Netaji accepting a Guard of Honour from the all-woman army called Jhansi Rani Regiment. This all-woman unit was his brainchild, and despite the opposition from the Japanese, he built up a professional fighting force and a nursing unit with the Indian women of the South of East. The Regiment was led by Captain Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan. In the photo, Lakshmi is seen to the left of Netaji
Rani of Jhansi Regiment formed by Netaji
When the Provisional Government of Azad Hind was formed on 21st October 1943, Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan was appointed minister for women's affairs. Subhas, sometimes back, also had asked her to raise a regiment of women to fight alongside men. The idea of a women's regiment was there with Bose, who held women in high esteem. He was particularly impressed by the fighting spirit displayed by women of caliber like the queen of Jhansi Rani Manikarnika or Lakshmi Bai. She had ridden to fight the British when they conspired to rob her of her kingdom after her husband's death by the Doctrine of Lapse proclamation. Her heroism during the 1857 mutiny had earned her the respect of friends and foes alike. To fight against men on an open battlefield and hold her ground against an impossibility would make her immortal forever. It is her spirit that Netaji invoked when he decided to form a regiment for the women of India. Being a devotee of mother Goddess Durga Kali, he was highly respectful of women like her mother Prabhavati Devi, Basanti Devi, Kasturba Gandhi, his sister-in-law Bibhavati Devi and the women freedom fighters and revolutionaries of India. The idea of a woman's regiment may have come to him as and when he had begun to dream of raising an army to fight for India's independence. He discussed this idea openly for the first time with Abid Hasan during the submarine journey. He broached this subject during the mass rally in Padang, Singapore, on 9th July, when he mentioned that every able-bodied man must join the war of independence and that there must be a place for women in that army. “This must be a truly revolutionary army… I am appealing also to women… women must be prepared to fight for their freedom and independence… along with independence, they will get their own emancipation." He had said.
Lakshmi and Yellappa had planned to offer a guard of honour to Netaji with only women volunteers dressed as a soldier. Lakshmi discussed the plan with Mrs. Chidambaram, chairman of the women's section of the Indian Independence League, for identifying girls who would participate. For the guard of honour Lakshmi could get twenty volunteers who wore saris and were made to carry British .303 rifles (Peter Fay - The Forgotten Army). They drilled for three hours in the afternoon and three hours the following day and presented the Guard of Honour to Bose on Monday afternoon. Bose was impressed.
John Thivy, the chairman of the Ipoh branch of IIL, made it possible for Lakshmi to meet Bose. Subhas met him in the evening. He knew his mother, Ammu Swaminathan, an aspiring politician and Congress member in South India, and Lakshmi was a well-known figure in Singapore. Subhas Bose had warned Lakshmi about the enormity of the job she was about to undertake, as his plan for the RJR was to send the regiment to fight in the jungles of Burma against the allied forces.
