Review: Subhas Chandra Bose and The Rani of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

Hindustan Times | ByVrinda Nabar
Jun 17, 2017 08:45 AM IST

Vera Hildebrand uses history, archival material, and first and third person accounts to chronicles the lives of those women who joined Subhas Chandra Bose in forming the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.

The lives of both Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi have long been the stuff of legend, so a book that includes both their names in its title has already won much of its battle for attention. Vera Hildebrand’s researched and documented account of Bose’s innovative move to recruit and mobilise Indian women into his Azad Hind Fauj, or the Indian National Army as it is more commonly known, gives us an unusual perspective on the involvement of women in our struggle for Independence. Most of us are aware that the Indian Women’s Movement had its roots in the social reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century, that this early awakening in turn played a major part in the public presence of women both before and after Independence. The disillusionment of many women with the political struggle’s androcentric priorities and the ways in which this shaped the forms of their subsequent struggles has also been severally written about. Hildebrand’s book takes another route altogether, going backstage several decades after the Indian National Army’s collapse. Using history, archival material, and first and third person accounts she chronicles the lives of those women who joined Bose in forming a regiment famously named after India’s iconic female freedom fighter. It is an interesting project, especially in a time when women’s lives are being slowly assimilated into the larger canvas of global history and culture.

The INA’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment.(Courtesy HarperCollins)
The INA’s Rani of Jhansi Regiment.(Courtesy HarperCollins)

Hildebrand emphasizes what makes her study unique: “Among the more improbable events of the Asia-Pacific theatre in World War II was the creation in Singapore in 1943 of a corps of female Indian combat soldiers, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR).” Hildebrand traces the event to a number of catalyzing factors: the Gandhian wave sweeping the subcontinent; the use of force as against non-violence by dissidents (including women) in Bengal; the charismatic Subhas Chandra Bose and his liberal perspectives on gender issues; the growing power of Japanese forces, their defeat of the British in South-East Asia and the resultant capture of Indian prisoners of war; and a resurgent Indian nationalism which gave Bose the impetus needed to launch his struggle. Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal (1914-2012), the commander of the RJR, reportedly told Hildebrand that the regiment was thus named because Bose had been inspired by the Englishman who wrote after 1857 (disregarding postcolonial rephrasing, Hildebrand terms the events of 1857 a “Mutiny”) that “if there had been a thousand women like the Rani, we could never have conquered India.”

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Undated picture. (Courtesy HarperCollins)
The Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Undated picture. (Courtesy HarperCollins)

Drawing attention to the near-myth proportions both Bose and the RJR have achieved, Hildebrand says she interviewed many of the Ranis and their family members and worked with archival resources to separate myth from historical fact: “The facts are nearly as impressive as the myth”, she writes. While real life encounters and narrations add a certain thrill to her story, the truth is that interviews so many decades down the line would inevitably be tinged with the persona the interviewee creates in remembering what had happened. The book is not exempt from the gambles of this tenuous distinction though Hildebrand balances it by reiterating the risks the women faced when they signed up for infantry combat duty probably becoming “the first all-female infantry combat unit within an established army.” The Ranis apparently admitted that while they were aware that they may be taken as POWs they had never considered that they may have been raped. Many of them spoke of fighting off unwanted attentions from superiors and peers in an age where sexual harassment was not even a theoretical concept. Social response towards their choice of career was by and large disapproving anyway and harassment would have been seen as a natural corollary, the way it is even in today’s allegedly more liberal times.

Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Undated picture. (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Undated picture. (Courtesy HarperCollins)

Hildebrand situates Bose within the political framework of the freedom struggle and his membership of the Indian National Congress, detailing his differences with Gandhi, his fallout with his political peers, his assessment of the Indian scenario, and his conviction in the validity of something like the Azad Hind Fauj. As Bose evolved in stature he acquired the soubriquet “Netaji”, the way Nehru became Pandit Nehru, Gandhi the Mahatma and so on. An early rebel (he rejected his father’s wish that he join the ICS), a passionate man who frequently admitted his inability to control his sexual urges, and yet someone who guarded his Ranis from physical abuse and dishonor, Bose was a complex individual with a shrewd understanding of the need to cultivate a public persona. Hildebrand does not gloss over his several faults: his insensitive treatment of his longtime companion Emilie Schenkl, his fallacious belief that Hitler would support him, and even the alleged plan (it wasn’t carried out) to manipulate a revolt in the British Indian Army by sacrificing a band of eighty Ranis on the battle front “one by one under the eyes of the Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army.” She also uncovers the simmering disquiet and the envy and hostility many of the more prominent Ranis faced within the RJR and outside.

Author Vera Hildebrand (Courtesy HarperCollins)
Author Vera Hildebrand (Courtesy HarperCollins)

Hildebrand’s documentation of events in Southeast Asia before the arrival of Bose is informative and well structured. One is less sure of her simplistic “othering” – her faith in the liberating impact of the Diaspora on its women (several Ranis belonged to the subcontinental Diasporas), for Indian Diasporas have not been the most enlightened so far as women go.

Read more: Women at war: Vera Hildebrand on her book on The Rani of Jhansi Regiment

Nor can one agree with the somewhat cavalier dismissal of the general level of political commitment in Indian women whether within India or in the Diaspora, or see the two as mutually exclusive. It is doubtful whether the RJR would have taken shape without the contextual stimulus given by the ongoing freedom struggle in India and women’s part in it.

Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.

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