In India’s freedom movement, we all know about the struggle and hardships of Azad Hind Fauj and celebrate its accomplishments. But amid all the history chatter, we all somehow forgot about one of the most crucial events of women empowerment in the early 20th century, i.e., the formation of Rani of Jhansi Regiment of INA.
In July of 1943, under the leadership of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the world saw the establishment of Rani of Jhansi Regiment, one of the all-female regiments in World War II.
Indians in Southeast Asia and the Establishment of the Regiment
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Indian immigrants working for British-owned rubber plantations used to face constant segregation and discrimination and lived a life of poverty and exploitation. Stripped of their self-worth, the motherland became a consoling image for them. Their segregation made them hold their Indian identity close. Away from their home, they still wore Indian clothes, celebrated Indian festivals and passed their history from generation to generation. Indian newspapers and radios carried news from India and a life of degradation fuelled their anti-colonial sentiments, thus making second and third-generation of immigrants, willingly give their lives for a patriotic cause.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose truly understood the importance of women and their role in the freedom movement. Germany after its defeat by Russia in 1942, was not in a strategic position to help the Indian freedom movement. So, in 1942 Netaji arrived in Singapore, which was liberated from Britain by the Japanese Army, and took command of both the Indian Independence League (IIL), a political organisation of expatriate Indians, and the INA on July 2. Addressing a crowd in Pandang once he said,
“This must be a truly revolutionary army… I am appealing also to women… women must be prepared to fight for their freedom and for independence… along with independence they will get their own emancipation.”
Just after ten days, he announced the formation of an all-women regiment, i.e., Rani of Jhansi Regiment, under the leadership of Captain (Dr) Lakshmi Sahgal. Young women from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaya and Burma, joined the regiment overlooking any difference of cast, creeds and religions. It is incredible that Indian women, many of whom are illiterate, many of whom are cognizant of their traditional roles in society, should be willing to leave their families and husbands behind and give their lives for the cause of Indian freedom. The fact that the majority of these women had never visited their motherland makes their dedication all the more remarkable.
Around 170 cadets made up the force’s initial core when its training facility was created in Singapore. According to their educational background, the cadets were assigned the ranks of a non-commissioned officer or sepoy (private). Later camps were built in Rangoon and Bangkok and the unit had more than 300 cadets by November 1943.
Training, Service and Dismantling
The abandonment of traditional feminine reticence, ingrained through centuries of Indian custom, and the merger of military aggression contributed to the formation of a new personality. Military uniforms – shorts, jodhpurs, fitted shirts, and waist belts – exposed the body in an unusual way that may have been embarrassing for some of the girls. A fighting force on the verge of war has no time for vanity.
So while the loss of their long tresses, a source of pride for all Indian women, must have been excruciating for many, nonetheless, these soldiers quickly adapted to the empowerment their new life provided, as well as the demand for growth it imposed on their character. They were soldiers before they were women in their new roles.
On October 23, 1943, training in Singapore began for the regiment. According to their educational backgrounds, the recruits were assigned to sections and platoons and given the ranks of non-commissioned officers and sepoys. These cadets underwent drills, route marches, and weapons training with rifles, hand grenades, and bayonet charges as part of their military and combat training. Many of the cadets were subsequently selected for advanced training in jungle warfare in Burma. On March 30, 1944, the Regiment’s inaugural passing out parade took place at the Singapore training camp for 500 soldiers. The Chand Bibi Nursing Corps was also created by selecting 200 cadets for nursing training.
During the INA’s Imphal campaign in 1944, an initial contingent of nearly a hundred Rani of Jhansi troops moved to Burma, with a portion of them forming a vanguard unit to enter the Gangetic plains of Bengal after Imphal’s expected fall. A portion of the unit also served as the nursing corps at the Burma INA hospital. Following the siege of Imphal’s failure and the INA’s disastrous retreat, the Rani troops were tasked with coordinating the relief and care of the INA troops and were not used in combat.
After the fall of Rangoon and the withdrawal of the Azad Hind Fauj, the remainder of the regiment retreated along with the retreating Japanese forces on foot and, when available, on mechanised transport. But the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American warplanes in August 1945 brought World War II to a rapid close. Following that, the tragic death of Netaji Subhas Bose made the INA fall apart completely.