Lakshmi began with the fifteen among the twenty women who had presented the Guard of Honour, who were ready to join. Many more volunteers were recruited and trained over a period of time. Instructors from INA helped in the drill exercise in groups of fifteen. The local Japanese military did not readily accept the undertaking. When Bose returned from his tour of East Asia to Singapore in August, he himself went about the recruitment, and a prize catch was Janaki Davar from Kua La Lumpur. Janaki came to hear Netaji's speech. When Bose had asked for total mobilization Janaki, then seventeen year old, offered her earrings. Lakshmi came to her house to meet her family and could convince her father to allow her to join the regiment. Her sister Papathy also joined, and other Indian girls of Malaya soon followed in her footsteps. A camp of the RJR had been formed in a building that belonged to the League. A tailor was recruited to make uniforms for the Ranis. Lakshmi recalls, "We all huddled in one room and slept on the floor. The kitchens were not ready, so food was brought in from one of the INA camps." On 22nd October, the regimental camp was formally opened. The above picture shows Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting a guard of honour on this occasion. Lakshmi is seen walking to the Supreme Commander's right. Bose addressed the women and encouraged them in their fight. On this day, there were about 156 women in the Regiment. The regiment and its training were a spectacle for foreign journalists, esp. the Japanese, who were unacquainted with the image of a fighting force of women. They had covered it extensively in their magazines. This was probably the first of its kind of regiment in Asia. China had women in the military, combat, and non combat roles. However, it is not likely that they had a dedicated woman's regiment. Other Asian and even European nations did not have women in the army. So the concept was revolutionary, and it showed women of Asia the light of emancipation from their mundane domestic chores and placed them on equal footing with men, earning them respect and self-worth. Women have already been participating in the Indian Nationalist Movement. Some women had assumed inspiring leadership roles like Rani Bhabani, Rani Rasmoni and Rani Bhabashankari of Bengal, Rani Ahalyabai Holkar, who were pious yet strong enough to resist. There were fighters too - Queen Abbakka, who fought the Portuguese bravely, and Kittur Chennamma, who, like Lakshmi Bai, fought against the British. Velu Nachiyar, one of the first to fight the East India Company, and Rani Avanti Bai, a contemporary of Lakshmi Bai, fought and defeated the British army. There were Rani Durgavati of Gondwana and Rani Padmini of Chittore, who had become symbols of resistance against Islamic invasions. In Bengal particularly, many women joined the Nationalist movement, the earliest being Sarala Ghoshal. Other notable figures included "Pishima" Nanibala Devi, who actively helped the Jugantar revolutionary group and was tortured most inhumanly by the British police. Sindhubala, Latika Bose, Suhasini Ganguli (both associated with Subhas), Kamala Dasgupta, Bina Das, who shot Governor Stanley Jackson, Shanti and Suniti, who shot magistrate Stevens, Shantisudha Ghosh, Ujjwala Majumdar, associates of Surjyo Sen like Preetilata and Kalpana, took part in revolutionary activities. Many more actively and voluntarily supported the freedom movement and the freedom fighters. Many women joined the satyagrahis, participated in picketing activities, and went to jail during the Civil Disobedience Movement. Leela Nag, founder of Deepali Sangha, and a long time associate of Subhas Bose, was a notable name among the revolutionary leaders. There was more significant participation of women in the Quit India Movement - Matangini Hazra, respectfully known as the Old Lady Gandhi of Medinipur, was shot dead when she led a peaceful march. Therefore, it is not surprising that Subhas Bose, a key leader, and architect of the Nationalist movement, wanted women to form their own army and attack the British. He even promised that the RJR would be at the forefront when the INA marched to Calcutta. Perhaps the formation of RJR was a key strategic move as well. From a psychological standpoint, a woman's regiment would be in an advantageous position vis a vis the British Indian Army, the Indian Government, and the Indian people in general, had they come to know of its existence.
