'Who is this upstart, Subhas Chandra Bose?'
Do you remember the first time you saw Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose?
Oh, that was in the December of 1928, during the Calcutta session
of the Indian National Congress. I was there because my mother,
Ammu Swaminadhan, was part of the INC. Netaji was the head of
the Congress Seva Dal -- the volunteer wing of the INC.
Netaji wanted to train his volunteers to be more militant, to
have a militant bearing and to have an erect stance. Every day,
the volunteers used to collect at the Calcutta maidan and a group
of us young people used to leave our houses early in the morning
to go there and witness their parade.
There were a lot of important people there because the INC was
in session. And many of them did not like him. They'd question,
'Who is this upstart, Subhas Chandra Bose? He is trying to
introduce violence into Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent movement.
We must all be careful of him.'
How did you get involved in the freedom struggle?
I was always inspired by the freedom struggle. During my college
days in India, I was a member of the youth wing of the Congress.
And I think I was most angry and most active when Bhagat Singh
was arrested and tried. At that time, we collected funds for him.
We organised a student strike in protest of his arrest, and against
his being hanged, throughout South India.
Despite being involved in the freedom struggle in my own way,
there were some things I did not agree with especially where Gandhiji
was concerned. Like, when he said that we should give up our studies
and throw ourselves into the national movement. That did not make
sense to me. If we all gave up our studies, what would the nation
have done after Independence? After Independence, it was even
more important that we were educated, that we became professionals.
How, otherwise, were we ever going to build a nation?
So, I continued with my medical studies. By the time the second
world war began, I was a qualified doctor. Most of my classmates
got commissions in the medical wing of the Indian army. I felt
that something more was to come, I was hoping that some movement
would be launched. But this was 1939 and nothing happened. So,
in early 1940, I left for Singapore.
What prompted you to join the Indian National Army?
I was in Singapore when the British surrendered the country to
the Japanese. General Mohan Singh formed the first INA with the
help of the Japanese. At the same time, there arose a civilian
movement called the Indian Independence League led by Rash Behari
He did a very wise thing. You see, he wanted a propaganda vehicle
so he made the Japanese agree that all the Indians there would
be members of the IIL. The IIL was basically a buffer. No Indian
dealt directly with the Japanese for anything, whether they wanted
their jobs back or whether they wanted a ration card.
I offered the IIL my services. At that time, we had a lot of people
coming in from up-county. They were the workers from the tea estates
and the rubber estates who were left with no alternative. They
had been bombed and had no security since they had been abandoned
by the British. We ran camps for them. Many of these people were
ill, so we also formed a medical team to look after them.
Then there was broadcasting. We used to broadcast to India regularly.
We wanted to tell everyone at home that we were safe and that
the Japanese army had not harmed us in any way. You see, at time,
the first image that came to mind when you mentioned the Japanese
was atrocities because of what they had done in China and Korea.
We wanted to assure our people at home that we were safe and were
being treated well.
Gradually, we broadcast information about the IIL. What we did
not know then was that, expect for the early ones, most of our
broadcasts were so badly jammed in India that our messages never
reached across. But there was no other active role for me.
At that time, there was all this talk that Subhas Chandra Bose
was going to come to Singapore. Since I was a senior member of
the INL and one of the committee members from Singapore, I was
part of the welcoming committee that met Netaji on his arrival.
The president of the Singapore IIL knew that I wanted to meet
Netaji. At about the same time, Netaji told his advisors there
that he wanted to start a women's movement. Three days after Netaji
reached Singapore, I was called for an interview. He spoke to
me for six hours. That was how it started.
Did you have any kind of physical training before you joined the
Did you, or any of the soldiers in the Rani of Jhansi regiment,
face problems while undergoing physical training?
This was one of those instances when Netaji showed his greatness
and humaneness. Before the Rani of Jhansi regiment actually started
training, he personally spoke to all the instructors, 'Remember,
these recruits are not the kind that you are normally used to
- they are not sturdy young boys from the villages of Punjab.
These are women, your sisters, your daughters. They have not had
any experience in this kind of thing, they are not used to this.
