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Heroines of India's freedom struggle

Saturday, 16 August 2014 - 5:00am IST | Agency: dna

As India's 68th Independence Day approached and speculations mounted over Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose receiving a posthumous Bharat Ratna, my thoughts went back to the Indian National Army and members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment — the first all-women military wing in the world. Netaji had announced the Provisional Government of Azad Hind overseas and had declared a council of ministers with himself as the head. He had appointed Lakshmi Swaminathan [Sahgal] in-charge of the women and had asked her to set up an all-women unit that were to be trained in arms. When I asked Lakshmi did Netaji actually envisage that they were to engage in combat, she responded, "Yes. Netaji said, 'there has to be maximum sacrifice for freedom. Some people might think I am cruel, but this is the price to be paid for freedom'.

"After interviewing several INA members in India I was spellbound by their death-defying commitment, but also amazed that my generation had missed meeting these heroes and heroines. I was spurred on to travel to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) to meet those who had fought for my freedom. It was a search for my own roots. In Kuala Lumpur, I was awestruck when I met Janaky Thevar [Athi Nahappan], who had taken over as the Commander of the Rani of Jhansi regiment from Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal. Lakshmi had been dispatched by Netaji to a nursing station in Maymyo, located in upper Burma. She recounted their strict military training and tears streamed down her face when she recalled the British bombing of the Red Cross hospital and how the girls risked their lives to lift the injured jawans out of the burning building. As the INA was losing the war, it was decided to disband the Rani of Jhansi regiment. Her account of the march of the Ranis through the forests of Burma, escorted by Netaji, was the stuff that makes epics. A gruelling 21-day march through swollen rivers, tropical forests, dodging fighter planes of the enemy. Two of the Ranis died and the rest reached the borders of Thailand safely, from where they were sent home.

In Kuala Lumpur, I also met Gandhi Nathan who was a Tokyo cadet — a group of young men hand-picked by Netaji and trained to become officers of the army that was to exist in free India. After the war, Nathan recounts how they were imprisoned in Stanley prison in Hong Kong, and then taken to India. On the way, they were robbed and their valuables taken away at gunpoint. On reaching India they were released. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to get admission in the military academy or find a job in India. He returned to Malaya (Malaysia) where the British had re-occupied and rebuilt his life. I was to meet several people. Kannuswamy who also volunteered for the INA and Seethapathy who went to Burma, was captured and managed to escape after overpowering the guard. Despite their overwhelming contributions, they were never recognised or honoured by free India. None of them ever received a penny in ex-gratia payment or even a shawl in recognition of their achievements.

The most heartbreaking incident was when I met two members of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Anjali and Ahilandam in Kuala Lumpur. Anjali was without education, had worked as a helper in a hospital, had no savings and didn't have any means of supporting herself. Ahilandam too had received no education, had married and her husband had not allowed her to work. She had 11 children to take care of. There existed no group that supported the INA and the Ranis in South-east Asia, after India got her independence. Since the period of Japanese occupation was loathed in Malaysia, they kept quiet about their heroic efforts; in other words they became invisible. While the men, as men normally do, found their way around the world, the freedom fighters who really suffered were the Ranis. The freedom struggle used and then discarded the heroines of India, without whom we could never have got our freedom.

In Myanmar, I discovered a Kafkaesque state of affairs. Most of the INA members were Stateless; that is they had no citizenship, either of Myanmar or India. They had children and grandchildren who were all Stateless. They existed on a Foreigners Registration Certificate, which had to be renewed every year on payment. They were not allowed to take up a government job or even travel within Burma, without prior permission.

I met an ageing Perumal who recounted how the British arrested him and put him in prison for over a month. Chinnaya cared for the injured. All contributed with their money, labour and lives, but today they languish without citizenship. The Indian Embassy had added to their misery by discontinuing the supply of Tamil papers, so they could not teach their children their mother-tongue. Despite their penurious condition and insults to their dignity, they were oh! so resolutely proud of having worked for the freedom of India. "I would do it again" declared Chinnaya, now blind with poverty and age, "anything for Bharat-mata!".

While the political dispensation that came to power after Independence may have found it politically convenient to ignore the contribution of the INA, this has lead to a loss of historical consciousness. A whole generation has grown up not knowing and not acknowledging the people who sacrificed virtually everything for their freedom. The struggle of memory over forgetting is essentially the struggle of power. A nation that does not acknowledge its freedom fighters might have no one left to fight for its freedom when the need arises. It is incumbent upon the Government of India to immediately acknowledge, honour and give ex-gratia payment to the Ranis and the INA in South-east Asia. Now that would be celebrating India's independence.

The writer is an author and film director

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