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'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?

Mahatma Gandhi 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?

Netaji and Laxmi 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 Bose.

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 INA?


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?

Laxmi 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 safely.

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 jungles.

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 again.

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?

Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose (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 table.'

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.

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