It is widely known that women’s contributions to social change throughout history have been subject to the blatant erasure of facts, so much so that all important moments in history appear to have been manifested by men. It becomes increasingly necessary to take a careful glimpse back into history to ensure that women’s achievements are not dismissed, that they were as much a part of enabling positive social change as their counterparts who are men. Today, we talk about Saraswathi Rajamani, an Indian spy.
In the year 1927, Saraswathi Rajamani was born into an affluent family in Myanmar. Her home environment was considerably liberal, and she thus had more freedom to explore and learn things that many young Indian women would not be allowed to practice. With a father who greatly admired freedom fighters, she grew up in an intensely patriotic environment. In 1937, upon a visit to her house, Mahatma Gandhi found 10-year old Saraswathi polishing her shooting skills! Having asked her why a little child needs to know how to use a gun, she replied simply, “To shoot down the Britishers, of course.“
Despite Gandhi’s efforts in fostering in her the value of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), she was always convinced that a non-violent struggle would not be as effective as a violent one. She replied, “We shoot and kill the looters, don’t we? The British are looting India, and I am going to shoot at least one Britisher when I grow up.” Following her beliefs, she eventually gravitated to the methods of obtaining freedom that Subhas Chandra Bose advocated for. His methods resonated with her deeply, and she adopted the slogan, “Tum mujhe khoon do or main tumhe azadi dunga (You give me blood, and I will give you freedom).”
Despite Gandhi’s efforts in fostering in her the value of ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), she was always convinced that a non-violent struggle would not be as effective as a violent one.
Netaji’s Influence and Recruitment to the INA
At the age of 16, Saraswathi Rajamani was inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose, his unapologetic demeanour, and his powerful speech on taking up arms against the British. On his way back from the speech, as Bose was requesting for funds for the Indian National Army (INA), the young girl gave away all her jewellery to him. With little faith in the judgement of a 16-year old, Bose went to her house to return the jewellery, only for the gesture to be rejected both by Rajamani’s fierce insistence and her father’s encouragement to support the INA. It was this generous step that led Bose to name her ‘Saraswathi’, which means ‘wealth’.
Impressed by Saraswathi’s dedication to the cause of obtaining freedom from the British, Bose recruited her into the INA, making her the youngest person, as well as the first woman spy, to have joined the INA’s intelligence wing.
Impressed by Saraswathi’s dedication to the cause of obtaining freedom from the British, Bose recruited her into the INA, making her the youngest person, as well as the first woman spy, to have joined the INA’s intelligence wing. Saraswathi Rajamani was bestowed with the opportunity to investigate government orders and convey any message from the British military to the INA. She would be disguised as a young boy under the name of ‘Mani’. While she performed her duty well, there came an instance wherein she was forced to disregard the rule of not getting caught when her friend was captured by the British. Rajamani dressed as a dancing girl to enter the British camp, drugged the British officer, and rescued her partner.
She did, however, get shot in the leg in her attempt to escape. Far from allowing this to slow her down, Rajamani continued to run, even climbed a tree and camped there for three days whilst the British conducted a search operation. Instead of letting the limp get the best of her otherwise fiery spirit, Rajamani wore it as a beloved souvenir of her days as a spy. However, as it often happens, her important role as a member of Bose’s army soon slipped into oblivion…
For the most part, Rajamani stayed alone in an old house in Chennai with hardly any savings as her family had given away almost everything they had to the freedom struggle. It was only in 2005 that J. Jayalalitha, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, offered her a different house to live in, which Rajamani adorned with photos of Netaji. Despite her old age, her faith in the nation did not wither. She also made sure to give back to society by collecting fabric scraps from tailors and donating hand-sewn clothes to old age homes and orphanages. Additionally, her philanthropic spirit is evident in the fact that in 2006, she donated her dismal pension to the relief fund established for those who were affected by the tsunami.
It is indeed a tragedy that such a strong (and badass!) personality has been allowed to be forgotten. There is scarce information available on her life, very few details on the nature of her work and how she contributed to it. A rare gem, Saraswathi Rajamani proved very early on in life that she was a warrior who would fight endlessly for what she deemed important with unmatched determination. One can only hope to take inspiration from her and learn from her example the confidence it takes to stand up for your principles.