“Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment” by Vera Hildebrand


This is a book about extraordinary women caught up in events most extraordinary. Set in the early 1940s when World War II was raging across the globe, it traces the founding of the INA (Indian National Army) in Singapore, the remarkable role played by Subhas Chandra Bose, and the origin, activities and eventual disbanding of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

The best thing about this book is that it tells us of women we have never heard of before – women of Indian origin born elsewhere, who were nevertheless willing to lay down their lives for the freedom of an unseen motherland. In India, many of us have heard of Captain Lakshmi (Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan Sehgal, daughter of Ammu Swaminathan and sister of danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai) but the other names are new to us. Danish researcher and author, Vera Hildebrand, tracked down 22 surviving Ranis in India, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States and recorded their statements. She also interviewed male soldiers of the INA and Japanese co-fighters. She pored over piles of documents and her conclusions are presented in this book. (Interestingly, the Netaji Research Bureau housed in the Bose family home in Kolkata denied access to the voluminous records in their custody, including catalogues.)

On 22nd April 1945, Bose had ordered all INA documents destroyed. British Intelligence had interrogated all INA prisoners and defectors but the original reports seem to have disappeared. Copies made by Colonel Hugh C Toye and shipped to England are surviving. The author managed to view them at the British Library, UK. Five of the Ranis had unpublished memoirs or voluminous diaries – Janaki Thevar Athinahappan, Asha Bharati Sahay Choudhry, Aruna Ganguli Chattopadhya, Eva Jenny Murty Jothi and Dhanam Lakshmi Suppiah Ratnam.

The author critically examines Netaji’s contribution to Indian nationalism and the advancement of women’s equality. The book also mentions several women revolutionaries in India’s freedom struggle, whose names have largely been excluded from history books – Pritilata Waddedar, Kalpana Dutta, Bina Das, Suniti Chowdhury and Shanti Ghosh. Mrs. Lilavati Chaganlal Mehta and her two daughters, Neelam and Rama, were among the first to join the Ranis in Burma. The INA had about 50 Burma-born Ranis. From Malaya, there were many Tamil-speaking estate workers.

On the night of 4th April 1945, a group of 51 Ranis were retreating from their camp in Myanmar to relative safety in Thailand, escorted by Lieutenant Khushal Singh Rawat and led by Ponammah Navarednam and Janaki Bai. Two of these women fell to sniper bullets while on a freight train from Rangoon to Bangkok, and were buried on Burmese territory, somewhere along the railway line. Stella Thomas and Josephine died unhonoured, with no tributes, no memorials, and no customary encomiums. They were probably South Indians recruited from Malaya. While serving in Burma, Janaki Bai lost her father and Labanya Ganguli Chatterji was widowed barely six months after her wedding.

When the war ended, Labanya studied medicine as did Gian Kaur and Gauri Bhattacharya. All of them settled in India. Japan-born Asha Sahay settled in India along with her father, Anand Sahay. Dacca-born Anjuli Bhowmik had been only twelve years old when she joined the regiment along with her fourteen year old sister Shanthi. Manwati Pandey came from a family of Indian nationalists. Post independence she married Dr. K C Arya and settled in Kanpur. She is known as Lt. Manwati Arya and has authored several books including a few on the INA. While travelling from Rangoon to Maymyo in 1944 she had cut her long tresses short as most of the other Ranis did. In 2008 when the author asked her if the girls had regretted giving up their hair, Manwati replied with a hearty laugh, “We were ready to give our heads, so who cared about the hair!”

Overall Assessment: Very interesting.

Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment
AUTHOR: Vera Hildebrand
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins India

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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