A SPECIAL FORCE - Patriots from another land

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By SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
  • Published 26.09.08
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Women against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment By Joyce Chapman Lebra, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Price not mentioned

Buried in the historical, sociological and political information of Joyce Lebra’s readable book is the fascinating tale of four obscure, but indomitable, women who might be called non-resident Indians. But unlike today’s NRIs, Meenachi Perumal, Ammaloo, Anjalai Ponnusamy and Muniammah Rengasamy, girls from Malaya’s rubber plantations, gave without seeking any return when they joined the Indian National Army as teenagers to fight for a motherland they had never seen.

The Netaji legend has been done to death but in spite of the many books, including Lakshmi Sahgal’s A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist, not enough is known about the simpler girls who rallied to Subhas Chandra Bose in Malaya and Burma. If only result legitimizes work, these Ranis, as Rani of Jhansi Regiment soldiers were called, did not achieve much. But their determination “to die for India” (quoting Rasammah Bhupalan, another local recruit) continued the Indian tradition of female service and sacrifice that is Lebra’s underpinning theme. She says Bose’s choice of name for the regiment was a conscious attempt to exalt “the ideology of the Cosmic Mother, of India as Mother, Bharat Mata”. Citing revolutionaries like Kalpana Dutt and Bina Das, Lebra argues that “the ideological, literary, and religious incarnations of the Mother reached their most complex and distinctive expressions” in Bengal where they also inspired political activity.

Not that she depicts Bose as an obsessive Bengali. On the contrary, when a woman recruit replied in Bengali to his question in English, Bose retorted angrily, “I don’t understand you. What makes you think you’re so special or I’m so special because we are Bengalis?… Remember this: I’m Indian first, I’m Indian second, I’m Indian third, I’m Indian every time. I’m always just Indian.” Rasammah, who told Lebra the story, “has refused to live in India after partition. ‘This is not the India we fought for,’ she says.”

Such vignettes make Lebra’s slim volume special, and it’s a pity there aren’t more. In fact, the first five chapters, 59 out of 108 pages (excluding an epilogue in which P. Ramasamy, an Indian Malaysian academic, argues that the INA encouraged post-war anti-British political activity) racily summarize history without any surprises for readers in India. Moreover, they are marred by printer’s devils and errors of fact. Far from being killed like the English in Kanpur in 1857, inmates of the Lucknow Residency were famously rescued in what became a stirring legend of British Indian history. Sri Aurobindo did not become “prominent” as “founder of Auroville”. Auroville was inaugurated 18 years after his death. Sri Aurobindo’s philosophical writings brought him renown.

Though she taught Indian history at Colorado University, India in general is definitely not Lebra’s forte. Where she scores is in tracking down the four surviving Ranis who greeted her with “Jai Hind!” and the INA’s raised-fist salute, saying they were ready to fight again. Muniammah, a tapper’s daughter who attended a Tamil estate school for five years, was only 13 when she insisted on enlisting. “The only thing on our minds was freeing India from the British. We were willing to give our lives to the cause.” A photograph by the author shows the aged, but cheerful, Muniammah saluting in her wartime cap.

Interviewing them in their homes through an interpreter must have been an arduous task for Lebra, who is of almost the same vintage. But she was already familiar with the subject, having written about Rani Lakshmibai’s exploits and INA-Japan relations. Used to wartime “comfort women”, the Japanese did not take the Ranis seriously. But Aung San, Burma’s charismatic nationalist leader who was murdered after independence, was so impressed that he asked Bose to raise a similar regiment of Burmese women. These Ranis were young, of humble origins and unlettered but they enjoyed an advantage over British Indian soldiers who escaped the brutality of Japanese PoW camps by joining Bose. As Lebra says, “from the Japanese perspective, the INA was tainted from the start” because “surrender did not exist in Japanese military rhetoric or practice”. In contrast, the Ranis fought because, to cite Promita Pal, “the sacrifice of our lives will reduce the whole of the British empire to ashes”.

Even the suggestion that most Malayan recruits were “the lowest of the low” and joined up to escape “racial slurs” and “the silent contempt in which they were held by Chinese and Malays” cannot flaw Meenachi’s heroism in volunteering for the Jan Baz “suicide unit”. The end was an anti-climax for girls who happily rose at dawn for gruelling training, marched with a rifle, tramped the Burmese jungle and refused to salute Japan’s flag because the Japanese did not salute India’s. As Muniammah lamented, “Our turn to fight never came; we had to retreat in 1944 by train.” One Rani tried to commit suicide rather than go back. Others signed a petition in their own blood begging to be sent into combat. It was not that they saw no action. Their camp was bombed right at the start, and Josephine and Stella were killed when their retreating train was attacked.

Bose saw his girl soldiers as symbolic of Lakshmibai. Just as the INA created a model of equality and harmony, the discipline and organization of the Ranis set an example of female empowerment. Or would if India had taken greater notice of humble Indian Malayan women who fought for a distant and virtually unknown motherland. Meenachi, Ammaloo, Anjalai and Muniammah may not be the only survivors. If India will not, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, which sponsored Lebra, should commission a Tamil-speaking researcher to track down other forgotten INA survivors in the region for a more focussed chronicle of diasporic patriotism.