The author, a Ph.D. holder in Japanese history, used to teach Japanese and Indian history at the University of Colorado before retiring. She has written many books and has now explored an area that had not been tackled ? the Rani of Jhansi Regiment'scontribution to the freedom struggle of the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhas Chandra Bose. The idea of women taking up arms against the Raj was not new because women in Bengal and many other places in India had already blazed the way.
A plethora of books have been written about Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA but little or nothing has been mentioned about the all-women Rani of Jhansi Regiment that was raised and led entirely by local Indian women of Southeast Asia. Many in the rank and file were from rubber plantations or housewives.
Bose'srevolutionary ideology was nurtured in the fertile soil of the late 19th and early 20th century Bengal, the centre of revolutionary nationalism in the subcontinent. He knew many Bengali women whose nationalism had erupted in revolutionary acts. Bose, while encouraging these women, was impressed by the germ of the idea of a unit of women armed to fight for Independence. Those who responded to Bose'scall to fight for Indian liberation were primarily teenaged girls from rubber plantations of Malaya ? girls who had never seen India but were nevertheless eager to volunteer themselves at the risk of their lives in battle to see India freed from foreign yoke.
The author begins by relating the story in brief of how in the decade prior to 1857, several states were annexed as part of the British policy of ?lapse?, as enunciated by the government of Governor Dalhousie. He assumed control of states where the ruler died without heir or with adopted heir on their deathbed as was the custom among the Hindus. Among those declared ?lapsed? states was Jhansi, where the Maharaja died leaving behind a young widow and an adopted son. Manu or Chhabili, as she was called as a teenager, inherited the throne in 1853. Dalhousie declared Jhansi ?lapsed? to British control. The young widow, now known as Rani, was stunned and refused to accept the annexation of her state. She protested forcefully but in vain. She agitated against the British for lifting the ban on cow slaughter, a direct assault on Hinduism. Meanwhile the British deputed General Rose to occupy Jhansi were he lay siege to the fort. Rani escaped from it but was killed in the battle on an area lying between Kotah-ki-Sarai and Gwalior. Since her martyr'sdeath, the legend of Rani survives to this day and has inspired subsequent revolutionaries like Pritilata Waddedar, Bina Das and Kalpana Dutt. Subhas Chandra Bose recognised the potency of the name of Rani of Jhansi and called on Indian women of Southeast Asia to rally to the armed struggle for Independence.
Before 1947, while Mahatma Gandhi was continuing his fight for Independence, Subhas Chandra Bose, citing the metaphor that Bengal and all of India was a house on fire, demanded the action of women to put it out. He talked to Indians in Southeast Asia and on seeing the interest of Indian girls, he formed the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR) which came into existence with English-educated middle and upper-class Indian girls residing in Malaya and Burma. One of them was Lakshmi Swaminadhan who was a medical doctor in Singapore; Rasammah Navarednam and her sister and Janaki Davar and her sister were well-educated recruits from Malaya. Though no ?definitive count of the total RJR roster? is available, 80 per cent were South Indian Tamils from the Malayan rubber estates. Despite the fact that the Indians of Southeast Asia were expatriates separated from the mother country and in the second and third generations, they generally had not been to India. The author says, ?European planters considered South Indians ideal workers for the estate as they were docile, submissive, not highly educated or motivated,? and preferred them to Chinese labour. The author points out, ?Tamil schools on the estates were designed and kept ineffective with the goal in mind of keeping workers tied to the plantations.? These immigrants were often impoverished, in debt and starving in their home villages in South India. They were induced by recruiters in Malaya who kept them on low wages and thus permanently attached to the land.
The author quotes Meenachi Perumal, born in 1925 in Selangor, who saw her two close friends, Josephine and Stella, being shot dead. Recalling a lecture by Netaji Subhas Bose, Meenachi tells the author, ?Netaji told us to keep the fire of freedom burning but I really did not know whom to pass it on to. I passed the spirit on to my grandchildren by telling them of my experiences, hoping that they would be willing to stand up and die for the cause they truly believe in.?
The author says that there was no vestige of ?hiding in the kitchen?, no trace of the traditional Hindu role for women. The Sita syndrome had receded into insignificance for the officer veteran and those from the estates still have vivid memories of their days in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment.
This book should be read by all young women who may at least learn of the heights that Indian women could reach and of the lengths they could go to serve their motherland. This book is indeed a fascinating contribution to the study of the history of diasporic Indian women in Malaya.
(Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace, Pasir Panjang Road, Singapore-119 614; email: [email protected])