The majority of the women were still very young when the INA was disbanded at the end of the war, with their entire lives ahead of them. When they returned to Malaya, they were quickly released, and the returning British Military Administration dismissed them as misguided females carried away by romantic notions. History has never dealt directly with the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, and their valour has been underappreciated. Their gender apparently made it difficult for them to be taken seriously by our historians...Much in contrast, the INA’s male soldiers were sent to stand trial at the Red Fort in Delhi, where while they did receive severe punishments but altleast their contribution and their valour was never forgotten.
Many women from the officer class of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment later entered professional careers, and much of what we know about the regiment today is largely because of them and the more public nature of their activities. Unfortunately, the majority of women returned to the same situations they had left behind when they first signed up; they married, raised families, and became cloistered in traditional social structures once again.
The Extraordinary life of Lakshmi Sahgal
Lakshmi Sahgal (born Lakshmi Swaminathan; 1914-2012) raised as the daughter of politically active parents, was well aware of anti-British sentiments in India and the fight for political freedom. Lakshmi studied medicine and graduated with honours from Madras Medical College in 1938. She received her diploma in gynaecology and obstetrics a year later. Sahgal, who was fiercely independent, left an unhappy marriage in 1940 to follow a lover, who was also a doctor, to Singapore. She became involved with the Indian Independence League during the Japanese occupation. When Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Singapore to take command of the INA in 1943, Sahgal was part of the official reception committee that greeted him at the airport.
When Bose announced his intention to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Sahgal was quickly drawn into the planning of this new force. At Bose’s request, she took command of the force, establishing a camp and recruiting young women. Captain Lakshmi became Sahgal’s name and identity, which she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
In October 1943, Bose established the Provisional Government of Free India, or Azad Hind, in Singapore, and Sahgal was appointed Minister of Women’s Affairs to his cabinet. Later, in Burma, she established additional camps and coordinated relief efforts. When the war ended in 1945, Sahgal was captured by guerrilla fighters and forced to march for days through the jungle. She was handed over to the British in Rangoon in 1946 and was later repatriated to India and released. In 1947, Sahgal married Prem Kumar Sahgal, a former officer who joined the Indian National Army after leaving the British Indian Army. The couple then relocated to Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where Sahgal established her medical practice. Sahgal was a founding member of All India Democratic Women’s Association in her later years. She died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 97.
Janaki Thevar and the Malaysian Independence
Janaky Athi Nahappan, better known as Janaki Thevar, was a founding member of the Malaysian Indian Congress and one of the first women involved in the fight for Malaysian (then Malaya) independence. Janaki grew up in Malaya in a Tamil family and was only 16 years old when she heard Subhas Chandra Bose’s appeal to Indians to contribute whatever they could to the fight for Indian independence. She immediately removed her gold earrings and donated them. At 17, she was determined to join the women’s wing, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army. Her father, in particular, was vehemently opposed but finally agreed after much persuasion. She was one of the first women to join the Indian National Army, which was formed during the Japanese occupation of Malaya to fight alongside the Japanese for Indian independence. She struggled at first to adjust to army life after being raised in luxury. She eventually grew accustomed to military life, and her career in the regiment took off. She was promoted to second in command of the regiment.
She became well-known as a welfare activist after WWII. Janaki was inspired by the Indian National Congress’s fight for Indian independence and joined the Indian Congress Medical Mission in Malaya at the time. Nahappan assisted John Thivy in establishing the Malayan Indian Congress, which was modelled after the Indian National Congress, in 1946. Thivy was elected as the party’s first president. Later in life, she was elected to the Malaysian Senate. In 2000, the Government of India bestowed upon her the fourth highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri. She died of pneumonia at her home on May 9, 2014.
Although many of the Jhansi Ranis returned to their traditional societies after the war, their stories of empowerment would have been passed down orally to their daughters and other female members of their households, sowing the seed for change in future generations of women. In India, renewed interest in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment has reignited debate about their role in the Indian independence struggle. It is hoped that with this renewed interest, this small group of extraordinary Indian women will finally be recognised.