The RJR comprised mainly of the women who were the Tamil labourers of the rubber plantations, their wives, or daughters. Despite the poverty and exploitation, the Tamil labourers carried their lives with dignity. They retained their culture and tradition, built temples, and celebrated their festivals. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment gave the women the respect and self-worth they were looking for. The women were very young, often in their teens. The educated ones occupied higher ranks. Notable names included Janaki Davar, Lt. Pratima Pal, Protima Sen, Naik (later Havildar) Bela Datta, Karuna Mukherjee, Lt. Mamata Mehta, Lt. Manavati Pandey (Arya), 2nd Lt. Rama Mehta, Major Leelavati Mehta, Ranu Bhattacharya, Chandramukhi Devi (Mataji), Lt. M Satyavati Thevar, Anjalai Ponnusami, Meenachi Perumal, Maya Ganguli, Shipra Sen, Namita Sengupta, Reba Sen, Chitra Mukherjee, Saraswati Garewal, Urmila Ayangar, Rukmini Khandelkar, Asha Sahai, Bhabiji, Havildars Josephine and Stella (who were later killed in action), Rasammah Bhopalan, and so on. The women in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment received the same basic military training as male INA recruits. The RJR regiment was not an easy life. The camp life was bereft of all material comforts. The girls had to undergo hard training and be prepared for regular combat operations. They were trained in guerrilla operations, sabotage missions, ambush training, digging trenches, and many other common exercises. They were grouped into combat and non combat sections. The non combat section was primarily concerned with the nursing duties in the hospitals for the soldiers wounded in the battles. According to the reminiscences of one Rani Mamata Mehta, she said, "We were given a wide range of training, with an eye that we one day would be fighting a real battle. We underwent military and combat training with drills, route marches as well as weapons training in Sten gun, Bren gun, Machine gun, hand grenades, and bayonet charges. We were also trained in operating anti aircraft guns. Our standard issue guns had large recoil which our shoulders had to sustain when we fired. Bayonet charge onto a sand bag was energy sapping, and so were the route marches through jungle terrain on limited rations. And we were always reminded that this training was for a battle where life and death would depend on how well we trained". The Ranis also helped in putting up cultural shows in which Netaji was often present in the audience. Women of the RJR were trained for the first six months in the Singapore training camp and when the advance HQ of the INA and the Provisional Government were shifted to Burma, an RJR camp was opened near Rangoon. In Burma, many women from the Bengali staff of the Indian Independence League joined the regiment. In April 1944, the first RJR unit moved to Maymyo, and a new batch arrived in Rangoon. The RJR did not actually fight any battles and did not see any combat operations. But they played a vital role in the support functions and nursing of the sick and the wounded. The main reason for their not getting a combat role was open hostility from the Japanese Army, who refused to provide arms and ammunition.
In October 1944 Azad Hind Government organized its first anniversary at the Central Park of Rangoon. About 500 RJR Ranis participated along with three thousand Indian National Army Men in a parade. On the dais, the top brass of the Azad Hind Government and INA officials were present, flanked by the Japanese Kikan leadership - General Yamamoto, ISoda and Kagawa, the Burmese Head of State Dr. Ba Maw, Aung San, Thakin Nu, and other Burmese officials. The centre of attraction was Netaji. After the speech of Netaji was over, when the RJR Ranis were doing the parade, Japanese sirens sounded, and all the Japanese and top Burmese officials ran for cover. Only Netaji and Azad Hind officials stood on the dais. The enemy airplanes came down for bombing while Japanese aircraft resisted them. The Jhansi Rani brigade went ahead with its parade. However, an enemy bomber came down further to directly attack the gathering and the anti-aircraft ack ack guns tried to fend it off. One of the shots of the anti aircraft gun hit directly an RJR Rani who fell, her head being blown away by the intensity of the shot. Only her blood remained near the dias as if she offered her last tribute to Netaji. Once the scene was cleared, Netaji ordered a cremation ceremony for the martyr with full military respect, and he himself would be present in that ceremony. Because of the bravery shown by the RJR brigade on that day, Netaji declared that if Azad Hind reached Calcutta, RJR would have the privilege of walking at the forefront of the army. He also proclaimed that RJR would have a combat division to fight alongside their male comrades. He granted a special wish to the Ranis that each of them was granted a bullet for personal use. In the event that any of the Ranis were captured by the enemy, she would use that bullet on herself.
The RJR had to be dismantled when the Azad Hind Government had to retreat from Burma. The first batch of hundred girls was sent by March end. Another set of girls, along with their commander Janaki Davar marched with Netaji himself in their retreat to Bangkok over a period of three weeks, primarily by foot.
On the 14th of August, the Ranis performed a drama in Singapore in front of the Municipal Office. Despite advice from his dentist, Netaji took part and enjoyed the show. The drama "Jhansi ki Rani" was written by P.N Oak, ADC of the Chief of Staff Maj Gen Bhonsle. Netaji blessed the actor who played the role of Queen Lakhsmibai of Jhansi. Thousands of Azadi soldiers sang their National song "Subh Sukh Chain" at the end of the programme. Despite the threat of allied invasion of Singapore the theatre staged by the Ranis was an extra ordinary performance and their last tribute for their beloved leader.