Excerpts: Women at War by Vera Hildebrand

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women-at-warSINGAPORE – THE RANIS PREPARE FOR WAR

In the fall of 1943, young women began to enlist in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army in Singapore and in Rangoon. The RJR needed a base camp in Singapore, a facility that would provide secure lodging for the female soldiers as well as sufficient space outdoors for military training.To the Japanese military authorities, female infantry was a preposterous waste of money and when they learned of Bose’s idea, they protested. Regarding the RJR, the Japanese officers found it completely incomprehensible that Bose would allocate precious ordnance and rations to women.

One way the Japanese sought to prevent the creation of the Regiment was their unwillingness to allocate real estate in Singapore for the training of women for combat. The Japanese administration refused every abandoned property that Captain Lakshmi found and proposed as possible housing for the RJR. In the end, the Ranis did receive quarters, weapons, uniforms and training, but the cost of the RJR was borne entirely by donations from Indians living in Burma, Singapore and Malaya to the Azad Hind government, while the Japanese government financed only the male forces of the INA.

The chairman of the Singapore branch of the Indian Independence League, Attavar Yellappa, a barrister, consequently took upon himself the task of finding a home for the Regiment. He persuaded some of his wealthy Nattukottai Chettiar banker clients to fund the refurbishment of a dilapidated building, formerly serving as a refugee camp and currently belonging to the IIL. The property was enclosed with a high fence to shield the female soldiers from the curious eyes of Singapore citizens, and several new barracks were erected.The standing buildings were fitted with new plumbing, and bathing facilities were installed. After three weeks of around-the-clock activity, the Singapore Central Camp, the Ranis’ first training centre, was almost ready for the first contingent of volunteers to move in on the birth anniversary of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi.

In his inaugural speech at the RJR training camp on Waterloo Street in Singapore on 22 October 1943, Bose welcomed‘the first one hundred and fifty women’ who had moved in the evening before.

The opening of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment Training Camp is an important and significant function; it is a very important landmark in the progress of our movement in East Asia.To realize its importance, you should bear in mind that ours is not a merely political movement.We are, on the other hand, engaged in the great task of regenerating our Nation. We are, in fact, ushering in a New Life for the Indian Nation, and it is necessary that our New Life should be built on sound foundations. Remember that ours is not a propaganda stunt; we are in fact witnessing the re-birth of India. And it is only in the fitness of things that there should be a stir of New Life among our womenfolk.

Bose went on:

Since 1928, I have been taking interest in women’s organizations in India and I found that, given the opportunity, our sisters could rise to any occasion. … If one type of courage is necessary for passive resistance, another and more active courage is necessary for revolutionary efforts, and in this too, I found that our sisters were not wanting. … Unfortunately, Jhansi Rani was defeated; it was not her defeat; it was the defeat of India.

She died but her spirit can never die. India can once again produce Jhansi Ranis and march on to victory.

Outlining women’s noble participation in the freedom struggle, Bose remembered the spectacular show at the Congress party meeting in 1928 where he had organized‘the volunteer corps of 500 women …[who] with their parades and discipline gave us great hopes and confirmed my belief in the fact that, given the impetus and opportunity, Indian women could perform duties entrusted to them in a befitting manner’. Bose closed the welcoming ceremony with the fervent hope that very soon the Singapore camp would have‘at least one thousand potential Ranis of Jhansi’. Bose also met with the recruits and encouraged them in their new endeavour. In a long and sincere talk, he stressed the dangers awaiting them on the battlefront. Telling me about her introduction to the Regiment, Janaki Bai fondly remembered the ‘brave son of India’ whose ideas had brought her to Singapore and whom she met personally for the first time on this occasion.

The exact number of women who had enrolled in the RJR at the inauguration date is not known. One photograph shows about thirty women in uniform presenting their weapons to Bose, but Captain Lakshmi thinks that there were just over one hundred recruits on that day. At the beginning, conditions at the Singapore camp were spartan, and they never became comfortable.As more women joined the Regiment, in addition to the renovated barracks some Ranis were housed in tents and Nissen huts, where privacy was non-existent. On arrival, each volunteer was given a mat, a blanket and a pillow. It was then up to her to find a space to settle. The beds were narrow wooden platforms and the issued mat, blanket and pillow were the only permitted bedding. Each Rani had a small area for her personal belongings: typically a change of clothes, a Gita or the Bible and a family photograph. Meals were served in a mess tin, tea in a metal mug.There were too few tables to seat everyone, so the recruits ate sitting down on stairs or any clear, dry spot they could find.

In our conversations, only a few Ranis expressed dissatisfaction with the training camp facilities. Janaki Thevar, the daughter of a prosperous Tamil dairy farmer, had a crisis after the first week. Should she stay or go back to be pampered in her affluent childhood home? She complained, ‘The wooden bed was most uncomfortable, … the bath and toilets were terrible, especially when we were made to clean them ourselves.’ Despite this inauspicious introduction to military life, Janaki Thevar became a lifelong devotee of the RJR. Several of the other Ranis also came from well-to-do families, and the transition to camp life for them was also difficult.

Captain Lakshmi was appointed to serve as the first commandant of the Singapore camp.Two-and-a-half months later, on 5 January 1944, when Bose reassigned Captain Lakshmi to Rangoon, her second-in-command, Manoranjitham Satiavati Naidu, assumed leadership of the training camp. Naidu’s background seemed perfect for the job. She was a mature woman, in her early forties, who had served as headmistress of a girls’ school and therefore was assumed to have experience enforcing discipline. However, to the expressed strong dismay of Rani Janaki Thevar, the new commandant incorrectly called her Mrs Thevar ‘because she was the mistress, not even second wife’ of Janaki’s uncle.

***

Excerpted from ‘Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment ’ written by Vera Hildebrand, published by HarperCollins.

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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.’ ¬– Subhas Chandra Bose

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), the first all-female infantry fighting unit in military history, was created in Singapore in July 1943 by Indian nationalist and visionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose to liberate India from British colonial oppression.

His young recruits were girls from Indian families of the diasporas in Singapore, Malaya and Burma and consisted entirely of civilian volunteers lacking any prior military training. These soldiers, deployed to the steamy jungles of Burma during the last two years of World War II, were determined to follow their commander to victory. Seven decades later, their history has been forgotten, their service and the role played by Bose himself having remained largely unexplored.

Through in-depth interviews with the surviving Ranis – in their eighties and nineties – and meticulous archival research, historian Vera Hildebrand has uncovered extensive new evidence that separates the myth of the Bengali hero and his jungle warrior maidens from historical fact. The result is a wholly fresh perspective on the remarkable women of the RJR and their place in Indian and world history. The truth is every bit as impressive as the myth.

About the Author:

vera-hildebrand-lilleWith a doctorate in Indian history and culture from Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Vera Hildebrand is a senior research fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Previously, she taught at Harvard University and University of Copenhagen. She is the co-editor of At Home in the World: A Window on Contemporary Indian Literature (2002).

For Women at War, she travelled to Malaysia, India, Singapore, the United States, Great Britain and Japan to identify and interview all surviving soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR) of the Indian National Army, as well as male Indian and Japanese soldiers who had worked with RJR in World War II in Burma.

 

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