Women at War

February 19, 2020
Women at War
British Library
Women at War
British Library
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Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Vera Hildebrand. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018.

Vera Hildebrand’s Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment provides an excellent insight into a fascinating piece of World War II history—the creation of the all-female Rani of Jhansi Regiment in Subhas Chandra Bose’s Axis-aligned Indian National Army. Hildebrand covers not only the women of the regiment itself, but also places the regiment in the context of the struggle for Indian independence and the social changes that accompanied it. Whether readers are familiar with the history and personalities already or have never read about them before, Hildebrand’s work has something to offer.

For those who already know of Subhas Chandra Bose and the regiment’s role in Indian independence, Hildebrand brings to the historical record her own outstanding original research.[1] To write Women at War, she conducted 29 interviews with surviving Ranis, as the women of the regiment are known, and gained unique access to never-before-seen British interrogation debriefs and intelligence reports from the closing days of the war. This is an important historical service, because prior to Women at War, much of what has been written about the Ranis is of dubious provenance—post-War press releases by Indian politicians with more motivation to inspire the populace against Britain than concern for the historical record, and colorful tall tales of heroism by the Rani’s charismatic commander, Captain Lakshimi Swaminathan. In fact, Hildebrand makes it clear that until her death in 2012, Captain Lakshimi was responsible for most of the dubious history written about the regiment.[2] Armed with new information gained from her interviews and period sources, Hildebrand corrects these myths. She sets the record straight on everything from the actual number of Ranis to their combat record, while laying to rest misogynistic ideas that have survived since the founding of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment in 1943, especially that they were only pretend soldiers or existed for “purely propaganda” reasons.[3] Throughout Women at War, Hildebrand does a good job recognizing her subjects’ patriotism and bravery without overly-lionizing them or exaggerating the nature of their contribution to the war effort.

For those unfamiliar with Bose and the history of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, Hildebrand provides a strong narrative and more than enough history to keep even the novice from being lost. She begins with an explanation of how she tracked down the remaining Ranis from 2008 to 2013, as well as her interview techniques, and a fascinating story of how an anonymous tip from someone inside the India Office of the British Library led to her being the first researcher since 1945 to access records related to the regiment that were labeled “Closed Collection. Not to be issued or retrieved.”[4]

From there, Hildebrand takes readers on a tour through Indian culture and the push for independence from Britain, especially among the Indian diaspora in what was then Burma and the Maylay Peninsula, the areas from which most of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment was drawn. Here, she does an excellent job making plain what could have been a confusing swirl of pre-war Bengali politics, national political rivalries, and tensions between Indians in India and the diaspora. Hildebrand walks readers through the changes the independence movement brought to Indian culture, changes without which the Rani of Jhansi Regiment could not have existed.

With the stage set in both time and place, she delves into the powerful personality of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of India’s most important crusaders for independence, and how it was only through a combination of his vision and stubbornness that the regiment ever came to be.

She then spends six chapters—the bulk of the book—covering the Rani of Jhansi Regiment recruitment, training, and their very brief operational history. Here the book shines, where Hildebrand’s interviews come through and readers gain an appreciation for the astonishing courage of the women of the regiment who took up arms in a time and society where such a decision was radical even to their fellow travelers on the road to independence. Likewise, it is in this section that the Ranis’ unshakeable belief in the cause of freedom and willingness—desire, even—to give their lives for that cause really shines.[5] Hildebrand then concludes with a discussion about the post-war role of the Ranis as exemplars of the spirit of Indian independence. Throughout, her style is readable and the chronology clear.

If the book suffers at all, it is the fault of history rather than the author. Despite all the institutional energy spent on them all the Ranis went through, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment never made it to combat against the hated British. Instead, the closest the regiment ever came to battle against the British during the war was a camp in Rangoon in late 1944, where they arrived only to immediately conduct a harrowing retreat in April of 1945 back through the jungle to Bangkok.[6] Still, that fact should not minimize the incredible danger and hardships those brave women endured—weeks as the only women for miles in the company of Japanese troops, multiple night river crossings, a hundred-mile ruck march through the jungle, Allied air attacks, and the ever-present threat of ambush. Two Ranis died from fever contracted in the Burmese jungle, and two from machine gun fire on a train as it crossed the Sittang River.[7]

The Rani of Jhansi Regiment. (Hindustan Times)

Above all, however, Women at War is a book about shared vision—the vision of Indian independence, for which so many men and women were willing to give their lives, a vision which united the charismatic, controversial, and Cambridge-educated Subhas Chandra Bose with the women of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, many of whom had never even lived in their mother country. In this way, Women at War serves to remind readers of two powerful truths. The first is that a vision, sufficiently shared and committed to, can overcome culture and religion and history as an organizing principle—just like it did for the Ranis. The second is that the struggle for freedom makes strange bedfellows. Subhas Chandra Bose and the Ranis had far less in common with their allies, the totalitarian Axis powers than they did with the British, but Bose and the Ranis alike felt it worth it to throw their lot in with culturally dissimilar authoritarians if that is what it would take to be free. Modern observers of the world would do well to keep in mind both those truths. Picking up a copy of Women at War is a great way to see those truths illustrated in one of history’s fascinating and oft-overlooked episodes.

David Dixon is a U.S. Army officer who serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] The main source of history on the RJRs prior to this book comes from their commander, Captain Lakshimi, mentioned later. Most of her discussion of the RJR came in the form of television and press interviews, although she also wrote a book A Revolutionary Life: Memoirs of a Political Activist. According to Hildebrand, Lakshimi also published (under a pen name) a fictional account of a dashing female Indian commander and her all female unit during WWII in the late 1940s. Some of the exaggeration in the book later crossed into popular Indian thought as fact, and in her later life, Lakshimi encouraged those myths.

[2] Vera Hildebrand, Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2018), 208.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 238.

[6] Ibid., 183.

[7] Ibid., 178.

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