WOMEN AT WAR: SUBHA CHANDRA BOSE AND THE RANI OF JHANSI REGIMENT
By Vera Hildebrand
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 344 pages
To intelligence specialists, propaganda is an “iffy” form of warfare. Perhaps most significant, is the source apt to be believed? And even so, are elements of the target adversary likely to be affected by the message?
Such was the gamble taken by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II in a scheme to persuade the population of India to turn upon Great Britain, long its colonial master.
The mastermind was an Indian lawyer/politician named Subha Chandra Bose, who was the rival of Mahatma Gandhi for leadership of the Indian independence movement.
Bose’s ploy, unique in military history, was to organize an all-woman brigade to fight alongside the Japanese. The unit indeed was formed, but its activities were not quite what Bose planned. Vera Hildebrand, an academic now at the University of Copenhagen, describes his effort in what she accurately calls “one of the strangest episodes of the Second World War.”
To understate, Bose and Nehru had differing ideas on achieving their objective. Nehru gained worldwide fame through his advocacy of passive resistance. He felt that moral pressures would cause Britain to give up its cherished colonial possession.
Bose favored mass revolutionary action of the sort that created the Soviet Union. He can charitably be described as a political chameleon. Early in life, he was a stalwart of Indian Communist Party.
Then, impressed by Germany’s quick success when World War II began, he began calling himself “the fuhrer” and dressed in military uniforms. He saw the war as “India’s golden opportunity” and hastened to Berlin to offer Indian nationalist support to the Nazis. He even gained an audience with Hitler to pitch his idea.
An initial agreement gave a choice to Indian soldiers captured in North Africa by the Italians: Remain in prison camps, or join Bose’s “Indian Legion.” They would “be deployed only against the British in an invasion of India.”
But the German military command eventually decided that use of Indian troops “was so far from serving any practical purpose that it couldonly be considered symbolic.” Hitler advised Bose to turn to Japan.
Bose saw an opening. The Japanese had captured some 80,000 soldiers in Singapore in 1942, including forty to fifty thousand Indians. Bose set about recruiting for an “India National Army” (INA). But Japanese commanders were dubious of their military value; officers treated them as “coolies and barbarians,” as one observer noted.
Too, more astute Indians sensed that in supporting Japan, they risked falling under a new — and brutal — colonialism. Bose also recognized such a danger.
So Bose tried another tact. In an effort to broaden his domestic appeal (compared with Nehru), he began recruiting women for what he called the Rani Lakshmibai Regiment of Jhansi. It was named for an Indian heroine who died fighting the British during the 1857 Indian rebellion.
Why women? Indian society of the era was notoriously chauvinistic. Educational opportunities were few. A convention known as “purdah” severely restricted the physical liberty of women. Widely practiced among Indian Muslims (and some upper-caste Hindus) purdah excluded from participation in community life.
Thus emboldened women saw Bose’s “regiment” as a means of escaping cultural bondage. Soon hundreds of women dressed in smart military uniforms were drilling in ranks of the Rani Regiment.
According to British intelligence reports, women were used “for the most part” as nurses in base hospitals. One report stated, “A certain amount of purely propaganda military training is also carried out.”
A prominent Gandhi supporter was even more biting. The Rani Regiment “was mere show just a mere puppet show They know how to wield the kitchen knife, but not a knife in combat .”
Indeed Bose had propaganda in mind. One account that his people circulated was for 80 women to go to the battle front and “to have fallen one by one under the eyes of the Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army.” Their bravery would have “shaken the British officers to the bone,” and caused male Indian soldiers to mutiny.
Such an encounter never occurred. Ms. Hilderbrand, who tracked down and interviewed the few living survivors of the regiment, writes that “battle accounts” involving the women were fictional. Most stemmed from a “memoir” of a captain who fabricated stories.
In reality, she writes, “The women never made it to the front lines never fired a weapon against the enemy and never fulfilled their dream of fighting for their country.”
Nonetheless, as Ms. Hilderbrand writes, they “deserve to be honoured for their commitment to the highest of human aspirations — freedom.”
The regiment’s value as a propaganda tool? No evidence exists as to its efficacy. But soon after war’s end, Britain left India. Perhaps the women’s involvement helped the final push toward freedom.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.