Battles | History & Culture

Women in command: Remembering the Rani of Jhansi Regiment

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

Last year, Lieutenant Bhavana Kasturi became the first Indian woman officer to lead an all-male contingent at the Republic Day parade. And on January 15 this year, Captain Tania Shergill became the first woman army officer to lead an all-male contingent as Parade Adjutant in the Army Day Parade.

Even as we celebrate the glass ceiling beginning to crack in the armed forces, among the last of the male bastions, we cannot overlook how slow the journey has been. Women have moved ahead palpably faster in other fields, but in the armed forces the journey to attain even this semblance of equality has taken over 70 years.

In February this year, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to ensure that women officers in the Indian Army are granted permanent commissions as well as certain command positions. “To cast aspersion on their abilities on the ground of gender is an affront not only to their dignity as women but to the dignity of the members of the Indian Army,” the Bench ruled in an important judgment. Meanwhile, the first batch of 100 women joined the Military Police in non-officer ranks last week.

Lt. Bhavana Kasturi leads the Army Service Corps marching contingent. India’s military might was at full display in the Rajpath.

Lt. Bhavana Kasturi leads the Army Service Corps marching contingent. India’s military might was at full display in the Rajpath.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena


However, the question of women in combat roles continues to be a fraught one. This resistance is surprising given that Indian history has remarkable stories to tell of women in battle roles. Women have often been at the forefront during war — whether as part of resistance movements or as soldiers on the battlefield.

A watershed moment for women’s participation in revolt and resistance was the Swadeshi movement in the early 1900s. It was made possible because the movement did not contest women’s ‘femininity’ or their traditional role in society, at a time when most women were still restricted to the zenana or were behind the ghoonghat.

Then, with Gandhi’s call to Satyagraha, more women broke social constraints to get actively involved in the struggle against the British Raj. While Gandhi still upheld the traditional perception of women as somehow being innately endowed with humility and as being subservient, he nonetheless encouraged women to join the freedom movement in large numbers. “So long as women in India do not take equal part with men in the affairs of the world, and in religious and political matters, we shall not see India’s star rising,” he said at a woman’s meeting in Bombay. Women soon became an active part of Gandhi’s protests and pickets, and by 1932, more than 3,000 had also been incarcerated for their activities.

Pivotal moment

Nearly a century before this awakening, and long before the struggle for Independence had begun to crystallise, women had already made it to the battleground and led armies against the colonisers. In 1857, Rani Lakshmibai, the queen of Jhansi, led a rebellion against the British, uttering the historic words: “Main apni Jhansi nahi doongi (I shall not surrender my Jhansi.)” Like Lakshmibai, there were several other women, with fire in their hearts and weapons in their hands, heroes whose history has largely been forgotten. And among these forgotten names is that of a regiment named after the Rani herself.

The Azad Hind Fauj, also known as the Indian National Army (INA), the fighting unit that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose famously raised, had within it the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), an all-women infantry combat unit. It was formed in 1943, and was among the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The decade leading up to this had already seen scattered instances of women freedom fighters filled with revolutionary fervour. For instance, in 1930, Bengali freedom fighter Surya Sen had led a raid against the Chittagong armoury, and his revolutionary group included two women — Kalpana Dutt and Pritilata Waddedar. Waddedar would go on to conduct another raid two years later, one that would claim her life. “I wonder why there should be any distinction between males and females in a fight for the cause of country’s freedom,” Waddedar wrote in her last letter to her mother.

In January this year, soon after Subhas Chandra Bose’s 123rd birth anniversary, Amazon Prime released a web series called The Forgotten Army — Azaadi Ke Liye, which brought to light this rather obscure chapter in the history of India’s struggle for Independence. Directed by Kabir Khan, of Bajrangi Bhaijan fame, the series takes an intimate look at the women’s regiment of the Azad Hind Fauj.

A still from ‘The Forgotten Army’ web series.

A still from ‘The Forgotten Army’ web series.  


Diaspora women

It was in 1943 that Netaji gave a widespread call for women to participate in the fight for Azad Hind. Indian women in British colonies across the world were roused into action and grabbed the chance to serve their country on equal terms, something long denied to them. Under the command of Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, the RJR became an important and integral part of the INA, despite the scepticism of many, including the Japanese, who had provided crucial assistance in Bose’s fight against the Raj.

