Many years ago, I started researching India’s surviving women freedom fighters. I traced a group of women — Savitri Ramakishen, Sarla Sharma, Subhadra Khosla and Vijay Chauhan — who had raised the tricolour inside the Lahore Women’s jail on August 9, 1942. This heroic act of courage had gone completely unrecorded. Was it that in the aftermath of Partition many such stories have gone unrecorded, or is it that the contribution women make is bound to remain unacknowledged?
Then I met Momota Mehta, a member of the Indian National Army (INA)’s Rani of Jhansi regiment — the first all-women’s military regiment of the world — at her home in New Delhi. She recalled, “I was 16 years old when I heard him (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose) say, ‘Tum mujhe khoon do, main tumhe azaadi doonga’. I was spellbound and I joined him.” Her account of the military training, night marches and her admiration for Netaji and her commander, Janaky Thevar, who took over the leadership of the Rani of Jhansi regiment from Lakshmi Sahgal in Myanmar, was mesmerising.
This propelled my journey in 2004 to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar), where I recorded oral testimonies of ordinary people who joined the INA and performed extraordinary acts of courage for the freedom of India. Yet, they remain unrecognised.
At her home in Kuala Lumpur, I met Thevar, who had rescued wounded soldiers when the British bombed the Red Cross hospital in Rangoon. She recalled the 21-day trek through the forests of Burma, along with Netaji, to get the women back to their homes safely, as the INA retreated.
I drove across the length and breadth of Malaysia and met Kannusamy in Prai. When I asked him why he had fought for the freedom of India, not ever having set foot on its soil, he retorted, “It’s a funny question to ask an Indian! Once an Indian, always an Indian.”
Gandhi Nathan was tall with a polished, gentlemanly demeanour. He had been handpicked by Bose to train in Japan along with 20 others. His account of his arrest, incarceration in a prison in Hong Kong, and the voyage back accompanied by abuse and deprivation was illuminating. However, he couldn’t find a foothold in India nor admission to the Indian Military Academy so he returned to Malaysia. “I never regretted joining the freedom struggle,” he said with pride.
When the British reoccupied Malaya, the INA freedom fighters had hidden their identity. However, most of them were found out and interrogated. Some were put under house arrest and others received different kinds of punishment. Surely, we in free India could honour these surviving freedom fighters and give them a pension or some allowance?
In Singapore, I met Bhagyalakshmi Davies, who had joined the Rani of Jhansi regiment for a unique reason — to escape getting married. She said with candour, “My stepmother wanted to marry me off and I thought it was better to die for a cause than to get married to a man I may not like.”
It was in Myanmar that I had some heart-wrenching encounters. Despite my landlord, who made it his business to keep me under his surveillance — the military was in power — I managed to meet some amazing freedom fighters, by giving him the slip.
I met Perumal in Rangoon. He had a quiet air of dignity and spoke in a mixture of Hindi and English. “I was born in Rangoon in the Kambe area in 1928… I joined the struggle hamare desh ke vaaste, azadi ke vaaste.” Then he joined the INA’s propaganda department and then the Azad Hind bank to collect donations. After the Japanese lost the war, he was captured by the British and kept in the Rangoon jail. But he is not a citizen of Myanmar or for that matter any country at all. Neither are his children or grandchildren citizens. They reside there thanks to a Foreigners’ Registration Certificate which has to be renewed every year. They have to seek permission if they wish to travel even within Myanmar.
I asked him whether he wished to become a citizen of India but he said he wished to stay on in Myanmar, where his children and eight grandchildren reside. I asked him if he had written to India for a pension. He replied, “Yes, I have. But I get nothing. I am a citizen of no country,” and a shadow crossed his face.
He was not alone; I met Chinnaya living in a shanty: blind, poverty-stricken but still singing the INA songs. He too was not a citizen of any country. He was born in Tamil Nadu and came to Burma with his parents. “My job was to carry the injured to the hospital,” he recalled. As I saw his rank poverty I was grateful that he could not see the tears of shame that flowed down my cheeks at the government of free India being both blind and oblivious to his existence.
I met at least a score of such stoic freedom fighters, who do not get a single rupee as pension or honoranium. These are indeed strange times; India has failed to pay a humble pension to just a handful of our surviving freedom fighters in southeast Asia.
When a journalist friend was visiting Rangoon last week, I gave him Perumal’s address. To my delight, he found Perumal still alive, although now 90 years old and still awaiting his Myanmar citizenship and some pension as a freedom fighter.
Sagari Chhabra is an author and filmmaker.