So you must be very gradual.'
But, you see, for us women, our whole life is a drudgery. And
our work involves such a lot of physical effort. Just because
we don't wield lathis and guns, it does not mean that we are weak.
We are much stronger than men in many respects.
Our training took place in a very gradual manner - it was not
like you read in the papers today about how the poor new recruits
to the police force are made to run in the blazing sun for six
hours. Despite its gradual manner, our training was quick. The
regular hours, exercise and regular food which you did not have
to cook yourself increased our vitality to such an extent that
there was no question of any physical strain.
Besides, we had a very strict physical examination before recruitment.
I conducted this examination myself with the help of some army
doctors because we did not want people joining the INA and then
falling ill and creating problems.
Was the Rani of Jhansi regiment involved in combat?
Yes, in Burma, when the INA had to retreat. We were going through
through the jungles because all the roads were being bombed by
British aircraft. During the course of our retreat, we were attacked
twice or thrice by guerrilla forces. This happened during the
night so we could not see them. Neither could they see us. We
returned their fire and then we heard some shouts from their side.
In the morning, we saw that there was some blood around. We lost
about three girls in that skirmish.
When did the regiment finally lay down its arms?
In April, 1945, when the British were about to enter Rangoon.
Netaji felt it was his moral responsibility to make sure
that each soldier of the Rani of Jhansi regiment reached her home
It was easy as far as the recruits from Burma were concerned.
But the main body of the regiment left for Rangoon on April 24.
Netaji worked at it night and day but they still could not manage
transport. They had to walk and Netaji walked with them in the
My home was in India, it made no sense for me to return to Singapore.
So I left the Rani of Jhansi regiment and joined a forward hospital.
There were patients there who could not, for various reasons,
be moved. Some of them had lost their legs, some were badly emaciated,
others were suffering from acute starvation and anaemia.
Our hospital was right in the middle of the jungle. In those days,
hospital blankets used to be red in colour. We cut up our precious
blankets and made huge red crosses over that area. Yet, despite
all these precautions, we were bombed.
We tried to evacuate as many patients as we could on bullock carts.
Finally, we reached a point where we were sandwiched between the
retreating Japanese and the advancing British. We sent those of
our patients who could possibly walk along with the Japanese,
who were retreating to Thailand. But we had one senior person
who was so seriously injured that he could not be moved. Six of
us - including three orderlies and his personal assistant - went
deeper into the jungle. Which was where we were finally captured.
But all our effort was in vain - the poor man died.
Were you then brought back to India?
No, not immediately. After I was captured in May 1945, I was
taken to Rangoon. I was not arrested but I had to report to the
military authorities regularly. I started my medical practice
As a result, I managed to get in touch with some civilian INA
recruits who had gone underground. We organised a terrific meeting
on October 21. We had managed to inform
some Indian war correspondents - they were attached to various
newspapers - who had come there with the army. Thanks to them,
this meeting was given a lot of coverage in India. As a result,
I was rearrested and remanded to house arrest at a British station.
I was sent back to India only in March 1946.
What are your memories of Netaji?
(laughs) I remember once, I had an urgent call stating that Netaji
was supposed to meet some Burmese official and I was supposed
to accompany him. So I rushed to Netaji's office. I was a sight
- my uniform was crumpled and I looked scruffy.
He asked me angrily, 'Don't you have an iron in your camp?'
We didn't, so I naturally replied in the negative. And he tells
his orderly, 'Kundan Singh, Kaphtan saab ka ek joda kapda
idhar rakho. Jab bhi hamara saath khain jaana hain, woh pahan
ke jaa sakti hin.' (Kundan Singh, keep one set of the
captain's clothes here. Whenever she has to go out anywhere with
me, she can wear them.)
There is this other incident when, at a banquet, the Japanese
were seated on one side of the table and we were seated on the
other. Throughout the dinner, there used to be these toasts
with wine. And Netaji would say, 'Only Captain Lakshmi is
allowed to toast with water because I don't want her under the
You could not say he didn't have a sense of humour. He had a great
sense of humour; only, you had to try and find it.