“[Captain Lakshmi] used to say that while the regiment might not have achieved too much militarily, the fact was that it was a genuine attempt to shape women combatants. It had a huge psychological impact on women in India. It symbolised popular rebellion against the colonists,” says Khan, who interacted extensively with Captain Sahgal as part of his research for his original documentary, The Forgotten Army, released in 1999.

One important aspect of the RJR was its diversity: the regiment attracted women of all ages and from different educational and economic backgrounds. Many of these women were part of the Indian diaspora, having moved to other British colonies such as Malaya, Singapore and Burma, and were united by a burning desire to serve the country they had left behind. Displaced and thus doubly disenfranchised, as many as 5,000 diasporic women, with no history of military training, became the Ranis of pre-Independence India, as historian Vera Hildebrand writes in her book Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Bose’s vision of women’s empowerment was vastly different from Gandhi’s. While Gandhi wanted women to serve the country from within the traditional constructs of ‘womanhood’, Bose urged women to break not only the shackles of imperialism, but also the shackles of patriarchy. The Ranis, therefore, were fighting a twin battle. As Khan says, Netaji saw women as “the vanguard of the freedom struggle,” an idea that he has tried to capture in his show.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal inspect the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

Subhas Chandra Bose and Capt. Lakshmi Sahgal inspect the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Captain Lakshmi, in an interview with Hildebrand in 2008, explained the reason behind the naming of the RJR: “Netaji told us that he chose the name ‘Rani of Jhansi’ for the Regiment because he had read an article by an Englishman, who wrote after the 1857 Revolt that ‘if there had been a thousand women like the Rani, we could never have conquered India’.”

A rani reminisces

“With the thought of sacrificing my life for my country, I joined the regiment,” recalls the Chennai-based Lakshmi Krishnan, now 92, who was once a Section Commander in the RJR. At a time when it was expected that women would stay out of sight at home, Krishnan’s family supported her ‘unconventional’ decision. “My father listened to Netaji’s speech, and he was very impressed. When he came to know that girls from Singapore had joined the INA, he encouraged me to join as well.”

It was a time of conflict, injury and war, but Krishnan recalls fondly the sense of sisterhood within the regiment. “In Maymyo, [in Myanmar] I would cycle around to pass time; the roads were mostly deserted. Then, after a while, I would go and sit in the camp. I had six very close friends who were also in the regiment with me: Shakuntala Gandhi, Maya Ganguly, Aruna Ganguly, Rani Bhattacharya, Gowri Sen, and Rama Mehta,” says Krishnan. “We used to chat and sing songs. We unitedly stood for a free India. We finished our training and never once thought of returning home. I still think about those times.” Krishnan remembers Captain Sahgal’s strong presence and affectionate nature. She also recalls how on his birthday, Netaji invited all of them to his bungalow. “We talked to him over dinner.”

Lakshmi Krishnan, who joined the regiment aged 15.

Lakshmi Krishnan, who joined the regiment aged 15.   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

The warm sense of camaraderie notwithstanding, there were also the gruesome realities of war. “Within a few months of joining, we were asked to be at the frontline,” Krishnan recollects. “Netaji asked for volunteers, and 10 or 15 of us came forward. We trained in a forest area, practising rifle shooting. One day, a bomb fell directly on our camp and the building collapsed. At the sound of an approaching plane, about five of us, including Captain Lakshmi, squeezed into a small trench. The debris had covered the trench and fumes began to fill it up inside. If we had not been rescued when we were, we would have died.” On another occasion, the British opened fire on the soldiers while they were shifting camps. “We took cover in a ditch, but we could hear the bullets whizzing past our shoulders.” Clearly, as Khan says, despite what the British believed, the RJR was no “ornamental regiment”.

Some seven decades after the INA was formed, as women are being asked once again to prove how battle-ready they are, Azaadi Ke Liye is as sharp a rejoinder, as are the women-led CAA/ NRC protests across India. Everywhere, the resistance grows. It will not be long before women are given a far more active role in military formations. And, as history tells us, it will not be something new.

The author is a freelance writer, editor and illustrator.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 6:57:08 AM |

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