Renold on Hildebrand, 'Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment'

Author: 
Vera Hildebrand
Reviewer: 
Leah Renold

Vera Hildebrand. Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. 344 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68247-315-3.

Reviewed by Leah Renold (Texas State) Published on H-War (October, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52575

In the years following WWII in India, stories abounded of the bravery of thousands of Indian women soldiers who courageously encountered the enemy in combat in the dense and sweltering jungles of Burma. It mattered little that the famed women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment were said to have fought alongside the Japanese against the British Indian Army. To many Indians, the women were heroic nationalists in that they fought to gain independence for India from the British. The stories of the female soldiers were based largely on the accounts of Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal, generally referred to as “Captain Lakshmi,” who was the commander of the unit. Captain Lakshmi gave lecture tours in India after the war and wrote of her experiences with the regiment in her autobiography. Vera Hildebrand, who studied Indian history and culture at Georgetown University, and is now a senior research fellow at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, has gone to great lengths in her research to go beyond Captain Lakshmi’s hagiographical stories of her regiment. Women at War presents a fascinating account of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, and the man behind the organization, Subhas Chandra Bose.

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), was formed in Singapore in 1943. The Russians had women serving as soldiers, but the women served in regiments that were predominantly male. The RJR was the first all-female regiment, composed of female Indian combat soldiers and a small number of weapons-trained nurses. These women were called Ranis, which translates as “queens.” Their regiment was part of the Indian National Army (INA). The founder and commander of the INA was Subhas Chandra Bose, a colleague of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian nationalist movement, who saw Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolent resistance against British imperialism as naive. Bose left India and made his way to Germany in 1941, where he gained permission from the Germans to recruit captured members of the British Indian Army to fight against the Allied forces. After the Japanese began to take British-held areas in Asia, the Germans helped Bose to travel to Tokyo in 1942 in order to work with the Japanese. Subhas Chandra Bose believed that the Japanese would liberate India from British rule and grant India independence. When the large British military base at Singapore fell to the Japanese, thousands of Indian prisoners of war who had served faithfully in the British Indian Army on the side of the Allies were given the choice of suffering the hardships of Japanese camps or joining the INA. Over forty thousand Indians joined the INA to fight on the side of what was only recently the enemy. Subhas Chandra Bose now had a real army. It was also in Singapore that Bose announced the creation of an all-female regiment and began the recruitment of women.

It is astounding for Bose to have had such an idea at a time in history when women’s roles were largely confined to the home. It is even more surprising that Bose had success in recruiting young women from wealthy, middle-class, and poor families, from well-educated women to illiterate ones. The majority of the women had not grown up in India. They came from Indian families living in British Malaya, Singapore, and Burma and joined for reasons ranging from patriotic zeal to wanting to escape hunger and abuse. All of the women were in awe of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was a charismatic father figure to them. As the book explained, Bose paid much attention to the welfare of the women, yet he warned them that their service to their country would require hardship and perhaps their lives. The regiment was named after Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, the widowed Hindu queen who died in battle against the British in the uprising of 1857 and became a heroine of Indian nationalism. Bose set up a training camp in Singapore, where the women lived in the most austere of conditions and began engaging in physical training and military drills. They learned to use rifles fitted with bayonets and were told that they would engage in combat at the front. The Japanese allowed the formation of the regiment, but they would not allow the female soldiers to fight alongside the Japanese troops. As the author discovered, Bose’s idea was to send the RJR to Burma, from where they would follow the male INA across the border into India. In May of 1944, Bose sent off the first group of Ranis on a treacherous journey to Burma, where they planned to join the INA in battle in northeastern India. Hildebrand goes into great detail on the daily life of the women in the Singapore camp and on the movements of those sent on to Burma, while also providing information concerning what was happening in the wider context of the war in the area.

