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Meet the Writer Who Travelled Across the World to Trace the Women of the Rani Jhansi Regiment

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At a time when topics such as feminism and women’s empowerment are slowly permeating into public discussions and debates in mainstream media, it’s a sad reality that an incredible chapter about India’s women during the Indian independence movement is merely glossed over in history books prescribed by the country’s academia. Which is why Vera Hildebrand’s new book, Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment is not just topical, it also plugs in a major resource gap for Indians to learn and be inspired by. We are thrilled to publish this book and take it to readers across the world, and we spoke to Vera on e-mail to understand her journey as a historian bent on documenting, in such fine fashion, an almost forgotten time from India’s past. Excerpts follow: 

When did you first hear about the Queen of Jhansi and learn about the Rani of Jhansi Regiment?

When my husband, Robert Blackwill, became the US ambassador to India, as a linguist I saw it as my opportunity to become skilled at Sanskrit. Instead, I was to have a much different experience. The colours, sounds and energy of everyday India captivated me on arrival and I never began the study of Sanskrit. I wanted to learn about India, not just its ancient language.

Coming from Denmark, one of the most puzzling aspects of India for me was the status of Indian women. I met many extremely accomplished women, in business, publishing, law, the Lok Sabha … They were professionals, quite similar to Danish women in the workplace, but when I visited some at home, I noticed a different attitude. They showed great deference to their husbands, very unlike the way Danish women interact with their spouses.

Once I was invited to speak at a Women’s Day affair in New Delhi, which prompted me to want to further understand the role of women in modern India and to learn about the history of women in Indian culture. [At the event] … the original Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi was often cited as an example of the heroism of Indian women. When I looked up on Google about that courageous rani, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR) came up. The creation of a female Indian infantry unit during World War II, when no other country allowed women in combat, was a complete surprise. I wanted to know more.

When I began to learn the details of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment and of Subhas Chandra Bose, it occurred to me that some of these veterans might still be alive. I wanted to learn about their lives before and after their service in the Regiment and their experiences during World War II. I had read Dr Sahgal’s book, A Revolutionary Life, and told about my interest in meeting her to a friend of mine who, as it turned out, was also a friend of Anisa Sahgal Puri, daughter of Lakshmi Sahgal – the commander Captain Lakshmi of the RJR. When I asked for an interview with Dr Sahgal, I received a most gracious invitation to come to Kanpur. I stayed for several days as a guest at Lakshmi Sahgal’s lovely home and we talked and talked, about her life, especially during the War, the Ranis, and about Subhas Chandra Bose. I accompanied her when she went to see patients at her clinic early in the morning. She was impressive – and irrepressible. Over ninety years old, she did not miss a day working as a doctor for poor women. Her memory, grace and her outrage at abortions of girls all functioned at full power.

Ever more interested in the RJR, I asked Dr Sahgal for the names and information of other Ranis so I could locate them. It happened that Manwati Pandey Arya, another member of the RJR, lived close by. She was also happy to spend a day with me telling about her life, her view of the lives of Indian women and especially about her hero, Subhas Chandra Bose, and how proud she was to have served in his army.

It was a fascinating way to learn about India.

At what stage did the idea of writing a full-fledged book about Subhas Chandra Bose and the RJR begin to take shape?

As I told people in India and elsewhere about the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, their reaction often was, ‘I did not know that. Indian women as soldiers … that’s interesting.’ It then occurred to me that if many Indians were not familiar with the story of the Ranis, it might be time to research and publish their stories and the history of Bose and the women’s regiment.

As someone not originally from the Indian subcontinent, what were the challenges doing primary research on the subject? Tracing each of the surviving Ranis must not have been easy…

I encountered no problems travelling around India, Malaysia and Singapore searching for the Ranis and then interviewing them at several visits. Everywhere I went, people were friendly and helped me find the women who had fought for India’s independence.

For instance, in Kolkata I was searching for a Mrs Mukherjee on MG Road. Street numbers were confusing, so I asked a shopkeeper if he knew Mrs Mukherjee in that neighbourhood. He laughed and said there were many Mrs Mukherjees, but could I describe her? I knew only that she would be more than eighty years old and was born in Burma. The friendly shopkeeper called on neighbours, his shop assistant, people who passed by, even a policeman. After knocking on the doors of several Mrs Mukherjees who had not served in the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, one Mrs Mukherjee had a boarder who was also called Mrs Mukherjee and she was very old. I had finally found the right Mrs. Mukherjee, the veteran of the Rani Jhansi Regiment! Later the shopkeeper was so happy that we had successfully located the correct Mrs Mukherjee, a former Rani, that he did not want to take money for the flowers I wanted to give to Karuna Mukherjee for spending her day telling about her time in the Ranis. Altogether, it was a wonderful day with many extremely friendly people who went out of their way to help this stranger who spoke English with a foreign accent, and spending time with the lovely Rani who was happy that her story and that of Bose would be told. It is because of these courageous women who had waited so many years for a detailed recognition of their service for India that I am happy that the book, Women at War, is being published now, especially while a few Ranis are still alive to read it and to show it to their children and grandchildren.

In recent years, the status of Indian women has been a topic of discussion around the world. Bad stories outnumber the good. Although today Indian girls have many wonderful contemporary models in powerful Indian women in business, academia, the arts and politics, I hope that this book about young Indian women, who seventy-five years ago broke age-old cultural barriers to work for a cause much greater than themselves – the liberation of India – will inspire the current generation of Indian women.

