New book brings alive women fighters in Indian National Army

October 18th, 2008 - 2:28 pm ICT by IANS  

Singapore, Oct 18 (IANS) They were young women, many in their teens, who had never seen India but were ready to give up their lives to fight for the freedom of a ‘motherland’ far away. “Women against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment”, by American historian Joyce Chapman Lebra highlights the contribution made by hundreds of women of Indian descent, the daughters of poor rubber plantation workers in Malaya, who responded to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s call and volunteered to form the women’s wing of the Indian National Army (INA).

The book was released Friday by President S.R. Nathan at a crowded book launch event organised by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). The Institute has also sponsored Lebra’s extensive research on the subject.

While the history of the INA and Netaji’s leadership role in India’s independence has yielded a rich body of literature in the last six decades, not much is known about the women who formed the rank and file of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Educated, upper-class women like Lakshmi Sahgal, who commanded the regiment, and her second in command, Janaki Athi Nahappan, did acquire public roles after the battle for freedom got over, but the fate of the nearly 1,500 women fighters has received scant attention.

Lebra has given a voice to the majority of women soldiers in the regiment whose bravery and indomitable spirit led them from the rubber plantations of Malaya to the frontlines of the fight in Burma but who faded into quiet obscurity once India’s independence had been won.

Lebra, who taught Indian history and Japanese history at the University of Colorado, has published widely on the INA and India’s freedom movement, including a volume on the INA and Japan.

Over the last few years, Lebra painstakingly located and interviewed some of the few remaining survivors of the women’s regiment creating an eminently readable account of a remarkable band of women who “wanted to die for India”.

Netaji’s 1943 appeal for volunteers to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, named after the heroine who died in battle against the British in 1858, was mesmerising.

Hundreds of young women and teenagers came forward to take up arms. Most of the women were poorly educated, belonging to South Indian Tamil families who worked as rubber tappers in Malaya.

The vivid recollections of four of these fighters - Meenachi Perumal, Ammaloo, Muniammah and Anjalai Ponnuswamy - brings to life their tumultuous war-torn travails in the jungles of Malaya and Burma. Unlike others who had participated in Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagrahas and the swadeshi movement, these were women who had taken up weapons to fight for India’s independence.

Lebra writes that all four of these “spirited women” whom she interviewed in Malaysia, “smiled, raised their fists, and used the INA/Rani of Jhansi Regiment greeting “Jai Hind!” and said they would be ready to fight again”.

After their order to retreat in 1944, the disheartened fighters of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment dispersed and the women returned to their families. There was no celebration of their days as warriors and many of them spent the rest of their lives in poverty.

That these women are now in their eighties underscores the urgency of archiving their oral histories and registering their largely unremembered and unsung contribution to the Indian freedom struggle, something that Lebra has succeeded in initiating with her book.

Book Details: “Women Against The Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment”; Author: Joyce Chapman Lebra; Published by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore; Pages 132; Price $29.90.

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