It was just a few days after his arrival in Singapore that Bose again addressed another huge audience, about 60,000 Indians in Singapore on 9 July 1943. In a speech “Why I left Home and Homeland”, Bose called for every able-bodied Indian to enlist in the INA and concluded with a stunning demand: “I want also a unit of brave Indian women to form a ‘Death-defying Regiment’ who will wield the sword, which the brave Rani of Jhansi wielded in India’s First War of Independence in 1857.”

Three days later Bose reiterated this theme at a meeting of Indian women held under the auspices of the Women’s Section of the IIL. For this event Dr Lakshmi Swaminathan and the head of the IIL in Singapore, Attavar Yellappa (1912-45) organised a female guard of honour for Bose. With some difficulty twenty women were persuaded to train to present arms using Lee-Enfield 303 rifles borrowed from the INA. With no time to produce uniforms, the women wore white saris.

Bose was pleased. In his speech to the female audience praising the ways that women in India had already taken part in the freedom struggle, he emphasised their traditional mode of service: “What is more there is no suffering which Indian women have not gladly and bravely shared along with our men in the course of several decades of our national struggle.”

Inevitably, Bose’s call for the creation of a female combat unit generated strong opposition, verging at times on contempt.

While Bose appreciated the female guard that greeted him on 12 July 1943, the idea of women soldiers shocked the civilian Indians and had an even more profound effect on the male soldiers of the INA. Documented comments from male INA soldiers are few, but British interrogation reports obtained after the war contain two revealing accounts.

One evaluation of female combat soldiers came from a high-ranking officer in the INA, General Mohammad Zaman Kiani with corroboration from his wife, the physician Dr Nasira Kiani. Educated at the prestigious Indian Military Academy at Dehradun and recipient of the gold medal as outstanding cadet of his year, Kiani was a professional soldier who, at the time of his surrender at the end of the war, had achieved the rank of Major General in the INA and served as chief of the general staff.

When questioned about her knowledge of the INA, H1152 Dr Kiani explained to the interrogators that she had been pressed very hard by Lakshmi Swaminathan, a medical colleague in Singapore, to participate in the guard of honour and had only joined reluctantly. Dr Kiani said that her husband was astounded to see his wife standing with her rifle among the women presenting weapons to honour Bose and that he “regarded her with the most extreme disapproval which he did not attempt to hide and [later] ordered her to sever all connections with the Regiment”. Dr Kiani did not join the RJR.

In August 1945, General MZ Kiani (identified in British Intelligence reports as POW H1175) described his dismay at seeing his wife parading as a soldier and gave his view of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. As Kiani explained, Bose had not consulted any officers about creating a unit of female combat infantry. Plans for the Regiment as well as its training programme also seemed to be entirely Bose’s own concept.

When Kiani first heard of the RJR, it was not a Bose suggestion but already his decision.

Although Kiani himself disapproved of the idea, he did not voice his objection because he had been informed that the purpose of the female soldiers was to serve as propaganda only, and not as a fighting unit. He stressed that he was so strongly opposed to the RJR that in October 1943, at the opening of the RJR Singapore camp, when he learned of his wife’s role as a doctor for the unit, he ordered her to stop helping with medical exams of the new recruits and to have no further interaction with the Ranis. Dr Kiani did cease all further contact with the Regiment.

Soon after the war several INA soldiers penned memoirs in which they confirmed the presence of women in the INA, although they apparently did not all understand the RJR mission. General Chatterji attempted to show support for Bose’s idea in his 1947 book on the campaign in Burma. Positive comments regarding Indian women in the military were apparently hard for him to generate; for five pages he praised Indian women as Sitas and Savitris, as devout worshipers of god, brilliant mathematicians, philosophers and poets, and as able nurturers of their children. It was only at the end of his observations that he tied these characteristics to the RJR:

“Bearing in mind all the factors mentioned above, it was but natural for Netaji to consider the establishment of a Women’s Organisation part of which would be a combatant unit in India’s Independence Movement in South-east Asia. He accordingly conceived the idea of establishing a Women’s Regiment and named it after the illustrious Rani of Jhansi.”

Mehervan Singh, a Sikh INA veteran, a much younger man than Chatterji, had a very different view of the Ranis whom he first encountered in 1943. As a contributor to the Oral History Project in Singapore, Singh was asked about the Ranis. When the interviewer prompted him, “But culturally it is bad for the females to [be soldiers],” Singh interrupted:

“I will mention this, where Sikhs are concerned, there is no difference because Sikh history has it on record there were women soldiers even in the time of the Guru, two hundred, three hundred years ago. So why not in the 20th century? Please remember, that Rani of Jhansi herself fought in the battlefield. She was not a Sikh – she was a Rani of Central India...Some people might have thought it funny, but I don’t consider it out of the ordinary because the idea behind the mind of Subhas Chandra Bose in organising the Rani of Jhansi segment, I say, was fantastic.”

Singh repeats in his own words Bose’s idea that the sight of the Ranis entering Indian territory would make the Indian soldiers on the British side lay down their weapons. He acknowledges that the Ranis’ mission would not have been to “fire artillery guns”. However, simply by parading as well-trained soldiers the “regiment would have become a fantastic asset because it would raise the spirit of the Indians in India on Indian soil.” Captain S.S.Yadava of the INA, the only male soldier alive in 2008 I found to interview, worked together with the Ranis in Rangoon. He too gave his wholehearted endorsement of women soldiers.

Unsurprisingly, not every INA soldier had such an enthusiastic view of the RJR.

An undated British Interrogation Report summarises a captured INA soldier, POW 897’s assessment of his female colleagues:

“The women are employed for the most part as nurses in base hospitals at Rangoon and Singapore. A certain amount of purely propaganda military training is also carried out. The general reputation of these women in Burma and Malaya is bad.”

Much information about daily life in Singapore is available from the several Oral History Projects in the Singapore National Archives. Many citizens remembered the Ranis and their camp in the middle of the city as well as their marches with flags, weapons and loud singing of stirring patriotic songs. Some Indian men were unimpressed.

Dr Kanichat Raghava Menon, former secretary of the IIL in Singapore, was a supporter of Gandhi and agreed with the Mahatma that the best weapon for the fight for Indian independence was ahimsa. He was therefore in total opposition to Bose’s martial approach. Dr Menon’s political view was also expressed in his impressions of the Ranis:

“They formed the Women’s Regiment, Rani of Jhansi Regiment. But it was mere show. I tell you, just a mere puppet show. And not a single woman knew how to wield a knife properly. They knew how to wield the kitchen knife, but not a knife in battle...They were undergoing regular training, military training...And some of them were taught to shoot...I’m sure no woman really meant to go into the battlefield and fight...That is just to show that even Indian women were very anxious of India’s independence. That’s it. They were not going to fight. I did not have any doubt.”

Excerpted with permission from Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Vera Hildebrand, HarperCollins India.