Were you surprised by some of the findings about Subhas Chandra Bose and the RJR?

The biggest surprise that I encountered in researching the RJR and Bose was in the archives at the British Library in London and the National Indian Archives in New Delhi. Although it would have been best to have interviewed the Ranis many years earlier, when more were alive, the timing was propitious with the newly released top secret documents of World War II records.

As I explain in the book, I kept looking for British Intelligence interrogation reports of World War prisoners in Burma, including members of the RJR, that I thought had to be in the archives at the British Library. During the war and for a year afterwards, British Intelligence officers located in Singapore and Burma very carefully recorded in ‘Prisoner-of-War Records’ the testimony of INA soldiers they captured, and also the soldiers who surrendered or defected from Bose’s army. One letter written by Field Marshal Auchinleck that I had found in the archives mentioned that originally 23,266 such reports were shipped back to London in 1948. But they were nowhere to be found. I was repeatedly told by senior British Library officials that they did not exist. Just before I was about to give up and leave the UK, a library employee, calling him or herself ‘Freulein X’, sent me an anonymous email stressing that the interrogation reports that I was looking for were indeed stored in the library archives, in twelve big boxes marked ‘INA Reports’. With that information, I pleaded with the chief librarian to make yet another search, and the reports were found. That discovery made all the difference. Suddenly, I had a wealth of important new information that no one else had seen. I am very grateful to the mysterious Freulein X. That person insisted that I not try to identify her, so I have only been able to thank her in the foreword of my book.

Tell us a bit in detail about your experience in contacting the Ranis and your travel across the world to meet them.

After the end of the War and the independence of India, Burma, Singapore and Malaya, the Ranis had, of course, moved about, so locating and contacting these women was a challenging task. In several cases the only available information was the Rani’s first name, perhaps maiden name and the town where another Rani said that she had once lived. Malaysia and Singapore have computerized telephone directories – so it was possible to create lists of all residents with a particular name. Using various improvised criteria to winnow down the list, such as elimination of women whose employment seemed unlikely for individuals in the age group of the Ranis, I telephoned the rest. I was eventually able to locate every living Rani whose name I had acquired.

After visits and interviews with the first few Ranis, the process of locating other veterans became simpler as each Rani identified others with whom she had kept in touch. A Christmas card from 1959, an invitation to a daughter’s wedding or a photograph of a Rani friend with her small children – all treasures the recipients had kept safeguarded for decades – served as clues that prodded memories and enabled me to pick up the trail of other RJR members.

Ranis living in Malaysia, Singapore, India and the United States agreed to be interviewed, so I travelled frequently, by airplane, train, bus and by car. In the process, I saw much of India, Singapore and Malaysia, and in addition to the Ranis and their families, I met many wonderful people. Of course, once in a while I encountered delays, like the day four flights from Delhi to Jamshedpur were cancelled. In the end I joined other stranded air passengers and with my new friends reached Jamshedpur by train. It is perhaps noteworthy that I do not recall a single unpleasant experience in researching the book. All Ranis were serious about telling their experiences in the War and their life stories. These extraordinary personal accounts are the core of the book.

The Ranis certainly admired Bose and the way he motivated them. Do you feel he was a good leader?

Almost every Rani admired Bose deeply and thought him the perfect man, politician, and commander-in-chief. Some said that he was godlike. Although one may disagree with Bose’s politics and his performance as the leader of an army at war, his idea of approaching women with trust and respect to recruit and train them for combat is, in my opinion, completely admirable. He brought women into the mainstream of the armed struggle against the British with the establishment of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. The RJR became an important manifestation of the growing demand that Indians accept women as political persons with legal and moral rights and responsibilities.

Considering the demands on Bose during the Burma campaign, he spent a surprisingly great deal of time on the Regiment as a whole and also with the individual Ranis. INA General Shah Nawaz Khan, who encountered the Ranis in Maymyo, Burma, remarked: ‘To all the Rani of Jhansi girls he was like a father and was always concerned about their welfare and honour.’

No Rani disagreed with this characterization of Bose’s relationship with the members of the RJR. Every woman who served in Burma told her own story of Bose’s kindness and her feelings that he had care especially for her. The father of one of the Ranis drowned back home in Malaya while she was in Rangoon and Bose sent a car for her to bring her to his lodging so that he could comfort her. Bose gave a seventeen-year-old Rani the care she needed to recover from the shock and grief when her husband of six months died while both were serving in Burma. All agreed ‘Netaji loved “his children” in the INA, especially the members of the RJR’.

Bose’s death continues to be a topic of speculation. Despite several official investigations confirming his death, conspiracy theories continue to abound. Your thoughts on the subject?

I intensely examined the first original hospital reports of Bose’s death. I read the doctors’ testimony, the details provided by the surviving passengers on the plane, the accounts by the flight mechanics and engineers, as well as the evidence presented to and by the Indian Government’s investigation committees. I have also studied the documentary evidence, released in 2016, used to disprove the early reports. I have studied many bizarre theories with anecdotal and counterfeit so-called proof that Bose survived the war. In conclusion, I entirely agree with Bose’s daughter Anita Pfaff that Subhas Chandra Bose died on 18 August 1945 as a result of injuries sustained when his airplane crashed on the island of Formosa.


Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, published by HarperCollins India is now available in paperback in all major Indian bookstores. To buy your copy online, click here: http://amzn.to/2hsMgzv

Vera Hildebrand will be in India as a speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival between 19–23 January at Diggi Palace, Jaipur.

 

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