Subhas Chandra Bose’s birth anniversary is an opportune moment to recall his seminal contribution to Indian women’s struggle for gender equality. Popularly called Netaji (respected leader) Bose deserves credit for the radical role that he envisaged for Indian women with the formation of the first all-female combat infantry, a ‘unit of brave Indian women’. The Rani Jhansi Regiment was formed in July 1943 within the Azad Hind Fauj, (Indian National Army) to fight for the liberation of India from colonial rule.
Bose’s vision for Indian women envisaged channelizing the strength of Indian ‘mothers and sisters’ for the service of the nation as much for their own personal freedom. To this end, Bose’s efforts have given a lasting legacy to the women’s movement in India. As a young, radical Indian National Congress leader Bose encouraged the participation of young girls and women in such political activities as picketing and canvassing during the 1920s and 1930s.
However, his differences with the Gandhian strategy during the War years led Bose to traverse a different path. In a daring escape, Bose fled captivity; traveled to Peshawar, thence to Afghanistan, through the Soviet Union to reach Germany in order to seek help against the British Raj.
In Berlin, he organized ‘Free India Centre’ and ‘Free India Legion’ consisting of Indian Prisoners of War. A Free India Radio broadcast Bose exhorting Indians to fight for the freedom of their motherland. When the BBC referred to Azad Hind Radio as Berlin’s propaganda machine Bose was emphatic that ‘Free India Radio is the voice of freedom-loving India’.
To further his aims Subhas Bose finally left for S.E. Asia in 1943 where he reorganized Indian National Army (INA) and set up a Provisional Government of Free India. It was on the tumultuous sea journey aboard the U-180 submarine that Bose discussed the formation of a ‘death-defying’ women’s regiment with his secretary Abid Hasan. In a speech in Singapore in July 1943 Subhas Bose declared his intentions: “I want also a unit of brave Indian women to form a ‘death-defying Regiment’ who will wield the sword, which the brave Rani of Jhansi wielded in India’s First War of Independence in 1857.”
Bose’s call for the creation of a female combat unit, however, generated strong opposition; even within the INA many officers were uncomfortable with the idea. It was generally believed that women’s role should be confined to nursing, but it is to the credit of Netaji that women were given the same rigorous military training. Clearly, Subhas Bose chose to emphasize military training and physical discipline necessary for the girls to achieve ‘ideals of equality between men and women’. He made this clear in his speech, ‘To those who say that it will not be proper for our women to carry guns, my only request is that they look into the pages of our history. What brave deeds were performed during the first War of Independence in 1857! Similarly, many brave women like the Rani of Jhansi are required in our Last War of Independence also. It is not important how many guns you can carry or how many cartridges you can fire. It is the spiritual force which will be generated by your heroic example that is important.’
The Rani Jhansi Regiment training camp was inaugurated on 22 October 1943 to see a ‘stir of new life among our womenfolk.’ The young recruits were all girls from Indian families of the diasporas in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma; consisting entirely of civilian volunteers without any prior military training.
Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan took charge of women’s regiments fighting and nursing units. The three camps in Singapore, Rangoon, and Bangkok had about a thousand recruits. Only a minority received nurse’s training, the rest were instructed as soldiers. The women were given the same training as men and even wore a uniform of caps, shirts, jodhpurs, breeches, and boots. Ninety percent had their hair cut. Bose was clear about the equal status of women’s regiment. In a letter to Lt Satyawati Thevar, in charge of headquarters in Singapore, Bose gave instructions to ‘please tell all the girls of your Regiment that while greeting anyone, they should simply say ‘Jai Hind’ and not ‘Jai Hind sahib’. He further remarked ‘I want to see the Rani Jhansi Regiment officers as efficient as the men officers of the INA….’
Bose told Captain Lakshmi, ‘ I know women in our country are suffering from very grave social and economic disabilities… but even after freedom, women will have to fight for their rights and their proper place in our society, men won’t give it to them so easily, they’ve had their own way all these centuries…it’s so ingrained in them. So this will be an opportunity for women to fight for their own rights.’
Rani Jhansi Regiment thus symbolized the coming together of Nationalism and feminism through the charisma of a progressive leader. Bose’s ability in drawing together women from different backgrounds, overcoming personal inhibitions and caste and religious affiliations for the liberation of their self and the nation deserves to be remembered. Bose was instrumental in merging the ideals of nationalism with the imagery of powerful women assuming roles of active leadership. To this end, Bose’s feminism was revolutionary in its expression. Today, it is thus necessary for us to not just remember Bose for his vision and commitment to the cause of the nation but also recall the contribution of his ‘Rani’s’—Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan Sehgal, Janaki Davar, M.V Chinnammu, Ponnammah, and Rasammah Bhupalan, Promita Pal and many more. These brave and pioneering women should serve as an inspiration for our youth today.