Hillebrand includes a chapter on the challenges she faced while doing research on the RJR, which is just as good a read as the rest of the book. The author gathered all the documents she could find on the INA from archives in India, Britain, Singapore, Japan, and Malaysia. She visited the Netaji Research Bureau, the archive of the Bose family in Kolkata, India, but the family would not allow her to see unpublished material. She had more success in the National Archives of India, where she found the Indian National Army Papers and the Indian Independence League Papers, which were very helpful. The author wanted to interview surviving members of the RJR, even though she only had their names and the names of the towns they were from when they enlisted. Hillebrand began her search for the women by looking through computerized telephone books in Malaysia and Singapore, going through lists of the last names until she at located a Rani. She went on to track down and have extensive interviews with twenty-two members of the regiment living in India, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United States. This was during the 1980s, when the women were elderly, yet the women were able to vividly recall their experiences. Amongst the women interviewed was Captain Lakshmi, who had spent years publicizing the accomplishments of the RJR. The author also interviewed INA soldiers. The author later learned that thousands of interrogations of the members of the INA were conducted by British intelligence after the war and that the reports were sent back to England. Hildebrand went to the British Library in London to search for the Interrogation Reports, but only found references to them. She left the library disappointed, only to receive an anonymous email telling her that the Interrogation Reports were indeed in the British Library and providing information on how the boxes containing the reports were labeled. Hildebrand returned to the British Library, and with the help of chief curator, Dr. Antonia Moon of the India Office Records, located the reports and became the first researcher to use the valuable information.

Previous historical accounts of the INA devoted only a few lines to the RJR. The scant information available on the RJR until Hillebrand’s book was published has been largely based on the accounts of Captain Lakshmi. By combining the information from her various sources and comparing the accounts of the other members of the regiment, Hildebrand established that Captain Lakshmi had significantly exaggerated her stories of the regiment. Hildebrand found first that the number of members of the regiment was not in the thousands. Actually, there were only 450 soldiers, some of whom were nurses. The Ranis never got closer to the front than 250 miles and none of the women engaged in combat. Though a small group of Ranis were sent to Burma to prepare to enter combat in India, the male members of the INA went into Indian state of Manipur first. Though the men had been well trained by the British military, Bose’s command and strategies were disastrous and it soon became evident that the INA was no match for the British Indian forces. Members of the INA began to surrender to the British. During the Ranis’ time in Burma, it also became apparent that Bose had not at all prepared them to deal with real combat situations of jungle warfare. Their training had consisted mostly of marches, the most rigorous of which was fortnightly overnight marches in full gear. They were not even taught the use of a compass or communication equipment, much less skills needed for hand-to-hand combat, which left them fairly defenseless. As Hillebrand suggests, “Bose may have wanted to stage a dramatic scene in which the Ranis, cast as reincarnations of the original Rani Lakshmibai, were slaughtered as martyrs on the battlefield. Bose may have hoped that a reenactment on the hills of Manipur of the historical Raj’s last stand would generate an emotional mass movement of outrage and indignation across India and the whole world, similar to the reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, igniting a revolt inside India and the ouster of the British Raj” (p. 234).

If Bose had such a plan, his hopes were thwarted by only having a contingent of twenty Ranis close enough to the front during a brief two-month period in 1944 when the Japanese and INA forces had entered India. Hillebrand writes that sending in such a small group would not have had the “dramatic effect that Bose may have desired” (p. 235). To his credit, Bose went to great lengths to protect the Ranis in the hurried retreat when the British forces advanced and the Japanese gave up the defense of Burma in April of 1945. For part of the difficult journey out of Burma, Bose traveled with the Ranis. Though two Ranis lost their lives after the group was fired upon by Burmese guerillas, who had no appreciation for those who had sided with the Japanese, most of the Ranis Hillebrand interviewed never lost their love and respect for Bose, who they testified was ever mindful of their welfare. These women had taken seriously their commitment to the cause of winning independence for India and had been ready to give their lives. After the war, the women went on to have families and occupations. Captain Lakshmi became a physician and was still in practice when she was interviewed by the author. The Ranis, despite the hardships they suffered during the war, looked back on their time together in the regiment as the best years of their lives.

Vera Hildebrand’s story of these adventurous and brave women is a solid contribution to Indian history. She provides detailed information on many of the women and their personal experiences during the war, as well as material on their lives after the war. For readers with little or no knowledge of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, Hillebrand provides essential background information, including a briefing on the independence movements in Asia and Bose’s disagreement with Gandhi on whether violence or nonviolence was the most effective means of political change.  Rarely do histories contain such astonishing material as this book. One of the most surprising elements in the story is what the British did, or rather what they did not do to the soldiers of the RJR and the INA after the end of WWII. As the author not only has a great story, but provides solid documentation for her research, has well-organized and short chapters, avoids academic jargon, and writes well, Women at War should not only be of great interest to scholars of Indian history and of WWII, but should also be a captivating account for the general reading public.

 

Citation: Leah Renold. Review of Hildebrand, Vera, Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52575

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