated under the guidance of Rash Behari Bose and the leadership of Mohan Singh. In 1943, the command was handed over to Subhas Chandra Bose, who had been invited by the Japanese to lead the resistance in South-East Asia against the British. This army consisted of volunteers from Indian ethnic groups residing in Malaysia and Myanmar, as well as Prisoners of War from the British Indian Army.
The INA comprised four brigades, each named after prominent leaders of the Independence movement, including Bose himself: Gandhi Brigade, Nehru Brigade, Azad Brigade, and Subhas Brigade. While the men of war have often been glorified by mainstream history, today we delve into the contributions of women freedom fighters, often overlooked by history. Notably, the INA featured an all-woman regiment committed to combat, known as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
The Rani of Jhansi Regiment operated as a guerrilla infantry force under the command of Lakshmi Swaminathan and Janaki Devar, functioning within the framework of the INA. The regiment primarily consisted of Indian-origin immigrants, many of whom were descendants of Tamil workers brought to staff plantations in Malaysia. These volunteers, irrespective of age or social class, underwent an intense three-month training regimen, with some selected for specialized jungle warfare training. The women were proficient in handling firearms, sharp melee weapons, and participated in regular marching drills with full gear.
Their role within the INA extended far beyond symbolism; they were dedicated combatants. In accordance with Bose’s ideology, which recognized the importance of women in the struggle for Independence, the INA did not hesitate to place them at the frontlines much like the extremist freedom fighters of Bengal. Since the Revolt of 1857, Indian women had not been part of an armed protest in such numbers.
The INA had swiftly captured Mowdok, a strategic outpost located southeast of Chittagong, and impressively advanced towards the Indian frontier. Their triumph continued as they secured the formidable military stronghold of Klang Klang, Malaysia. As the INA confronted British forces in the challenging terrain of Assam hills, they exhibited unwavering courage and captured key strategic places including Ukhral and Kohima. Notably, the INA was responsible for a historic moment on March 19, 1944, when the Tricolour Flag was hoisted for the first time on liberated Indian soil. After emerging victorious in this series of campaigns, the INA marched with Japanese troops into India on March 18, 1944. It was upon entering India that the troops suffered devastating losses, and monsoon rains cut off their supply lines, forcing them to retreat from their march. In spite of their subsequent defeat, their achievements are highly praiseworthy, as many believe they they sent in motion a chain of events that ultimately ousted the British from our country.
Women veterans of the Regiment Bose recall their commander as a man who took immense pride in and protected his female soldiers and also accompanied them in the retreat from Rangoon to Bangkok, refusing special aid from the Japanese convoy. The Japanese troops were known for the horrific treatment of female civilians and combatants alike. Despite this, veterans of the Regiment Bose recalled their time in the INA as gender-neutral war-making machinery, where they strived shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. Now, let's delve a little deeper into the lives of some of the bravest heroines that comprised the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
Lakshmi Swaminathan (1914-2012), a doctor by profession in her initial years, relocated from Chennai to Singapore in 1940. In 1943, she secured a meeting with Bose, resulting in the creation of an all-women regiment for the INA. Swaminathan and Major Leelavati Mehta, the recruiting officer, were inundated with volunteers, leading to the formation of the Ranis, led by Captain Lakshmi herself. Swaminathan and her Regiment joined the INA in Myanmar with plans to invade Imphal, but their efforts were thwarted by the British scorched-earth strategy. In May 1945, Captain Lakshmi was apprehended by British authorities, and her captivity endured in Burma until March 1946. Her subsequent transfer to India coincided with the INA trials held in Delhi, intensifying public dissatisfaction and ultimately contributing to the acceleration of the eventual demise of colonial rule. She remained an active member of the CPI(M) and played a leadership role in relief efforts during critical events such as the 1971 humanitarian crisis and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984. In 2002, she was nominated as a Presidential candidate.
Saraswati Rajamani (1927-2018), born to wealthy expatriates, joined the INA during her teenage years and spent two years as a spy in the South East Asian Theatre during World War II. Rajamani and her comrades routinely disguised themselves as boys to gain access to classified intelligence by offering their services as errand-runners to British officers. Rajamani even undertook daring missions, such as disguising herself as a dancer to rescue a captured comrade, resulting in her being shot while escaping. She was among the few who infiltrated the British base camp in Kolkata and passed on critical information to INA operatives on the mainland. In her later years, she lived in Chennai struggling to make ends meet via a freedom fighters pension. She has also published her autobiography, Haar Nahi Manungi. Once the youngest spy in Netaji’s army, she passed away at the age of 90.
Bela Mitra (1920-1952), an INA agent and niece of Bose, commanded a team of radio operatives. After marrying fellow revolutionary Haridas Mitra as a teenager, both volunteered for the INA, initially serving in the infantry in Malaysia and later becoming secret operatives operating from a communication center in Kolkata. Saraswathi Rajamani and her comrades likely provided information to them during their covert missions in India. After her husband's arrest, Mitra advocated for his release and assumed leadership of the remaining operatives. Post-Independence, she established the Jhansir Rani Relief Team to aid refugees from East Pakistan. Mitra dedicated herself to refugee camps for the next five years, despite its toll on her health. She passed away in 1952, having served her nation and its people till her last breath.
The Rani of Jhansi Regiment numbered a thousand strong, with an additional 200 in the Chand Bibi Nursing Corps. The INA deliberately destroyed records during their retreat from Yangon, resulting in only a few of these courageous women being remembered by posterity. Other notable officers of the Regiment included Major Leelavati Mehta, Janaki Davar, Lt. Pratima Pal, Lt. Manavati Pandey (Arya), Lt. M Satyavati Thevar, Lt. Mamata Mehta, 2nd Lt. Rama Mehta, Havildar Bela Datta, Havildar Josephine, and Havildar Stella. Tragically, the latter two lost their lives in action during the retreat, and the full extent of casualties remains unclear. Following the disbandment of the INA, many women experienced harassment from British soldiers. The Mehtas, for example, endured months of house arrest, while some of their former comrades were subjected to torture.
The impact of the INA, particularly the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, on the struggle for Indian Independence on the mainland, cannot be overstated. The INA trials in 1946 directly contributed to the Naval Revolt, with Congress leaders tirelessly advocating for the release of prisoners. While most of the INA's women faded into civilian life, some continued to serve the nation in social and political capacities. Commemorating and celebrating these brave women is crucial in our reading of the history of the Indian Independence struggle.
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