The stories of Subhas Chandra Bose and the revolutionary Indian National Army (INA) easily come to mind when one thinks about the freedom struggle. However, not much has been written about the historic Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA or the extraordinary women who led it. Janaki Thevar, a young soldier who voluntarily took up the independence fight and led the all-female Rani Jhansi Regiment of the INA at the extremely young age of 18 years, is one such remarkable hero.
The Rani Jhansi Regiment was a historic and unprecedented creation during the Second World War. Inaugurated in Singapore in October 1943, it consisted of around 5000 women under the leadership of Commander Lakshmi Swaminathan.
In July 1943, while recruiting for the INA and trying to raise funds, Subhas Chandra Bose addressed a rally of 50,000 people at Singapore. Amongst this crowd was a bright-eyed 16-year old who was immediately inspired by Bose’s words. Janaki Thevar, as a patriotic girl with all the enthusiasm that youth brings, decided then that she would join the INA and fight for her country.
Janaki belonged to an upper middle-class family and was bound to the restrictions that women were subjected to at the time and despite having lived in comfortable luxury, she knew her family would not approve of her decision. She sold her most expensive jewellery and decided to jump headfirst into the freedom struggle by joining the RJR. At the time, she was to be married to a man much older than her, but Janaki was ardently against the idea of marrying a stranger and hence, this idea of an all-female regiment fighting together for the country became even more appealing to her. This is how Janaki’s story of becoming the youngest commander of the RJR began.
Janaki’s Journey in the RJR
Having been raised in an upper middle-class family, Janaki Thevar had always lived well and was accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Although she joined the RJR swept up by the nationalistic fervour, she soon came to realise that it would be harder than she had initially imagined. The RJR had rigorous training sessions every day that would push the recruits to their limits. Every day, she would wake up and go through a set of intense drills, marches and training with weapons and for girls like Janaki, who had lived a comfortable life back home, it was harder. But her passion and determination soon shone through and her willingness to push herself led her to quickly climb the ranks. She soon became the second in command to Commander Lakshmi.
In 1944, as an 18 year-old Janaki took over command from Lakshmi when the latter was wounded and became the captain of the Rani Jhansi Regiment in Burma. Her ability to lead was evident in several situations, including the bombing of the Red Cross Hospital in Rangoon when she carried wounded soldiers away from the site. The Burmese contingent flourished under her leadership and was at the forefront of the Independence struggle in Burma.
Janaki as a Promoter of Women Empowerment
Janaki was a vehement promoter of women empowerment. She publicly noted that her reason for joining the RJR stemmed from her need to break the shackles of gender and promote gender equality – she was one of the only few members of the Ranis to do so publicly.
As reputed historian Vera Hildebrand notes in her book Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the reasons for women joining the RJR were diverse and not all of them had to do with the independence struggle. While some were interested in the fight itself, there were quite a few women who joined to empower themselves. As Janaki herself notes, several of her peers joined the Ranis to solve “the women’s question”. Janaki’s desire to join the Ranis also came from her aversion to being married off and therefore, this regiment was her way of finding her purpose.
Post the War
Not one to sit idle after the war, Janaki Thevar joined the Indian Congress Medical Mission in Malaya and continued her work. A few years later in 1946, she helped John Thivy, a Malaysian Indian politician, found the Malaysian Indian Congress which would represent the interests of the Indian people in Malaysia. Passionate about social welfare, Janaki became a part of several women’s organizations like the Girl Guide Association and the National Council of Women’s Organization. She was also invited to become a senator in the Upper house of the Malaysian Parliament.
Her achievements inspired the Indian Government to honour her with the Padma Shri Award in 2000, the fourth highest civilian award. She was the first female living outside India to get the award.
Janaki Thevar – The Revolutionary Who Must Be Remembered
At a time when women were still hesitant to partake in the more violent aspects of the Independence struggle, Janaki Thevar not only left behind a comfortable life for a path that did not guarantee her return but also openly encouraged equality of women and their importance in the fight. She spoke for the women who had joined the Ranis to feel empowered and ensured that nobody considered them to be lesser solely due to their gender. At a time when the army still consisted of male soldiers who were bestowed with adjectives like “courageous” and “daring”, Janaki broke all gender stereotypes and proved her leadership prowess in the field.
Janaki also continued her passionate work well after the war and encouraged other young girls to find their purpose instead of settling for the path society had chosen for them. As a young girl in her teens who simply wanted to make a difference in the fight, she went above and beyond her call of duty and was rightly given the honour of becoming the first female Padma Shri awardee. Janaki Thevar is an enduring example of courage and benevolence who should be remembered for her part in the Independence struggle as the girl who fought for her freedom in every sense of the word.