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Mainstream, VOL LII No 26, June 21, 2014

Tribute: Janaky Thevar

Saturday 21 June 2014, by Sagari Chhabra

Janaky Thevar, Commander of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the first all-women’s military wing of the world and part of the Indian National Army, passed away in Kuala Lumpur recently. An amazing heroine imbued with a death-defying commitment to free India, any epithet would be inadequate to define Janaky Thevar Athi Nahappan. Short-statured and dark-skinned, Janaky was born in Malaya (now Malaysia) to parents of Tamilian origin.

However, a life-transforming experience occurred when she heard Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose at a ‘padang’ in Kuala Lumpur. Inspired by his speech — ‘tum mujhe khoon do, mein tumhe azaadi doonga’—this sixteen-year-old prompty took off her ear-rings and gave them for the cause. When I met her in Kuala Lumpur, I asked her if they were gold ear-rings; she said: “They were diamonds and I thought I would keep it from my parents. But the next day the papers flashed the photograph and the secret was out! I wanted to join the Rani of Jhansi Regiment but my mother refused. I invited Lakshmi Swami-nadhan [Sahgal] for tea and when I pushed the consent papers before my father, he realised what this was about. He finally relented, on the condition that both my sister, Papathy, and I would join together and we were never to be separated.”

Janaky Thevar trained in Singapore along with fifteen hundred other young women recruits from South-East Asia. They then travelled to Burma—the theatre of war. In Rangoon, Janaky was appointed as the Comm-ander, as Lakshmi Sahgal was despatched to Maymyo to look after the nursing station. She said: “I felt very proud with two pips on my shoulder and I had a grey horse. I used to feel like the original Rani of Jhansi.” Her account of the British bombing the Red Cross hospital is harrowing, but the courageous Ranis lifted the men out of the burning building, risking their own lives.

The INA had some victories and even planted their flag in Moirang in Manipur. But as the Japanese were losing the war, Netaji decided to disband the Regiment. The Ranis wrote a petition in their blood that they wanted to fight for the freedom of India, but Netaji said he had a responsibility to see them home safely.

Janaky’s account of the march of the Ranis through the forests of Burma, led by Netaji, is a gruelling, heroic and spell-binding one. She told me how they carried a 35-kilo haver-sack, crossed the Sitang river, all the while trying to escape the bombers. Two of the Ranis—Stella and Josephine—got killed and the rest reached Thailand safely, from where they went home. “Netaji refused to fly out but escorted us personally,” she recalled.

The freedom fighters belonging to the INA in South-East Asia never received any recognition or even a single rupee as pension or ex-gratia payment. Janaky tried very hard to get recog-nition for her fellow Ranis and even wrote several letters to India’s government.

During our last conversation on the telephone last month, she was disappointed that her letters requesting for a meeting with the President had gone unacknowledged by the officials at Rashtrapati Bhavan. While her contribution to the freedom of India is monumental, both the Ranis and the men of the INA in South-East Asia have gone largely unacknowledged. Surely independent India must honour its freedom fighters in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma! While the freedom struggle was led in India by Mahatma Gandhi, the contribution of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Army was no less significant. The political strategy to keep silent on this issue has led to a generational loss of historical consciousness. It is incumbent on us to honour the surviving freedom fighters for our own sake, for a country that does not honour its own heroes, may have no one left to fight for its freedom, when the need arises.

Sagari Chhabra is an author and film-director. Her forthcoming book is In Search of Freedom: a journey through Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma.